|By Safe Call Now® Peer Advocate - Captain Tammy Norton|
The public watches many new TV episodes these days of “Orange is the New Black” or “Prison Break” and they wonder, what is it really like to work in a prison setting? Sean prompted me to write a piece for the blog and intimidated I was, not because I didn’t have plenty to say, I have worked in prison settings for the past 21 years-I just didn’t know how to say it.
When you hire on as that new Correctional Officer you never know until you walk through those gates that lock you in-and THEM out-how you are going to feel about this new career choice you have made. I have seen many new recruits turn around and head straight back out the gate once they heard the sounds of the locking mechanisms that are prevalent in my work environment-slam shut. T.V. can’t describe that feeling you get when you are outnumbered 200 to 1 and all you carry is a set of keys, a radio, and if you are lucky, a small canister of pepper spray.
In our profession, we manage the worst personalities that society has deemed unacceptable to maintain in a free environment and we place them all together. We are expected to act in a professional and non-judgmental demeanor to deal with individuals who have committed atrocities against children, other law enforcement officers or members of their communities and maintain safe and secure yet humane environments for them to reside-protecting them and us from each other when necessary.
The stresses of this environment are numerous from shift work, threats of violence from the offender population to either you or another offender, demands and manipulations of the prison culture or everyday difficulties of working with a negative environment or co-worker. Correctional officers also suffer poor public image, lack of relief to access vacation leave time, lack of natural lighting due to ancient construction of most systems and the physicality and nature of the job. Officers are expected to carry equipment, walk and stand on concrete floors or go down on these same floors when necessary to stop an altercation or in defense which can lead to chronic neck/back and knee problems for the individuals, so the normal 9-5 work day does not apply in this profession.
A significant amount of your workforce in this career are “Type-A” personalities. “Type A” individuals tend to be very competitive and self-critical. They strive toward goals without feeling a sense of joy in their efforts or accomplishments. Inter-related with this is the presence of a significant life imbalance. This is characterized by a high work involvement, but these individuals rarely-if ever will ask for help in certain areas.
When you work in a prison environment you know you have to rely on your fellow officers for assistance at any given time, so asking for that assistance has been second nature yet in this culture stress, substance abuse or PTSD are the secrets many will die from rather than reveal.
I got sober at the age of 26, 5 years before I began my life sentence in the correctional field. I can remember at a meeting a fellow recovering alcoholic told me-do NOT take that job, correctional officers are all drunks and you will drink over it! I have to admit in my 26 years of sobriety the job hasn’t made me want to take a drink- yet it has pushed me to help other responders who hold the secret of alcohol addiction, substance abuse, depression or PTSD symptoms, so tight that at times the pain is too great and they end their lives rather than ask for help or allow anyone else to see what they perceive as a “weakness”.
Correctional departments across the country are attempting to promote “Officer Wellness” programs-they offer weight watcher meetings at work, give discounts and incentives on gym memberships yet still ignore they have a workforce plagued by stress, depression and substance abuse to deal with the everyday negativity of a job, prescription addiction due to numerous job injuries or surgeries or the constant hyper-vigilance you develop when you are surrounded by manipulation, deceit and threats of violence. This feeling you have doesn't end at the end of your shift-when you exit that closed environment and say take your family out to dinner or to a mall-you are hyper-alert to everyone around you. You constantly scan the environment for threat-is that person a child molester,-hey didn’t I just release that guy last week? You never relax.
Now is the time for us in the correctional field and as an organization to recognize and reach out to those officers in need. The time for shame and secrets has cost to many men and women their lives. Ignoring those staff that comes into work every day with alcohol on their breath, or displaying depressive or irrational behavior in hopes they will “get their shit together” should be in the past. Administrators and organizations have to make asking for help less judgmental, communicate about resources, offer assistance and support so those staff know they are valued and not alone. Now is the time to offer that back-up we all desperately depend on at times of crisis-because at the end of the day…..one life lost due to fear of letting anyone else know you are in pain…is one too many.
Captain Tammy Norton