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Creating positive meaning
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 01/05/2009

0105sunsetandhands Editor’s note: This story is being shared with us by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach. The non-profit organization and its newsletter, Correctional Oasis, are dedicated to the well being of correctional staff and their families.

The other day I received this email, which is reproduced here with permission.
It was May of 1988. The H.R. department called me and offered me a job as a correctional officer. I was 20 years old and I thought, "This is cool, I get to be the police."

I got my uniforms, and started on shift the next night. No basic training, not for another 6 months. They just told me to show up for work at 2300 hours.

My second night on the job, while conducting a shakedown of a common inmate area, I found a freshly sharpened 10 inch shank. I thought to myself, "What am I doing here?"

Twenty years later, 2 great supportive parents, 2 awesome kids, 2 divorces, the loss of 5 fellow correctional officers, God only knows how many shift changes (I think 16 times), 4 promotions and numerous inmate-on-staff assaults, including 5 on myself, and to add to that, high blood pressure and PTSD, and I still ask myself, "What am I doing here?"

Over the past 20 years, I've been constantly asking myself why I do what I do. Do I do it for the money, the prestige, the notoriety? I sure don't do it for the glory because there ain't no glory in this line of work.

I come to work every day and put up with verbally assaultive inmates, physically assaultive inmates, hard-to-deal-with unhappy co-workers, and then there's my family who wants me to stay home with them because they miss me and don't want me to leave them, or there are days when I just dread coming to work because I know it's going to be another one of those days. I again ask myself, "What am I doing here?"
As the writer of the above email poignantly explains, one of the most challenging aspects of corrections work is the maintenance of a sense of meaning. Communicating with corrections staff across the nation I often hear them ask, ”What am I doing here?”

The negativity of the workplace, inherent dangers, violence, pervasive hopelessness, and the revolving door are just a few of the reasons why corrections workers have to strive to see the positive in what they do.

Positive meaning is derived from the sense of achieving a worthwhile purpose, from “becoming all we can be,” and from helping others. To create positive meaning in corrections, you must seek to highlight every act of courage, civility or integrity, and to celebrate even the tiniest shred of progress in both offenders and staff.

I once asked a correctional veteran how many offenders he knew who had turned their lives around after their release. He told me he knew of only one in his 17 years of service, but that that one mattered to him as he had invested time and energy guiding that offender.

This employee was wise not to look at numbers. In corrections, each individual impacted positively is a huge success. When we consider how many people that individual will impact, we’ll be amazed at how much “one” matters.

So aim to influence offenders positively through your professionalism and your ethics, even if you think that the return on your investment is low. Even one success story gives your life meaning.

As an outside observer, I can tell you that, to me, the skillfulness required of corrections professionals is staggering. At any point in your shift you may employ skills related to psychology, social work, public health, education, motivational speaking, mentoring, law enforcement and waging war.

This degree of skillfulness does not occur overnight. You achieve it through years of immersion in the system, instruction, motivation, self-reflection and self-control. Becoming good at your work is an impressive accomplishment.

I admire and respect you for what you do and the price you often pay to do it. Whenever you notice that you are becoming more skilled in your job think of how far you’ve come.

Whenever you face your fears and stand your ground, doing the right thing, you are admirable. Whenever you assist offenders within policy, you impact them positively and you remind yourself that they are human beings, with needs like yours.

Whenever you exercise self- control in the face of provocation, you are commendable, acting truly as an adult. Whenever you choose to see the silver lining in the cloud, you are winning the battle of the mind, remaining in control of your attitude. Whenever you support colleagues in their struggles and help them do a better job, you offer them gifts of teamwork and compassion, and you reinforce why you are an asset to your profession.

Whenever you choose to not return evil for evil, you are winning the most important battle of all—the spiritual one. These are all noteworthy achievements that give life precious meaning.

In a nutshell, to create positive meaning in corrections you must seek to live according to your highest values, and to strive to promote progress in yourself and others. Spell out your ideals: What do you want your life to be about? How do you want to be remembered after you’re gone? How do you want to impact your world?

In what ways do you want to make corrections a better profession? What kind of a partner/spouse/friend/parent do you want to be? Who/what do you worship? What do you consider worth living for? Worth dying for?

The time to begin fleshing out the vision for your life and for your profession is now. Keep applying yourself consistently to the pursuit of developing your “best self” according to your highest values. Keep seeking input from others who have what you want.

Keep helping others. Yes, it is hard work, but it’s also exhilarating. Every step in that direction brings you the joy of a meaningful life and career, and makes you an inspiration to others.

In closing I want to share the thoughts of an ex-corrections worker on the value of corrections work:
“Yes, I do think about my old job with pride. Sometimes I really miss it.

It was a unique profession and now that it is behind me I think of all the valuable lessons I learned there, the very special people I worked with, and the very important work that is accomplished in a job where at times it feels like you are doing nothing. I truly respect correctional workers.

No street police or any other type of law enforcement profession is like corrections. I know that when I was there I didn’t feel that way.

Many who work in that environment don't realize that what they do and what they experience is unlike any other job out there. Correctional workers deserve a lot more respect than they get, and they deserve a lot more pay than they receive.

The reason why so many folks on the outside barely know that they exist and what they go through is because they do their jobs so well. They should claim their “invisibility” as a sign of a job their safety and happiness.


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  2. jcu_guam on 02/13/2009:

    I honestly enjoyed reading your article, and I can honestly say that we share the same sentiments. I've been employed with Dept. of Corrections, Guam for the past 23 yrs., 4 months & 20 days. We don't experience officer deaths as much as the US mainland. I was on duty when we lost an officer. He was employed a short time before he died. I have gone through so many trainings, assigned to different Units/Post and learned so much about Corrections. I believe officers should be recognized for their achievements and accomplishments for their everyday hard work. No one outside of Corrections understands what we all go through day in and day out. They are only aware when something is publicized regarding incidents, escapes, death, or an officer is under investigation. How do we cope with our every day events and/or activities? How does one officer deal with family wanting him/her to stay home? What can we do to better the enviroment within our walls/fence? Is it really that hard for our superiors to recognize our officers for their achievements? I believe that the enviroments amoung our officers and staff is the way it is, is because they just can't see beyond that...listen to our voices, but are we being heard?

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