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Choosing life
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 04/21/2008

Sunrise Editor’s note: This story is being shared with us by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, a non-profit organization dedicated to the well being of correctional staff and their families. From time to time, Corrections.com will publish articles from the Desert Waters newsletter, Correctional Oasis.

Tragically, we heard of yet another CO who committed suicide when he came under investigation. Apparently, this officer was a straight arrow, the model CO with an impeccable professional record.

Fellow staff members did not believe for a second that he had actually broken the rules. However, as per policy, he had to be investigated. Sadly, he killed himself on the day the interviews with the investigators were to begin.

When I presented a workshop on corrections staff suicide at American Correctional Association’s 2007 Winter conference in Tampa, I was told of two other cases of innocent corrections officers who committed suicide when they came under investigation for some mishap at their facilities. I’ve asked seasoned staff why this happens. What I’ve been told is that some employees have extremely high expectations of themselves.

They may believe that they should remain above suspicion at all times, because that is the standard they strive for. They may not know how to tolerate any questioning of their character or their conduct. To them just being suspected of wrongdoing spells catastrophe, as if they are truly guilty, “dirty.”

In other cases, just the appearance of a policy violation might result in some coworkers viewing a fellow employee as suspect, guilty until proven innocent. Trust in people’s integrity is a very fragile entity in corrections.

Over the years, staff has witnessed employees of all ranks and all reputations—from poor to stellar—being walked to the gate due to professional improprieties. So, when another one is to be investigated for violations, it doesn’t take much for staff to wonder—“What if s/he is also ‘dirty?’”

Sensitive employees under investigation may have difficulty getting past peers’ stares, staff giving them the cold shoulder or whispering behind their backs. The stress of being under suspicion by your own is horrific.

Because corrections staff tend to not confide in family members ( to not cause them to worry or because it is too hard to explain some things about work), if peers pull away from them, they lose their support system. They have no one else to turn to. So they are left to grapple with their hurt, fear, shame and anger all alone.

Staff under investigation may also endure sarcastic comments from offenders. They may come to believe that they lost their ability to effectively exercise authority over the offenders, that they can no longer carry out their mandate to maintain “law and order” in their area. How can innocent staff build the resilience they need to get through an investigation?

If you are under investigation, yet you are “clean:”
    1. Build a supportive network around you of people who believe in you and who are willing to be there for you when you need to vent or cry on their shoulder. Since it is very difficult to build a support system while highly stressed, it is vital to have a safety net in place ahead of time. That is, you need to be working on establishing that now. You will need it anyway for various reasons, even if you never have to be investigated.

    2. Realize that what matters the most is that you and God know that you are innocent. What is hidden will finally be revealed. The truth WILL triumph in the end. All you need is to hang in there through the ups and downs of the investigation, and keep your cool as best you can, using all your support systems, ’till it’s over.

    3. Come up with coping strategies other than addictive behaviors. Exercise, spend time outdoors, play sports or other games with friends, journal, watch funny movies, read inspirational books, or watch videos of people who overcame adversity.

    4. Effective ongoing counseling can help you manage your anxiety, embarrassment and anger.

    5. If need be, seek your physician for medications for depression or anxiety.

    6. Live one day at a time, sometimes one minute at a time. Rein your mind in, keeping it from stampeding down the road of the “What if’s.” Most of what we fear never comes to pass.

    7. See through the offenders’ taunts. Don’t feed them with your anger. Stay professional. This too shall pass.

    8. You are more than a corrections employee. If the work environment becomes so unpleasant that you do not want to put up with it anymore, there ARE other options for you. If that means taking a cut in salary through a demotion or a new profession, that is infinitely better for you and your loved ones than cutting your life short.
If a coworker is under investigation, remain polite and kind to them. Resist the temptation to pull away from peers before the evidence is in.

If you believe they are “clean,” express your support to them, and let them know that you are available to listen or spend time with them as needed. And be civil to them, even if distant, no matter what the outcome of the investigation. “Judge not.”

If corrections employees are indeed guilty, it would be a lot more courageous to face the consequences of their actions than to opt for suicide. Gifts of wisdom and personal growth are wrapped in those consequences. To unwrap them, one has to take one’s lumps.

Bottom line: Your life matters much more than what others think of you. Your loved ones need you. And there is life outside corrections and after corrections.


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