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Correctional Officers, Victims of Abuse by Negativity
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 03/04/2013

Razorwire I have often talked about inmate abuses and neglect but very little about how corrections staff have been abused and neglected. Thanks to a gently reminder by a good friend, this article is about addressing workplace cultures that foster discrimination, unfair labor practices, humiliation and embarrassment as a management tool and others items not talked about much but very much a daily impact of the officer’s world.

The first thing the reader needs to do is realize that a correctional officer is disconnected from the real world while inside those high walls and solid iron gates. They are isolated from the public, their families and sometimes even their coworkers depending on what assignment of shift they draw for their job assignment on the roster.

Corrections is fundamentally a boring job that creates many opportunities for self-doubt, self-criticism and self-destruction. This is hampered by working with poorly trained or educated officers and supervisors as the job becomes more complex than it was really designed by correctional standards. If one is well or better than average educated they stand a chance of being ridiculed or laughed at when they perform their jobs.

Loneliness on the job can lead to complacency. Supervisors, many ill prepared and poorly chosen or promoted are often not backed up by the administration perform ad hoc duties and find shortcuts to get the job done within the unreasonable time to do it. Their schedules are just as complicated as the officers.

They must supervise but they know that if the job falls short, they will be disciplined along with the officer for not doing their jobs. There is zero tolerance to mistakes that are often taken as misconduct and then reviewed by an internal affairs officer to determine charges and sanctions to be imposed. The due process is non-existent as you are found guilty on the most circumstantial proof and even the word of an inmate. To say the workplace is intimidating is an understatement.

This loneliness can be suddenly interrupted by total mayhem or eviler, terror. The fact is that hostage taking, violence and injuries occurred on the job is more common place that one might want to admit to. Damage control on these issues have been perfected by the administration and the news rarely gets out there for others to hear.

This is mainly due to classification mistakes, poor management practices or in some cases opportunities provided by shortage of staff and resources to properly supervise the huge number of inmates under their supervision. It is not uncommon for one officer to supervise more than two hundred inmates and their hands are tied and can’t often respond to an emergency due to lack of resources to back them up during critical times. It often leaves an officer helpless as another officer is being assaulted down the corridor and you can’t respond because of your political boundaries.

Many officers don’t get breaks and eat on the run. They will have to hustle without hesitation to do those tasks assigned what would normally take more officers to get done. Multitasking takes its toll as one can multitask with taking shortcuts but when taking shortcuts you are either put at risk or on report. It is a catch 22 and the officer always loses this situation. Officers suffer from shift disorientation and sleep deprivation.

They keep odd hours and work most of the time their eight hours plus the overtime to make up for staff shortages. Good supervisors find themselves in this same catch 22 as they try to help their team members but often have to relinquish their paperwork to do so.

The workplace, filled with anxiety, tension, stress and fatigue is a perfect formula for burnout. An officer has to be aware he or she does not fall victim to such a phenomena as it can be deadly in nature or at the very least, a most precarious situation to be in among felons.

Every officer has a protocol to follow called post orders or policies and procedures. Post orders are guidelines and provide a summary of the job duties and responsibilities. Many policies and post orders are outdated and lack clarification for the new guidelines thus the officer must adapt and overcome shortcomings with their own innovate thinking or help from others. This is frowned up and will end up being disciplined for although the flaw was the lack of written guidelines [and administrative support] in post orders maintained by the unit administrator or so it is supposed to be done.

Many officers experience burnout once or twice during their span of time or career. Counting their years of service is a bad habit as it makes time slow and crawling in the sense of awareness and change. Becoming old [tenured] and cold with the job, the entire experience has been altered since the beginning when they took this job and swearing to uphold their oaths taken to serve and protect. It really becomes harder each time they dress in their uniforms and report for duty.

Daily challenges consist of mind games between inmates, managers and coworkers. Then the main nemesis, the administration, has its own mind games that toys with shift assignments, rotation of posts, personnel rule changes and other psychologically detrimental issues that drives down morale and performance all this plays into the fatigue factor as not all fatigue is physical but rather, much of it is mental and draining their energy quickly.

Correctional officers are criticized in four directions in the workplace and at home. They are often criticized by the administration, their supervisors and their coworkers but often the criticism comes from family or friends as well. They try to understand the complexity of the job but often miss their target as they do not know the job as well as the officer does but that doesn’t stop them from criticizing them at home. Of course there is always the media and the public that harp daily about the corruptive behaviors behind the tall walls and silver razor wires. They know it all without taking one step in the officer’s footsteps [for more than thirty minutes on a tour] and project their “know it all” attitude berating the officers that work inside prisons.

Officers work on adrenalin and this influences their minds and body in ways that is hard to explain unless you’ve been there. Fatigue sets in when you experience an adrenaline hangover and it affects the family, the workplace and the ones you work with. People change and it’s hardly noticed until it’s too late and a mishap has occurred causing you more trouble and stress in your life.

Officers, just like veterans coming home from the war or other critical incidents experience real trauma and are often exposed and under the influence of PTSD. Dealing with death, violence, blood and guts spilled as inmates and staff are shanked [stabbed or cut] by felons there is little job satisfaction to brag about as a correctional officer. However, most officers suck it up and do the job. It goes unnoticed that these brave individuals have the intestinal fortitude to keep moving and deal with this adversity.

Job discrimination is the primary enemy inside prisons for prison employees. Discrimination in gender, race, cultural connections or color of skin are common denominators and handled according to their own internal customs and practices. Discrimination also include sexual harassment, unwanted attention and forced or coercive attitudes among coworkers that breed contempt for the rule of law and esprit de corps.

Grievances are a joke as the administration turns a blind eye to any discriminatory complaint and turns the tables around on the person making the allegation identifying them as a poor worker, slacker or just chronic complainer minimizing their basis for the complaint filed. Persistence in a grievance normally results in retaliation and more grief for the officer(s) involved. Peer pressure, ostracized conduct and name-calling are some symptoms endorsed by some supervisors and the pressure is enough to quit or ask for a transfer to another prison complex.

Prison work changes people that work there. It impacts good parenting, the way they act [socialize]and the decisions they make at home and work. Alcohol, drugs and violence are common and often get out of hand causing an arrest or a visit by a police officer at home or at work. The triggers are plenty and the madness never stops. Their credibility is often challenged and many are discredited or called liars. They want help but get nothing as promised even though there are employee assistance programs that serve the purpose of advertisement and fake support.

Correctional officers are sometimes in denial of their own problems. They live with emotional disabilities but deny they have them. They can’t be strong if they admit flaws in character or strengths. Seeking help is out of the question for it is considered a weakness. The only alternative is love and understanding by their peers and most of all, their families. They suffer in the darkness and write their words of frustration and anger on the unwritten wall of silence.

Officers perform this masochistic ritual of denial because that is what they are taught on the job. Disconnecting emotions and becoming cold is a pre-requisite for becoming an officer so it is said. Don’t get close to people especially inmates and don’t show your feelings. Unfortunately officers have difficulties drawing that line and often self-inflict pain and sorrow into their own lives. Sometimes with taking their own life when the situation gets hopeless.

The administration demands perfection. the public’s outcry makes you want to be better at what you do but the media disappoints you daily as you read the negativity that surrounds your world twenty four hours a day seven days a week. The irony here is that those that demand perfection are far from being perfect themselves. In fact, many are poor role models and examples to follow because of their political correctness and willingness to sacrifice staff for their own success and needs. Positivity is the hardest thing to keep and maintain. The longer you work in the penitentiary the harder it is to find positive things and leads to depression, aggression and low self-esteem. These are critical qualities of being able to do the job thus it is a fatal flaw that has to be address. No longer affecting the job, it tears the family apart as well.

The public forgets about the signs of stress and anxiety that is so prevalent inside prisons. They don’t understand why the officer is gaining weight or losing it, accident prone or forgetful and angry and sad. These emotions are signs of stress and burnout and happen every day without recourse for the officer to keep coming to work to get that paycheck. Sick leave is frowned upon and makes you a target for punishment. All the while you, the correctional officers, are dealing with poor eating habits, drugs, abuse by many, crying and paranoia as fear become a normal part of your life.

Editor’s note: Carl ToersBijns (retired), worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Car’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

Other articles by ToersBijns:



Comments:

  1. Elizabeth64 on 09/04/2013:

    Thank you for this article. I totally agree with it. However,it is not only CO's who hide memories and stories of what they see. So does educational staff, psych services and agents. They are as prone to PTSD as everyone else is. We are called "nonessential staff". How nice. I have worked for corrections for the past 13 years and I have seen my share of suicides, violent fights and challenging lock ups. We are also targets for any situation behind the "walls". Our morale suffers as does everyone's. We get the mind games and the disrespectful attitudes, as well, and are expected to "buck up". Please don't forget about us....we are all in this together.

  2. FtGrant CO on 04/08/2013:

    Thank you Mr ToersBijns. As I am approaching by last years in DOC I find it inspiring to find and read articles like this. It helps to keep it all making sense in this whirlwind insanity spinning around you each day.

  3. CorporalBigJoe on 03/14/2013:

    Ye I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil for it is I a correctional officer rule the yard.

  4. Ruthy325 on 03/13/2013:

    I am worked as a CO for 18 years and been retired for one year. Think you for your article. Unless you have been there you can not understand what we live through everyday on the job. Our lives are on the line EVERY minute we walk those runs, halls and yards. I think God and all the other CO's who had my back as I had there's. CO's are the forgotten heroes.

  5. Nini on 03/08/2013:

    Thank you so much for this article!!! Correctional Officers to me are "babysitting adults" who are potentially very dangerous individuals. There is a reason they are locked up in the "big house". Correctional Officers are despied and considered an enemy by entire inmate population. A Correctional Officer has to maintain his composure in any given situation. He can never display any sign of weakness in himself every minute of the day. He can loose his life with just one slip of his tongue. He has to also watch his response to a inmate's request. He has to choose his words carefully when dealing with each type of a prison inmate. A Correctional Officer has to work with "good" the "bad" and ugly" so to speak. Then there is the element of surprise and opportunity for the inmate to take that enemy called a CO out the "game". For a inmate to gain rank within the prison walls recognition for being the "one". On top of all of that the Correctional Officer has to deal with the inmate's ability to play mind games. A prisoner that is locked up most of the "time". Has nothing better to do but try to figure you out every single moment of the day. This will last as long as the Correctional Officer holds his position as such. That my friend is not an easy task with everything that was mentioned in this article. Thank you again for such fine reading material. The Correctional Officers are targets to any situation behind these prison walls. Some stories remain hidden inside a Correctional Officer's memory as the worst day of his life working as a CO. I can only imagine a Correctional Officers morale with such a job. At the same time try to make sense of it all...Bravo to the Correctional Officer who made it through with such honors. Thank you Sir for opening my eyes up "wider" to see how far I could go in the field as a Correctional Officer. . I am so proud to have read this article the words rang out so clear giving me the true definition of a Correctional Officer's job.. . I still want this job!!!:)

  6. Waggoner69 on 03/07/2013:

    Great article! Police, Fireman, Nurses are looked at as Hero's brave for choosing their professions. Correction Officers are often told they picked the job so they need to just suck it up and don't complain.


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