Desmond (LICSW) and his fellow psychologists are new to the Teamsters. They provide counseling, support, and encouragement to prison staff.
Richard Desmond is an optimist. If you spend an hour in his office and hear his upbeat view of the world, you'll leave with a smile. He deeply admires his DOC co-workers and is quick to sing their praises.
Desmond is a clinical social worker (LICSW) at the Washington State Penitentiary, where he and his team of psychologists provide counseling services to prison staff. It’s a job he loves and one that recently gained representation with Teamsters 117.
Desmond led the effort to join Teamsters so he and his co-workers could have a voice, share in the benefits, and be more closely aligned with the men and women they serve.
How did you get your start as a staff counselor?
In my mid-50s, I went back to school and got my master’s degree in Social Work. I wanted to work locally in Walla Walla, and WSP was the major employer in this area. In CORE Training, 2004, I learned of the staff counselor position that supported correctional staff with their personal and professional issues. I felt an immediate passion for that career area and when an opportunity came up to apply for that opening a few years later I was thrilled to be able to begin that career step. As time went on, it was changed to the Staff Psychology Program.
What appealed to you about working for staff?
There’s a camaraderie, a sense of family. After year or two, you start to build bridges. My greatest passion at work was about staff and their concerns.
What was the CORE training like?
I had to go through defensive tactics in my mid 50’s. I had to run 1.5 miles and do pushups. It was hilarious.
What are some of the issues staff are dealing with?
The one that leaps out is the mandatory issue. People are just burnt, working two or three overtimes a week. It’s just stressful. You’re always on alert, working all kinds of hours. People are sleep deprived. It impacts them at work, and it impacts their families, which is my biggest concern.
Suicide is also a giant issue in corrections. I’ve had the privilege of working with some folks who were going through difficult times and have helped them travel through that. The other one is probably grief. We all have losses, and very few people have a clue about how to deal with it.
That’s something I’ve worked on through failures in my own life. So I can have a lot of impact with people who have just lost someone or are going through the grief process.
Given the chronic staffing shortages in the prisons, how are people holding up?
I’m shocked how well staff have done with it. They’re burnt, but when I go up to the prison – I love to go up there at shift change – they come in laughing and joking together. Now if you ask them how things are, they’re going to tell you that it's bad. But to see them having that kind of spark when they’re coming into work – that’s quite a special group of people.
What makes corrections staff so special?
They’re stronger than your average customer. I love working with them because they’re so resilient. Even if they’re totally upside down, you give them a couple of tools and they start getting back. And they do it quick. They have a healthiness. You may look at them and not see it. But I experience it all the time. A lot of them are heroes. And when you can help them out a little bit, they spring forward. It’s very rewarding.
What’s important for someone to know who might be going through a tough time?
You have to realize you’re on a team. You have to know what your focus is because it can be confusing in corrections, and you have a lot of people pulling you in different directions. That connection with your team is outrageously important because it gives you the resilience you need to help you through it. That camaraderie - knowing my brother, my sister has got my back - there’s a powerful antioxidant in that.
After a change in careers moved him from the telecommunications industry to DOC, Desmond has found what he calls his "dream job".
We've heard some people might be hesitant to come talk to you because you work for the State. Is that a challenge you've faced?
It's a natural concern, and we all recognize it. That’s why we never take notes. We don’t do any paperwork because people don’t trust the State. We have to protect our clients. We work hard on that.
You were one of the people who spearheaded getting recognized as Teamsters.
Absolutely, it was fun. I did it for staff. To be a part of Teamsters is to be much more aligned with them. That makes a huge difference. I was talking with a staff member who was going through a challenging time, a very emotional time. I said, “Have you talked to Teamsters about this?” They said, “I’m contacting them right now.” I said, “You know, I’m a part of Teamsters and that’s a good avenue for you.” Teamsters provides such a valuable role in that whole relationship.
What do you like to do outside of work?
My grandchildren are certainly formative. I have organizations that I’m a part of, I do pro-bono work, and I love to be outside. I love to be hiking, I love to be camping, I love to go to Wallowa Lake, I love to go to the ocean. Periodically, I get back to the East Coast to see my family. I have a very full life.
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