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The Overlooked Challenges that Correction Officers Face Anonymously
By Gerard J. Horgan , Superintendent, Suffolk County House of Correction MA
Published: 01/21/2013

Ma doc If you were to go to a 1st or 2nd grade class and ask the children what they want to be when they grow up, you would likely hear several responses. The kids would want to be Police Officers, Firefighters, Doctors, Nurses, Teachers and maybe some would want to play for their local professional football, baseball or soccer teams. It is doubtful that any of the children would say that they wanted to work in corrections.

This lack of awareness of our profession doesn’t end in childhood. Most of the members of our communities get to see Police Officers and Firefighters in action. They are treated by Doctors and Nurses and their children are taught by Teachers. Our neighbors don’t know what Correction Officers do and the issues that they face every day. They have a general sense that CO’s supervise people who have been convicted but for the most part, it’s “out of sight, out of mind”. If you ask the average citizen who their Police Commissioner or Police Chief is, they will usually know. If you ask them who the Commissioner of Corrections is, you will most likely get a blank stare.

The media often covers stories of heroic efforts by Police Officers who stop a bank robbery, Firefighters who rescue people from burning buildings and Prosecutors who obtain a conviction in a major murder trial. The media generally does not cover the story of a Correction Officer who prevents an inmate suicide, stops an assault or evacuates an offender from a cell that is on fire.

Hollywood also adds to the luster of the Police and Fire Departments with shows such as CSI, Law and Order, Rescue Me and Chicago Fire. The medical profession is also highlighted with Chicago Hope and Grey’s Anatomy. The characters in these shows are mainly portrayed in a positive light. There are not many non-reality shows about corrections and those that exist like Oz and Prison Break don’t accurately show the day to day life of Officers who work behind the walls.

The Correction Officers walk the toughest beat in law enforcement. CO’s work with large numbers of offenders 8 hours a day and they rely mainly on their verbal de-escalation skills to ensure the orderly running of the housing units. The Officers rarely have a respite from the men and women who have been convicted of a crime and often resent the fact that they are being told when to get up, when to eat, what to eat, and when to sleep. These offenders have had their freedom taken away from them due to their actions and the Officers are the face of the system that prevents them from being able to go home.

Over the past two decades, we have seen a huge increase in the number of people with mental health issues in our prisons. Conservative estimates put the number of inmates with mental illness at 350,000 nationwide. CO’s are the authority figure in the housing units but often have to wear many hats when dealing with an offender with mental illness. They have to be the eyes and ears for medical and mental health staff, the sounding board for the inmate and, at times, an informal counselor when mental health staff is not readily available and an offender needs to be talked down.

Correction Officers are also crucial to re-entry efforts. Inmates who abide by facility rules have the opportunity to get work details and hopefully learn a good work ethic. The Officers supervise these inmates. In many facilities, the CO’s give input on classification decisions to determine which inmates will participate in programming. This is a powerful incentive for an offender to behave well while incarcerated. Inmates who participate in quality programming are less likely to re-offend.

There is an expression that we use in our county: “A good day is a day when nothing bad happens”. There is not a great deal of positive reinforcement for Correction Officers. They have to remain aware in the same surroundings every day, interact with a number of people who don’t want to interact with them and react in a moment’s notice when an incident occurs. When they do their job well, it often goes unnoticed.

Somehow, we have to do a better job of communicating the challenges and the success stories of Correction Officers. It is a job that is vital to public safety and the quality of life in our communities. CO’s make a difference in our society and are the unsung heroes of law enforcement.

Editor's note: Corrections.com author, Gerard J. Horgan, has been the Superintendent at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston since 2003. He has been with the Sheriff’s Department for 24 years. A graduate of Northeastern University and Suffolk University Law School, Horgan has trained staff in inmate rights and civil liability and is an Adjunct Professor at the University of Massachusetts where he teaches Corrections and Criminal Justice. He can be reached at ghorgan@scsdma.org.

Other articles by Horgan:


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