Why would anyone want to be a Correctional Employee? I’ve asked myself this question repeatedly over the past twenty years, unfortunately it only leads me to more questions.
This career is one of terrific peaks and valleys. There are terror-level highs with split-second life and death decisions, complete with adrenaline rushes and the plethora of physical and emotional symptoms that come with it. Then there are the valleys with hours of boredom and the monotony that come with such a structured routine.
We don’t go to the Starbucks kiosk at coffee break or chat around the water cooler, we don’t have that luxury. Most of our so-called breaks are on the very post we work, in the presence of the convicted felons we monitor, supervise, protect and serve.
Yes, I did in fact say serve. Modern corrections is very progressive and fluid in most states, leaning toward evidence-based programming. We are expected to put aside all of our personal biases, fears, and inhibitions so we may mentor, train, and assist the vast majority of offenders despite their sometimes heinous and brutal crimes. We protect offenders from each other armed only with our verbal skills, most of which come from years of dealing with upset and angry behaviors.
Have you ever stood in line at the grocery store thinking to yourself, ‘This is ridiculous, they need to hire more people?’ Well, you should know that a typical grocery store has roughly one staff member for every 10-25 shoppers. A typical state prison can have up to 136 adult male convicted felons to every 1 Correctional Officer. I hope this helps lend some insight into the definition of understaffing.
In most cases, we are the first pro-social role model offenders are exposed to. It begs me to ask the question: Who do you want these people to learn from? The stereotypical knuckle-dragging guard? Or the progressive-minded, pro-social, professional Correctional Employee? Before you answer, please know that these offenders are your future neighbors, the cooks at your favorite restaurant, the people who will repair your car, the list goes on and on….
As far as society is concerned, responsibility ends with the drop of the judge’s gavel. That’s just the tip of our lonely and frequently forgotten iceberg. We’re often shown in the media or on TV in a derogatory fashion and referred to as “guards”.
The definition of guard is to watch over something or someone to prevent damage, robbery, or to control access to something. If that’s the person you want mentoring, and teaching ethics, morals, and social skills to future members of society then continue to fund prison staffing at its current level.
We’ve been making personal and professional sacrifices for many years yet we continue to give, because that’s who we are. It’s time to recognize these forgotten heroes for what they do for society on a daily basis. I don’t even know where to begin when it comes to personal sacrifices.
The highest suicide rates of any profession, substance abuse, astronomical divorce rates, medical issues, namely hypertension, PTSD at a rate of 30-50%, and other stress-related illnesses. One must remember this is a very negatively-charged environment and this negativity at times comes from many directions at once, offenders, management, society, i.e. changes in laws, sentencing etc.
I have lost two close friends to suicide in my 20 years. The first was my roommate when I worked at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe, the second was my employee when I worked at Stafford Creek in Aberdeen. I can tell you personally that you will always second guess your every move on the days prior to a friend, co-worker, or employee’s suicide.
As many know we lost a sister on January 29, 2011. Officer Jayme Biendl, murdered at the hands of a cold-blooded and merciless dirtbag in the chapel at the Washington State Reformatory in Monroe. What you may not know are all the lives that were forever changed that day, including one Officer who later killed himself because he couldn’t live with the grief.
You may say we knew this was a dangerous job when we took it. You would be right, we were called somehow by our sense of service, duty, and devotion, many of us coming from organizations such as the military, not yet ready to give up that spirit of camaraderie and adventure. I will tell you though that no human being deserves to be spit on, have feces and urine thrown on them, be physically assaulted beyond recognition, be murdered at work, witness death resulting from violent acts, or any number of the things a Correctional Employee deals with.
Now consider that we do this for a near poverty level paycheck considering most of us have families we support. I have had many friends whose children qualified for the free lunch program at public schools.
We can’t sustain at this level, which leads to an incredible turnover rate. Officers come and go every month, in this state we run academies non-stop. The attorney for our State Correctional Employees’ union when addressing the Deputy Director of Prisons in Washington said it better than I ever could. He said, “Scott, when it comes to retention you’ve tried everything except one thing, paying your employees.”
I could go on and tell you things I’ve seen and experienced, some of which are beyond the realm of acceptance as reality to the human brain but like many others on this lonely iceberg I just try to put them as far away as I can. I ask you as citizens and lawmakers to recognize those who work in the city and county jails, and the state prisons to extend your vision beyond the drop of the gavel and thank a Correctional Officer for ensuring the work they do carries beyond jail and prison walls.
Sgt. Gregory Judd