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Stages of change
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 06/09/2008

Steps to door 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.

As the result of talking to hundreds of corrections employees over the years, I have observed a pattern of changes that stems from their adapting over time to the impact of the corrections workplace. This suggested pattern involves the following series of phases and associated personal change.


New recruits are on a “high,” excited, motivated, committed, ready to make a difference. Their self-esteem soars as they start their new career.

Work Obsession

Rookies begin to climb a steep learning curve as they encounter the job’s situational complexity and interpersonal dynamics with other staff and offenders. They become consumed by the job, working hard and wanting to earn co-workers’ and supervisors’ approval and acceptance.

They volunteer for just about every team at every opportunity. They long to do something exceptional, even heroic. They feel like they belong to something solid, a family.

Bubble Bursting

After a while unexpected things begin to happen. These frequently involve adverse interactions with coworkers or supervisors. Actions of other employees are seen as personal attacks.

Staff may end up feeling mistreated, betrayed, humiliated, abandoned, “scapegoated.” Disappointment, confusion and bewilderment ensue. Some of the passion about the profession begins to evaporate.

Given that trust is hard to come by in corrections, once it is damaged, it becomes very difficult to get it back. Ambivalence sets in and morale ends up on shaky ground. Staff is no longer sure that working in corrections is such a great idea after all, or that they even understand the rules to play by. Yet they keep their misgivings to themselves, put on a brave face, and keep on charging ahead.

Wall Building

Negative experiences continue to accumulate, and the accompanying emotions remain unprocessed, “stuffed.” Disillusionment, fear, anger, and resentment mount. Morale sags. Staff is no longer as engaged or focused on the job.

They start believing that they are entitled to breaks and exceptions to the rules. They no longer aim to excel. They cut corners. Errors begin to occur. Instead of accepting constructive criticism, they react negatively to feedback. Distance from coworkers increases or they only hang out with other disgruntled employees.

Corrections Fatigue

This stage is characterized by cynicism, negativity and hopelessness. Staff settles for career survival—hanging on till retirement or till they can find another job.

Fatigue or Fulfillment

As time passes, staff either sinks deeper into corrections fatigue or becomes compelled to find solutions to regain their passion for their profession.

This re- quires learning to process the emotional impact of the job; balancing work with self-renewing activities; and building and utilizing an effective support system. It also requires developing conflict management and other interpersonal skills.

Additionally, corrections fulfillment requires finding positive meaning in one’s work, either through personal growth or through being of help to others—offenders or other staff. If this stage is not negotiated successfully, staff remains stuck in corrections fatigue, with disastrous outcomes to themselves, their families and their workplace. Sadly, for some this is the end of their professional development in corrections.

Riding the Waves

Those who discover ways to enjoy corrections fulfillment also find out that even the most skilled staff experience ups and downs. The key at this stage is accepting that such fluctuations occur to the best in the profession, and figuring effective ways to get back on track.

This involves the development of resilience, the capacity to bounce back after disappointments or traumatic experiences. One way to achieve this is remembering to create positive meaning out of negative life situations—learning to find silver linings in every cloud.

The following ingredients would help corrections staff maximize their chances for a healthy career and life:
    1. A workplace culture that gives staff permission and means to effectively process and manage their emotions;

    2. In-depth self-care skills training backed by supervisors;

    3. Interpersonal skills training, such as conflict management, especially for dealing with other staff ;

    4. Ways to seek advice about complex work situations or to report workplace concerns anonymously; and

    5. Mentoring and peer support programs.
(www.desertwaters.com) , a Colorado nonprofit corporation dedicated to the well-being of corrections staff and their families.

More articles by Spinaris:

Don't fight 'em, LUVEM

Workplace entanglements


  1. bhenders on 06/16/2008:

    Given the environment in which corrections personnel work, one would think that it would be a cost savings to departments of corrections to provide safe group interaction to maintain communication and sustain mental health and morale. Think about it...

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