|By Lt. Stacie Mitchell|
I have yet to meet a child or heard a story of a child who said they wanted to be a corrections officer when they grew up. It is not a career that has been glamorized through cinema, made people millionaires, brought anyone great fame or even mediocre gratitude. Yet, each day, thousands upon thousands of us don our gear to spend a day with individuals who have often been labeled as the dregs of the community. Corrections is a challenging career choice. For many, the obstacles are often overwhelming and lead to significant employee turnover rates. Low wages, non-traditional and extensive work hours, heightened potential for physical assaults, routine verbal confrontations and mental strain are just a few of the issues that contribute to the extensive list of challenges that identify this as a less than desirable career field.
For many, the thought of dedicating 20 or more years to this field is an overwhelming and often unconscionable endeavor. In order to persevere, remain diligent and keep a positive attitude, staff can’t get stuck on the sometimes demeaning, often routine and always under-appreciated tasks we deal with and focus on the greater service provided by corrections professionals.
My belief, which leads to my inspiration, which continues to be my motivation, is the fact that we, as corrections professionals, have the ability to influence and change a community as much (if not more) than any other social institution in history. Think about it, how often does anyone have the opportunity to influence change 24 hours a day, 7 days a week? Teachers spend approximately 6 hours a day, 5 days a week with their students. On average, we spend no more than 4 hours a week at our place of worship. There is no counseling, rehabilitative program or vocational training that devotes the time that we, as corrections professionals, have to affect change and progress in the life of an offender. This is what the correctional profession is about. Whether we work with adults or juveniles, every moment we spend in a facility is an opportunity to teach and model positive behavior, thoughts and attitudes. Each time we verbally communicate, it could be a lesson in social behavior, norms and respect. Coming to work as scheduled with the right equipment and attitude models positive work habits, ethics and responsibility. These are the exact traits that many offenders lack. Modeling such could plant the seed needed to foster an individual’s growth and change.
A person who feels shunned by their community; thought of with contempt, disdain and disgust can never really feel they are a part of a greater whole. These prevalent attitudes displayed by many within our community just forces offenders to retreat into a subculture of crime and lawless abandon that feeds the cycle of recidivism. Feeling that you are the object of societies disdain and disgust leads to indifference to the needs of that society. If the fabric of our community has just one frayed thread, it jeopardized the strength, quality and beauty of what we could potentially become. Each member of our community is a thread, and to omit or neglect it only leaves room for that fabric to tear and ultimately become a hole. Antiquated correctional practices taught us that these elements (offenders) in our society should be excised, reducing our societal blanket to mere scraps. It hasn’t worked. If offenders feel like outsiders in their community, they will behave as outsiders. Without a sense of belonging, there are diminished feelings of obligation. Without obligation, it is hard to foster remorse. Without remorse, there are no boundaries to the inconvenience, suffering, consequences or pain their criminal acts may inflict.
A correctional facility is a community within a community. No longer should we dedicate our time to the simple task of warehousing offenders. The scope of our career has broadened to rehabilitative measures that release a more refined product than what we received. Educational, vocational and rehabilitative services provided in a corrections facility can act as a sieve, refining the often prevalent criminal and anti-social behaviors we see in offenders into beliefs, patterns and ideas that are acceptable to our society. As corrections professionals, we must erect a foundation that allows offenders to explore alternate lifestyles and open their mind to the opportunities that can be made available. An overwhelming number of offenders will be released back into the community. They may work or shop in the grocery store we shop in, fix our car, ride the same public transportation, live, eat, and sleep, next door, across the street, in the same apartment building or even in the same house. What kind of values do we want to model? What are the skills we want to teach?
I realize that not all offenders will make significant lifestyle changes during periods of incarceration. I do know, however, that sometimes the smallest event can be a catalyst for major change. Just as doctors are in the business of saving lives, they don’t quit because someone they treat dies. Educators keep teaching, even though they have students who fail their course. Both continue to craft their skills, avoid skepticism and continue to do what they can. Like those professionals, I have faith in the contributions my chosen profession can make to society. Throughout history, there have been a few noted individuals that have been credited to making significant change. However, more often than that, the most accomplished ideas and contributions have been from groups of individuals that have collectively shared an idea, thought or concept. The concept of rehabilitative incarceration is one that has caught the attention of our community and will continue to expand.
While these ideals may not fare well with all my counterparts, we, as corrections professionals need to recognize the role we can and do play in the reintegration of offenders into society. Our duties should be focused towards bringing unity within the members of our community through respect, accountability and responsibility and helping to repair the deviance's in social actions and behaviors that we often find in those we supervise.
Some may think me and my views to be naive, optimistic and/or unrealistic. Maybe they are – but as I hold fast to these concepts, I am propelled by my vision of what can be, not what is. I know that upward crime statistics still prevail. I know that recidivism rates are still nonsensically high, and that the fear of being a victim of some type of crime weighs heavily on many people. I also know there are certain offenders who will never benefit from any sort of rehabilitation, no matter how hard we try to provide and encourage it. As a corrections professional, however, I enjoy the multidisciplinary role of communicator, educator, crisis counselor, arbitrator, disciplinarian and problem solver. The combination of these tasks coupled with the potential contribution to my community accumulates this into a job, rather, a profession, that I am proud to be a member of.
Corrections.com author Lieutenant Stacie Mitchell, is part of the command staff at the Salt River Department of Correction in Scottsdale, AZ. She is experienced in working with both State and Tribal correction facilities
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