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Are You Hard-Hearted?
By Kenneth Demmo
Published: 03/22/2010

Heart of stone Editors Note: Corrections.com author, Kenneth Demmo, is a Correctional Officer at the Orange County Corrections Department working with Training & Staff Development.

Reflecting back on a career in Corrections: I have grown up quite a bit and had my share of self-induced hard times and great times throughout the years. One issue has been on my mind for some time now and I have come to realize or had an epiphany to a hidden dark secret of Corrections. Most of us never see it coming or realize that it affects us yet it has a profound affect on our lives both here at work and home. I am referring to the Hard-Hearted conditioning that we as Correctional staff experience. I am by no stretch of the imagination justifying any of my past transgressions or blaming any one else for my misfortunes. Nor do I think that this is or was an excuse for any actions that have occurred. I just need to express it in words and share this condition with my colleagues.

The Hard – Hearted Condition: Webster’s dictionary describes the condition as Unsympathetic; inexorable; cruel; and pitiless. The Collins essential thesaurus has words like: hard, cold, cruel, indifferent, insensitive, callous, stony, unkind, heartless, inhumane, merciless, intolerant, uncaring, pitiless, unfeeling, unforgiving, hard-as-nails, and affect-less as synonyms to the word. Unbelievably, there is only one word as an antonym. Are you ready for this? Kind. Just kind. “That’s it”, I thought! What a concept, just 4 letters K-I-N-D; Kind that’s it. How have I gone so long in this profession and been in this hard-hearted condition for so long that I never seen it coming? Well I will tell you. This is not something that just appears one day out of the blue and you become hard-hearted, oh no! It is much more sinister than that. In a profession where you are in contact with people especially, people whom are in crisis, personal struggle, incarcerated, pain, agony, and distress it is easy to gradually become hard-hearted due to the disassociation of feelings to the situation by ourselves. This condition is common among other professions as well. For instance, take a doctor or nurse as an example. How many times do they need to see injured people, conduct surgeries, or help people overcome a major illness before they stop treating the patient as a person and seeing them as a number? Here is another example; how many times do mental health specialists have to assess patients before they begin to assign their patients a label and not truly listen and/or cater to the specific needs of the individual and not just medicate and separate the individual from society. These are just two examples of what I mean when I say hard –hearted.

So now that you know what I mean by the condition of hard-hearted, how do Correctional staff becoming accustomed to this condition. There is no one answer for this question, but I will share a personal experience to this issue. As a former US serviceman, I was broken down and built back up during boot camp to be a specific way or think the military standard. Coming into Corrections and what is considered a paramilitary organization, I had many expectations on how things were or should be inside a Correctional Facility. The “lock them up and throw away the key”, or “you did the crime so you should do the time”, philosophies were ever-present and in most cases the norm. As I grew and blossomed into a veteran officer, I not only became hard- hearted to the inmate population, but my friends and family outside of the jail environment also felt the wrath of my change of heart. I heard things like, “man your cruel”, and “you insensitive bastard”. I lost most of my close friendships, but gained a bunch of new ones here within the facilities, “that’s right”, other officers just like me who were experiencing the same emotions, fears, and realizations as myself. Now some of you would say, “How is that a bad thing?” Some of my best friends work here at the Jail and I would never want to change or lose them as friends, but because of this change, I lost a lot of time and relationship with my previous friends, and some family members that can never be brought back. I had been working for Orange County for close to 10 years when I was selected for the position I currently hold in Training. After I was selected, a few weeks had gone by, and I was standing out in front of the Horizon building and a now retired Lieutenant, walked up to me and said, “congratulations”! He shook my hand, looked me dead in the eye, and said these 9 words to me and they are forever etched into my memory. He said, “Now you can go home and love your family!” Then he walked off. My initial reaction was bewilderment. I truly had no clue what he meant. It was about six months later that I finally realized what he was talking about. Now that I was in the Training Section I was not working around the inmates so closely and I stopped hearing all the problems they have and the issues surrounding their lives. I no longer spent hours talking to other staff and sat around complaining about, “how things are”, and “what needs to be changed”, and actually left each day with a feeling of peace and didn’t go to my home with bad feelings and anger from a day spent in one of the worst environments to work in. I started to love my family again. That was huge!

How do I change the way I am if I don’t know if I am hard - hearted? In this profession from the civilian staff all the way up to the Chief of Corrections, all of us are susceptible to this condition. No one is truly exempt. I made it a personal mission to tell my experience to each new staff member who came through the New Employee Orientation program that Training offers to all staff. Some of you may remember me talking about this and here is how to prevent or change the way you are or may become. Several years ago I noticed a now retired Major used to keep a small world on his desk, and one day I was in his office and asked him, “why do you keep that small world on your desk?” He sat back in his chair and began to tell me a story about how things used to be in his life and how they have changed. For him that small world represented his life inside of the walls of the facilities. Each day when he was about to leave work, he would take that small world, put it in his briefcase, and leave all the worries from this place right there. He wouldn’t simply forget about it, or ignore it, but realize that his life is not inside these walls. Life begins when he clocked out. That is how simple it is to either break the cycle you are in or just prevent it all together. Having a trigger mechanism; something to do, say, or touch that reminds you that albeit important in your life this job is not your life. If you haven’t done so already, recommit yourself to your family. Make them your first priority in your life after whatever higher authority you believe in. Make them feel like they mean more to you than anything in this world, and watch how quickly they respond and how things in your life will change for the better. It worked; it really worked for me!

Being hard – hearted is not something we try to accomplish nor is it something that happens to us overnight. After many experiences, this condition affects our hearts and minds like a cancer to the body. Finding a trigger mechanism, choosing to live life outside of the walls of the jail environment, and making family a priority in your life are all great ways of preventing and changing the cycle. Remember that kind is the opposite of hard-hearted. Be kind to each other.


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  3. ocalapa on 03/23/2010:

    I think becoming more kind to family outside work would begin to change/repair your attitude and thinking while at work. Geraldine Jones, PA-C

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