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The Burden of Job Role Complexities
By Caterina Spinaris
Published: 04/23/2018

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While reviewing a manuscript by Bruce Perham, an Australian behavioral health provider, on trauma inherent to prison work, I was once again struck by the complex psychological demands faced by security/custody staff in today’s corrections world. In this article I specifically address complexities involved in custody staff’s dual role as keepers of safety/law enforcement and facilitators of re-entry/ rehabilitation.

Since the criminal justice pendulum has swung towards more re-entry efforts and away from sheer containment, and since custody are the staff that offenders interact with the most, custody staff’s job description has expanded. (Similar issues may be faced by probation and parole officers, and to a certain degree by non-custody staff as well.)

In addition to ensuring safety and securing offenders’ adherence to rules, custody staff are now tasked with being part of the effort to help “reprogram” offenders’ thinking toward becoming more prosocial and toward making more constructive choices. This requires the use of interpersonal skills beyond those needed in traditional custody work, such as good communication skills. Custody staff’s expected involvement with offenders now may range from empathetic listening, to giving words of affirmation or encouragement, to engaging in the application of motivational interviewing techniques or problem-solving strategies. In short, custody staff are currently expected to operate as both cops and lay counselors, both law enforcers and mentors.

The intent for promoting such dual professional roles is good. It does make eminent sense that offenders should be given every opportunity to improve themselves, so there are positive outcomes to their incarceration experience—whether they return to the community or not.

And at the same time, the expansion of the custody staff’s role increases the complexity of their work and its psychological burden on them. To understand that, the context in which custody staff operate needs to be considered.

There are two types of danger that shape corrections work, because the possibility that they may happen is ever-present: the danger of violence and the danger of being manipulated by offenders.

Custody staff’s dual professional role is expected to be carried out in a context where the potential for violence and manipulation is never eliminated. Staff may be assaulted at work, witness violence against others, and might endure verbal assaults and verbal threats on a regular basis. And they may at times encounter offender manipulation “games,” or see other staff be taken down through such “games.”

Both the possibility of violence and the possibility of manipulation can result in staff feeling apprehensive around offenders, and wanting to reduce the likelihood of their exposure to these dangers by maintaining their distance—both physically and psychologically. That is, anticipation of both these types of danger interferes with what it takes to interact with offenders in the lay counselor/mentor role, as this role requires approaching and “connecting” with offenders, not avoiding them.

So, due to their work experiences, in the brains of custody staff, at a “hard-wired,” neurological level, offenders become synonymous with danger, and are perceived to be the “enemy.” Offenders and their reminders can now trigger in staff cascades of biochemical events (through activation of the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis and the Sympathetic Nervous System), resulting in the fight-or-fight response. These are automatic physiological realities that happen involuntarily, and may be followed by self-protective thoughts and actions. Such reactions can happen at any time, not only in the midst of a critical incident. Under such conditions, empathetic communication and motivational interviewing techniques usually take the back seat.

Studies have shown [1], [2] that about one-third of custody staff meet PTSD criteria on valid screening instruments. That means that about a third of the custody staff have significant offender-based traumatic triggers. Similarly, having been manipulated, having witnessed other staff being manipulated, or merely being concerned about that happening, can cause custody staff to experience anxiety and/or hostility when interacting with offenders.

Yet, the custody staff’s expanded role now includes being supportive to those who trigger fight-or-flight alarms in their brain.

Asking custody staff to put their physiological and psychological reactions aside, and to be impartially and objectively available to offenders in a helping role, is a very complex expectation. It places a considerable psychological burden on custody staff, especially if self-regulation and interpersonal skills are not their strong suit. That is, custody staff are tasked with overriding their apprehensions or frustrations regarding offenders, and instead building rapport with them within a professional relationship.

Such behaviors necessitate that custody staff exercise supreme self-control, superb management of their emotions and thoughts, and effective processing of high-stress events on an ongoing basis, if they are to be able to interact daily with offenders with a clean slate. It takes a tremendous amount of self-regulation skills to be able to be genuinely supportive to those perceived to be “the enemy.”

("Professional rapport” with offenders in corrections work refers to a one-way relationship of staff tending to offenders’ needs, while maintaining their own professional boundaries —not disclosing personal information to offenders, and not looking to them to meet their own personal needs or wants. This type of rapport is unlike the usual relationships in the “free world,” which are based on mutual disclosing, and a degree of mutual dependence and trust. Custody staff’s professional rapport with offenders must be more akin to the relationship of psychotherapists with clients. Therapists focus on client needs and show empathy, but self-disclose minimally, and do not seek to meet personal needs or wants through their clients. Maintaining such tight professional boundaries requires self-awareness and self-discipline, and adds to the psychological burden of the custody staff’s job.)

And to be effective as law enforcers in addition to mentors, custody staff must interact with offenders as helpers while also remaining vigilant, on guard, keeping “emergency preparedness plans” at the forefront of their mind at all times, in case violence does break out or in case they become the target of a “game.”

It is not suggested here that it is impossible for the dual mindsets of self-preservation and supportiveness to co-exist. It IS possible, especially in work environments where there is not a lot of violence. However, having these two mind-sets, and switching from one to the other according to situational demands, is hard to do. It takes above average skillfulness, motivation and tenacity to be able to pull it off, especially in the long run.

One way to address these issues is to provide training to staff that emphasizes self-regulation and interpersonal skills, and maintaining professional boundaries. Administrators can begin to address these matters at the hiring/screening stage, selecting candidates that demonstrate a proclivity for skillful self-management and communication. Such selection of new staff needs to be followed with training on self-regulation and interpersonal skills, and professional boundary setting.

If this dual-role difficulty is not acknowledged at the administrative level, and if staff are not supported and trained regarding their complex job roles, it is likely that some may deal with this job requirement by simply “going through the motions,” only paying lip service to the expectation that they function in a supportive role toward offenders. Others who experience negative interactions with offenders (including violent incidents or manipulation attempts) may pull back, opting to operate along the containment part of their job only. Such behaviors are understandable, when the neuropsychology of traumatic/high-stress reactions is taken into consideration, and coupled with the lack of “emotional intelligence” skills training.

Given the complexity of what custody staff are asked to do, it is critical to validate staff’s dilemma (self-preservation vs. helpfulness), and provide officers with support and ongoing specialized training on how to fulfill both of their key job requirements in today’s corrections world—and how to do so well.

Author's Note: I thank Brent Parker for reviewing an earlier version of this article and for providing thoughtful comments and suggestions, which were incorporated in the article’s final version.

This article as been reprinted with permission from the March 2018 Issue of Correctional Oasis, a monthly e-publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach".

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 Spinaris page

Other articles by Spinaris:


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