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Families Under Siege
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 05/16/2016


The following has been reprinted with permission from Correctional Oasis: Volume 13, Issue 3.

A study of correctional officers, which was reported in 2014 by Sam Houston University’s Correctional Management Institute of Texas, concluded that work-related demands and tensions were among factors that adversely affected the officers’ work-home life balance.

When the emotional fallout of work-related tensions follows corrections staff home, and when that happens often, staff are likely to react to their loved ones in destructive ways.

What might such negative behaviors look like? They may run the gamut from minor irritability to physical violence. They can manifest as impatience; agitation; overreacting to even minor frustrations; a “short fuse;” angry outbursts (when there has been little or no provocation); rudeness; verbal put-downs; intolerance of others’ opinions, preferences, or wants; or social withdrawal and stonewalling—isolating and not communicating. In more serious cases, the behaviors of chronically “stressed out” staff may escalate to verbal aggression, such as threats of physical harm, and/or actual physical violence toward people, animals or objects. Heavy substance use or substance abuse can make such behaviors worse.

It is not hard to imagine that when these behaviors occur, especially when they occur repeatedly, staff’s family lives are strained—at times to a breaking point. That is why even at the slightest sign of verbal or physical aggression toward loved ones, staff need to seek help for themselves, to nip such behaviors in the bud, not allowing them to become part of their lives.

The following is an actual encounter I had years ago that describes parts of a correctional family’s journey in dealing with family violence.

Have you ever had the sense that someone behind you is studying you? I had that experience the other day at the grocery store. Instinctively I turned around to see who was looking at me and “caught” a woman in her forties watching me intently. I half-smiled and pushed my cart down the next aisle wondering absentmindedly about what might be on her mind.

Suddenly she was right next to me again. “Are you the one who reaches out to corrections officers?” she asked sheepishly. “You know, Desert Waters?” I lit up. “Yes, I am.”

She went on. “I recognized you from a photo in an old newspaper that a friend gave me.” “Do you work in corrections?” I asked. “No, I don’t, but my husband does. He’s been at it nine years now.” She hesitated for a brief second, and then her eyes filled with tears.

Seeing that, I motioned her to follow me to a quieter area of the store. After regaining her composure, she whispered, “What you’ve been writing about is SO true. We’ve been through SO much as a family over the years.” She then stopped like she was weighing what to say next, took a deep breath, and then threw open the floodgates. “It’s much better now. But just a year ago I wasn’t sure we were going to make it as a family.”

“I’m very glad things are better now,” I replied. “And I feel for you, for all you’ve been through.” Then I asked, “Where does your husband work?”

She gave me the name of a facility where I had heard that incidents of violence were an all-too-common occurrence. (I remembered a correctional staff member telling me that working in that type of environment for even just a few years could change a person to the core—and not for the better.) I felt my heart ache for this couple. “Corrections!” I thought to myself. “We need the prisons and the jails, yet what a toll they can take on staff and families alike!” I then repeated, “I’m glad things are better now at home.”

She smiled and nodded. I could tell that she was once again weighing whether to open up some more or not. Then she took the plunge. “My husband became so mean after a few years on the job. He’d fly off the handle over ridiculous things. He’d put me down over nothing. He didn’t want to be around people. He had never been like that before. His goal became to work nights. He quit doing things with us as a family. I felt abandoned, like a widow.” She paused again as if impacted by her own words. I found myself almost holding my breath. The moment felt sacred. One human being making true heart-to-heart contact with another without even exchanging names.

The woman looked me in the eyes ever so seriously. “My husband is a good man. We’ve been married 16 years. I did not know what to make of it when he started becoming violent. He’d throw things. He’d break things. He even hauled off and hit me once. I just couldn’t believe it! Up to that point he had never done anything like that.” Her tears were flowing now. And my eyes were misty too. “I did not call the cops. Don’t ask me why not.” She looked away, seeming embarrassed. “I could tell he felt bad afterwards for what he’d done. And the kids were terrified. They were in the next room and heard it all. After that, we all walked on eggshells around him. No noise, no requests, no complaints. Did not want to set him off. And we didn’t even know what might set him off! After a while I knew I couldn’t go on living like that. I told him we had to get help, or we were history. He kept refusing until the day he hauled off to hit me again, caught himself at the last second, and put a hole in the wall instead. A week later we started counseling.”

She smiled and I smiled back. “Thank you for trusting me and sharing this with me,” I said. “And I’m so glad you took action and that he agreed.” “You know, I finally realized that I had to do something for our family,” she replied. “I refused to go on living in fear and worry. I refused to have the kids’ lives ruined. And it’s been better. We talk more. He is more respectful. There are still things he is working on. His occasional yelling. His talking to the kids like a drill sergeant. Treating us like inmates sometimes, ordering us around. But on the whole our home life is so much better. He does back off when I ask him to. We’re growing close again one day at a time.” We both sighed a sigh of relief.

“I know the kids will need more help,” she added wistfully, as if talking to herself. “We’re thinking about what would be the best way to do that. I can tell that at times they’re still scared of their dad, and mad at him, too. He’s apologized to them, but they need more. In our counseling we talk about ways he can rebuild bridges not only with me, but also with them. The other day I sat our children down and told them that sometimes daddy’s work is very tough , and that he’s still all revved up when he gets home. I told them that we’re getting help.” “You’re doing a wonderful job,” I said, admiring her courage. “Last week I caught my son putting his sister down just like his dad used to treat me. I got on him right away. Told him that I was not going to tolerate disrespect in our home. I made him apologize to her. It felt so good!”

We both smiled again. “Yay for mom!” I cheered. She changed tone. “Thank you for listening. Thank you for caring.” “You’re welcome,” I answered. “Meeting you made my day. When you can, visit our website and see about getting on our mailing list.” “Will do. Keep praying for us in corrections!” she said as we parted ways to continue our shopping.

Afterward I kept thinking about our call to come alongside corrections folks and share the burden with them. What a privilege it is to have the opportunity of such encounters—whether groups in training or one person at a time! And I also thought of you all who support our mission through your giving. Thank you.

And going back to the Sam Houston University study, the Correctional Management Institute developed a brochure for correctional officers to recognize signs of stress and for ways to address them. Here are some of the suggestions:
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain proper nutrition
  • Get enough sleep
  • Reach out to co-workers, friends and family
  • Do something enjoyable every day
  • Use meditation and other relaxation techniques as part of your daily schedule
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol
  • Use your employer’s confidential Employee Assistance Program
And if you have suffered intimate partner violence, please get help for yourself. Resources for victims of violence are many, both in local communities and nationally. Here’s a start: http://www.apa.org/topics/violence/partner.aspx and http://www.womenshealth.gov/violence-against-women/types-of-violence/domestic-intimate-partner-vi.

You can also call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 or TTY 800-787-3224.

And in case you’ve crossed the line, and became physically violent with a loved one, PLEASE get specialized professional help right away. Your most important support system is at risk.

MUCH is at stake.

Editor's note: Caterina Spinaris is the Executive Director at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Colorado. She continues to contribute to the field of corrections staff well-being individually and organizationally, in particularly regarding issues of traumatic stress due to exposure to violence, injury, death on the job, and also issues of organizational climate improvement.

Visit the Caterina Tudor page

Other articles by Tudor:


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