Corrections, custody or detention; whatever you call it, it’s one of the most challenging and honorable professions around. However, few people outside of the profession seem to realize that. Firefighters are seen as the heroes, riding to the rescue in their shining trucks. Law enforcement officers are heroes, too, helping those in need and putting their lives on the line every day for us.
How many people would say the same about corrections professionals? Yet that is exactly what we do every day. Unfortunately, we do it out of sight of the public. Even many agency administrators overlook us.
The very nature of the job puts us in danger. Many agencies do not allow corrections staff to be armed unless they are escorting prisoners, which can have unintended dire consequences, as an agency recently discovered when two unarmed corrections officers were wounded by gunfire in their lobby during visitation. In uniform, but unarmed, in the presence of the public: It’s a recipe for disaster, especially in today’s gun-loving, cop-hating culture, but corrections officers are in that situation all over the country every day.
Even though a county’s correctional facility is often the largest funding burden of the entire county budget, usually the largest percentage of all county departments, the public is rarely interested in the facility. When candidates campaign for sheriff, they are constantly asked about crime rates, neighborhood patrols, the number of deputies on the road, etc., but they rarely get questions about the jail and even fewer about the jail staff. Out of sight, out of mind.
On top of the lack of respect they feel from the public, as well as sometimes from their own agencies, correctional staff must deal with court decisions, new laws and court orders that violate jail policies. Lawsuits are also a source of stress, including federal lawsuits for deliberate indifference or neglect regarding medical issues and excessive force lawsuits. All of these distractions make a job in which distractions can be fatal that much more dangerous.
So, in light of all of this negativity, what do we do? Do we throw up our hands and quit the profession? Walk away and leave the problems for others to sort out? Or do we take a hard look at ourselves and figure out how to improve the profession? I choose to do the latter. I believe it starts with the administration of each agency. Are you reactive or are you proactive? Do you empower your staff to make suggestions for improvements? Do you look for issues and try to fix them before they become problems? Or do you wait for something bad to happen before addressing them?
A great first step to take is to modernize your policies. If you are still following policies written 30 years ago because “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” it might be time to upgrade. Legally defensible policies raise the professional standard of your agency and lower your legal liability, thereby reducing the stress on your staff. Further, the process of updating your policies is a demonstration of your commitment to treating your staff more professionally. Getting them involved in reviewing and reriting your policies indicates that you trust them and respect their judgement. What do you think that will do to their overall stress level?
Another important action: Honor your staff. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a proclamation designating the first week in May as National Correctional Officers Week. In the subsequent 32 years, how many agencies have done something special for their staff during that week every year? Some progressive ones have, I’m sure. But many more are missing the opportunity. And don’t forget that recognition can’t be limited to one week a year. The greatest asset an agency has is the staff. They need to know that they are respected and trusted every day.
I want to close with a portion of a Presidential Proclamation from 2009 from American Correctional Association President Harold W. Clarke:
“Few truly understand the difficulties and challenges these corrections professionals face daily, often at great personal risk. They are given those who engaged in dangerous and addictive behaviors, along with the responsibility to reform and rehabilitate. They are given society’s illiterate and unskilled, and the task to educate. They are given those who lack medical care, or who are in poor health, and must help make them well. They are given the mentally ill, and the responsibility to diagnose, treat and protect.
“The men and women entrusted to our custody have many wants – whether because they failed to find what they needed, or refused to accept what was offered in their homes, schools or communities. Offenders need training, guidance, support and, in many cases, they are searching for spiritual direction. Correctional officers and employees are in a position to offer them a better example, and a new path. These staff do so with limited resources, and often with little awareness or acknowledgement from those outside of the field of corrections. Yet, correctional employees continue to rise to the challenge time and time again.”
We must ask ourselves, as administrators, what can we do to rise to the challenge of respecting, supporting and appreciating our staff?
• Clarke H. (May 2009) Presidential Proclamation: National Correctional Officers and Employees Week, May 3-9, 2009. Retrieved on 10/4/16 from http://www.scottcountyiowa.net/sheriff/pub/news/2009/20090503_National_Correctional_Officers_and_Employees_Week.pdf.
• Honoring Correctional Staff. American Jails. 2016; Sept/Oct:8–16.
• Pizzala S. Correcting Corrections. American Jails. 2016; May/June:70–72.