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“Tis the Season” - To Be Alert
By William Sturgeon
Published: 11/23/2009

Thanksgiving table In corrections the Holiday Season can be very demanding. Throughout my career, while I always personally looked forward to the holidays, professionally I knew that I would have to increase my overall “situational awareness” when I was at work. The holiday season brings with it a variety of security concerns within correctional facilities. Offenders manifest varying degrees of uneasiness.

There are a number of reasons for this uneasiness among offenders:
  • They will be away from their loved ones (some for the first time) during the holiday season.
  • They are receiving messages from home that are upsetting to them.
  • It becomes difficult to leave their loved ones at the end of visits.
  • They become upset with themselves for their crime (s).
  • They transfer their guilt and frustration to the staff.
  • They become depressed.
  • They become suicidal.
  • They become aggressive.

Correctional personnel, most especially “line staff”, from every discipline have to increase their “situational awareness” so that they can monitor the offender population during the holiday season in an effort to defuse aggressive situations such as:
  • Offender on Offender confrontations
  • Offender on Staff confrontations
  • Offender on Visitor confrontations

I have always found that the best way to defuse confrontational situations was to intervene immediately (with the adequate number of staff) and then to separate the people involved.

In a correctional environment, I believe “situational awareness” involves using all of your senses, training and experience:
  • Your sense of hearing is very important in two ways:
    • Too loud can indicate that matters are getting out of control.
    • Too quiet can indicate group/ individual planning.
  • Your sense of sight can help you to identify many things:
    • Changes in offenders’ appearances can be an indicator of depression or of a propensity to commit suicide.
    • Offenders’ overdressing can be an indicator of the offender trafficking contraband items and/or they are in “battledress” which can mean they are prepared for a disturbance.
    • A particular offender or offenders who are acting differently than normal should be sent for counseling.
    • Insure that all security procedures are being followed by staff.
  • Your sense of smell can help you identify a variety of different smells.
    • Offenders may try burning things (mostly paper and other things) to either start a fire or to cover-up the smell of marijuana, or hooch fermenting.
    • Your sense of smell can also help you identify the smell of homemade “hooch, pruno” or whatever your facility calls homemade booze. (The holiday season is a prime time for hooch making.)

I believe that it is crucially important during this time of the year to be alert for offenders who may be manifesting symptoms of depression and / or suicide. Just like in the “free world”, the holiday season can put some people into severe depression.

Correctional officers, as well as all staff, should be very alert to the possibility of suicide and be constantly observing the offenders that they are responsible for during their shifts. When I was working I always stressed the old saying, "It is better to be safe than sorry". If you suspect that an offender may be contemplating suicide, get the offender immediate mental health counseling.

One last thing about the “holiday season”… and this is about you. We all know how difficult the “holiday season” can become for all of us. Make sure that you take time to shed the work environment when you leave the facility, so that you can enjoy the “holiday season” with your families.

“Situational Awareness” can be applied off-duty as well as on-duty. When you are at home with your family enjoy, relax, and recharge your batteries. Your family needs you.

Now, Happy Holidays to all!

Visit the Bill Sturgeon page


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