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Two Sheets of Music
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 08/10/2009

Sheetmusic Recently two correctional workers and I were discussing what helps staff stay “sane.” Without hesitation both said, “Correctional workers must be able to switch their mindset from work to home.” One added, “I learned how to live in two very different worlds and still not lose ‘me’.”

Indeed, corrections personnel live in two worlds. These worlds are like two sheets of music. Daily staff is asked to switch from one tune to the other. These two worlds involve very different assumptions about what is expected, how people must behave, and what constitutes a “good day.”

At work corrections staff knows that danger is always lurking in the background. They get trained to be always on their guard and to have their psychological shield up. Safety and security are top priorities. The general expectation is that people will lie, manipulate, steal or kill to get what they want. Staff learns to assume that what they witness may be a game. To avoid getting “conned,” staff learns to suppress natural tendencies toward caring or being helpful. So corrections staff becomes overly cautious (paranoid may not be far off), mistrusting and “hard.” And a good day is when all staff goes home alive and intact.

At home though, corrections staff are confronted with a very different set of assumptions and requirements. Loved ones expect them to be trusting, compassionate and forgiving, willing to share both power and responsibilities. In the “free” world most people assume others to be law-abiding, peace-loving, and caring. A good day on the outside is when people enjoy life, and love and support one another.

Problems ensue when corrections personnel cannot quite make the switch from work to home, when the staff’s negative outlook and cynicism come home with them, often with heartbreaking results.

How can staff learn to switch their tune, to transition between the inside and outside worlds more effectively? Here are some ideas on this.
  1. It is crucial to remember that the two sheets of music are to be played by the same musician. The same person goes to work and returns home. Their core remains the same—their values and principles. That core needs to be the foundation of their operating in both worlds. What does that core need to be like to make the transition successful?
    In my opinion what it takes is embracing worthy, positive values to guide one’s choices and actions consistently, no matter what the setting. That makes switching between sheets of music easier. Examples of such values and principles are honesty, respect, fairness, self-control, trustworthiness, willingness to acknowledge one’s errors and to make amends, caring for the common good, and the ability to forgive/let go and not succumb to hatred. Such values make it possible for staff to behave wisely and constructively both at work and at home.
  2. Staff needs to also have concrete markers to remind them that indeed they have switched from one sheet of music—one world—to the other. To help them come out of their corrections role when they get home, staff can use routines and rituals. They may take a shower and change into casual clothes. They may talk with loved ones about each other’s day or vent for a time before focusing on their home life. They may work out, spend time with their children, tinker in the garage, garden, feed their animals, volunteer somewhere, or take the dog for a walk.
  3. Staff need to frequently correct their thinking and remember that what may be common on the inside often does not apply as much, if at all, on the outside. For example, they need to remind themselves that, “I’m not just a cop. I’m also a parent, spouse, friend.” “There ARE decent, kind people out there.” “Kindness is not weakness.” “I can keep an open mind and give people a chance to earn my trust.”
  4. Letting loved ones in on this whole tune-switching process can make it much easier. Staff can share with them about struggles and successes regarding adapting from the inside world to outside realities. They can ask for help (yes, you can) through patience, understanding and reminders that the free world is very different on the average than the corrections world.
  5. On the other hand, when one is ready to go back to work, it is important to remind oneself of certain basic corrections-related principles. Safety first. Be on the lookout for trouble. Complacency can kill. Have each other’s back. Weigh the legitimacy of offenders’ requests. LISTEN. Leave personal needs at home.

Yes, this all takes intention and effort. On particularly tough days when work incidents are branded in your mind, heart and brain, it takes extra time and energy to switch between the two sheets of music.

However, this switch can and needs to be made if you are to maintain your sanity and your quality of life in both worlds.

Visit the Caterina Tudor page


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  6. Kellie on 08/12/2009:

    I totally agree that Corrections Officers must be involved with anything but crime and law enfocement when you are not at work. I don't watch TV, rarely watch the news. This field can become so all consuming that it is dangerous. We live a higher level of awareness for long periods of time. I don't think most of us even realise that when we feel relaxed we are at a level of awareness that most people find "keyed up" which is far from normal. You must surround yourself with people that you can trust and become involved in activities that make you single task because it is so task loaded that you have to think of nothing but the task at hand...climbing is an example. Surround yourself with people who are positive and have nothing to do with the criminal justice system. Read books, listen or play music, become involved with children, charity,hard workouts....I could go on for hours. This is my personal policy.....I limit my time spent with co-workers when not at work. I do not want to talk shop when I am not at work. I don't tell people what I do for a living as it forces you to be the center of attention and everyone wants war stories. I like to be with people that have nothing to do with the system. I am very carful how I spend my free time. It must be positive, improve me in some way, or improve my community. I have to be reminded that there are good people out in the world. I have to fight the "everyone has been to jail" syndrome. That is my sign that I am past the realistic line in my head. I also advocate for massage therapy. Find a massage therapist that you totally trust and get a massage at least once a month. I use to get a massage every week, monitary issues have changed that, but it really helps.

  7. Best Jail.com on 08/12/2009:

    Sometimes its very hard to switch modes. I find myself riding around in my car in that on guard mode, ready to snap at other drivers that do dumb stuff or don't get out my way quick enough.You get use to giving orders and expecting people to follow them. Even other officers with their attitudes sometimes push you to your boiling point and you go off on them just like you would an inmate.Its like I know you didn't try me. We are use to never backing down especially if you are a female in a man"s world. When I get like that I need a vacation or I have to put myself in check before I get into a confrontation that could end my life or make me lose my job. Sometimes my kids have to put me in check and say hey mom this ain't good you keep having these altercations with people you need to check yourself. My grand kids are really the ones that make me switch modes because I do have to be loving understanding and patient. I been doing this now for 17 years and I got 7 more that I'm doing. I'm sure it will continue to be a struggle but thats just the way it is in law enforcement.

  8. Neal on 08/06/2009:

    This is one of the unspoken factors that drives good people from the field. You go home beat, often discouraged, still in protective mode, keyed up from a day in corrections, and then your family needs you to be emotionally available for them. It's hard to turn off what you have been involved in all day. I think if we had a sense that what we were doing was really making a difference, it would be easier to let go of it at the end of the day. The other issue that makes leting go hard is that the job never seems to stop. There is always the possibility of getting a phone call sometime during the night, something has hit the fan, and you are back in work mode. It slowly chips away at you. I found that my best way to cope was to immerse myself in things that have absolutely nothing to do with crime or corrections when I got home, which includes turning off the TV, with its constant stream of violence, cop shows, murder mysteries, etc. Certainly don't need any more of that!

  9. Sgt. NO on 08/05/2009:

    This is so true. I've been in this business for 16+ years. I've seen many good poeple get into trouble because,the line between work and home becomes blurred. When famliy memebers noticed the change in me, I took heed to the warning. Now.I de-escalate myself on the way home form work each day. For those who are finding it hard to keep work and home seperated, one thing that helps me is music. Music is a universal language, it can relax the mind and put things into perspective. Of course, I'm not as trusting of people I don't know,When we go into a resturant I still have to see who's coming and going(It drives my wife crazy). But that's the nature of this business, always aware of your surroundings. I do enjoy my time away from work and time with my family. Family time is the most important part of the day, that's one aspect of my life that I cannot nor will not give up.

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