Correctional Staff Wellness

DC Public Safety Radio

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See the radio show at http://media.csosa.gov/podcast/audio/2015/06/correctional-staff-wellness-virtual-nic-conference-on-june-10/

Leonard: From the nation’s capital, this is DC Public Safety. I’m your host, Leonard Sipes. Correctional staff wellness, ladies and gentleman, is our topic today. It’s a hot topic in today’s criminal justice system. There’s going to be a virtual conference on the topic offered by the National Institute of Corrections on June 10th from 10 AM to 3 PM eastern standard time. I’m going to give you a couple contact points and I’ll give them to you throughout the course of the program. Go to NICvirtualconference.com, not .gov but .com. NICVirtualconference.com, 800-995-6429. 800-995-6429.

To discuss correctional staff wellness, we have two individuals with us today. We have [Maureen Bule 00:00:51] and Roy McGraff and I want to read a short piece of bibliographic information on both. Maureen has been with the National Institute of Corrections since 2001 and leads in IC’s justice involved women’s initiative and the development of evidence based and gender informed policy. Additionally, she manages a compassion and fatigue and secondary trauma initiative which addresses the impact on stress and fatigue on correctional staff and their families. We have Roy McGraff. Roy began his career in 1984 as a security specialist in the United States Air Force. Upon discharge, he joined the Oregon Department of Corrections where he served as Sargent for 20 years. Roy is proactive in improving correctional worker health and safety. Roy was also selected as a panel member for a National Institute of Justice sponsored conference in 2014.

To Marine and Roy, welcome to DC Public Safety.

Maureen: Thank you, Leonard.

Leonard: This is …

Roy: Good to see you, Leonard.

Leonard: This is a topic that is of extreme importance to all of us in the criminal justice system, and it applies to law enforcement. It applies to parole and probation. That is the topic of staff wellness which is the point of the conference correct, Maureen?

Maureen: That’s correct.

Leonard: Okay, so the whole idea is to recognize that this does exist. The fact that correctional officers, parole and probation agents as well as law enforcement officers stress, trauma, what it is that they experience, and what it is that they go through effects them, affects their jobs, and effects their families. Either one of you.

Maureen: That’s accurate.

Leonard: Okay, that’s why we’re having the conference. Do you ever get the sense that, because I do, law enforcement seems to be 90% of this discussion. Law enforcement officers and stress, especially over the course of the last six months, how it effects them, how it effects their job, how they respond to themselves, how they respond to communities, how they respond to people caught up in the criminal justice system. It’s all law enforcement officer stress, but I would dare say that the balk of the criminal justice system are correctional officers, parole and probation agents and yet nobody talks about that, am I correct?

Maureen: That’s true, Leonard. I think that it’s a little bit different issue within corrections than it is within law enforcement. There’s a lot of similarities, but I think that corrections is a profession that’s just not that well understood by the public, by even the folks that are coming in to do the work. I think that there’s a lot of surprises, how intense and how emotional the work can be.

Leonard: Going into a prison every day, you’re ordinarily there with 50 people who are locked up, 50 inmates. The ratio that I’ve seen is either 50 to 1 or 100 to 1. You’re basically there by yourself and your verbal ability to do the job, your verbal ability to handle situations, I mean it’s not you and a 100 other correctional officers. It’s just you surrounded by a bunch of inmates and whatever goes down, you’ve got to handle it and handle it cognitively, handle it verbally, you’ve got to use your own personal finesse to handle that. That takes a tremendous amount of agility and talent to be able to pull that off, and that’s incredibly taxing. Roy, talk to me about that.

Roy: The ratio is 224 to 1.

Leonard: Thank you for correcting for me.

Roy: It’s okay. That’s half of a shift, and yeah, it is. It’s not just verbal, it’s the presence, it’s the mindset. You get evaluated all day long. These are people, but it’s their thinking, it’s their processing, it’s their criminality and so you’re the lighthouse in this ocean of turmoil, and you have to be on all the time. You don’t get to have a down day or down time or they take advantage of you. It does take high stress, and then there are the things that these are the people that did really, really bad and society said, “We don’t want you out here anymore.” They put them in with us. They put them there and then we go in and try to lead, but they’re still doing bad things while they’re in there. It is hidden. It is out of sight, out of mind.

Law enforcement’s in the public. I’m not saying … We are part of law enforcement. The police officers are in the public eye. If we were in the public eye like they were, I think we would get as much attention, but we don’t. We don’t talk about it. We are the silent majority. It is really sad. Law enforcement, police officers have a lot of funding, where it’s corrections doesn’t if you look on the websites. We hardly get anything that we can get funding for, but Homeland Security gives money like it’s going out of style to police officers. Yeah, there is a huge discrepancy and it needs to change and I’m glad to see this conference and things like it moving forward.

Leonard: Every day in a correctional setting, you are tested, correct, by a lot of inmates? They will try to trick you. They will try to fool you. There are implied threats. There are implied benefits. Everyday is verbal judo in the correctional setting, and as you’ve said, you’re surrounded by hundreds of inmates and it’s just you and your ability to pull it off.

Roy: Yes, absolutely, and you build a reputation from day one. It either gets reinforced or it gets changed. Hopefully it gets improved over time. My reputation hopefully, other inmates help influence the new ones, you don’t want to mess with that guy. Still, even after 20 years of working with guys in my unit that I’ve known for 20 years, I got a lifer unit, and there’s still guys there that will try every single day to have an advantage and try to manipulate me and try to get what they want. Yeah, it’s every single day.

Then you got to go home and you got to try to re-adapt to being home after having that different mentality up for 8 hours, sometimes 16 hours. Depending on what state you work in, you might have worked six days in a row, 14 days in a row, because it’s a right to work state and you’re told when you need to go work and where you’re going to work and how long you’re going to work.

Leonard: Again, the conference, the virtual conference on the topic of correctional staff wellness offered by the National Institute of Corrections on June 10th, 10 AM to 3 PM. Again, NICvirtualconference.com. Maureen, why this topic right now?

Maureen: Well, again, I was saying earlier that corrections is a very, very tough profession and it’s not just the folks that work in the institutions and the prisons and the jails. This is also experienced by folks in the community, probation and parole officers. Roy, you just made a point, and I was interviewing a Sargent out of the Iowa Department of Corrections, and he gave me this great quote. He said, “Corrections and stress is like a game of ping pong. You serve it up to offenders and they serve it back to you, game on. If you’re not careful, you continue this when you get home, you will serve it up to your spouse and kids, game on.”

Leonard: You can’t leave the job. The job doesn’t suddenly disappear when you walk out of those gates. I mean I’ve never walked out of a prison in my life where I did not thank God for my ability to walk out of that prison. You can’t simply leave it behind. It stays with you.

Maureen: It does stay with you, and I think that’s the point that we’re trying to make and I know that Roy will talk more about his own experience in terms of really addressing this within his organization, but I just want to say that one of the things that we know within this profession is that we’re spending a lot of time talking about evidence based research and working with offender populations to improve outcomes. Within that, we’re not talking about how this impacts the staff and I’ve had staff across the country say, “This is great information you’re giving us, but what about us?” This is a very tough job, and if I can just throughout a couple pieces of data which I think are pretty interesting.

Leonard: Please.

Maureen: There’s research that’s emerging on this topic and one of the research reports out there talks about the most extreme manifestation of un-addressed staff, un-addressed stress within correction staff is staff suicide. Researchers in New Jersey found in 2009 when controlling for gender and age, COs had more than twice the suicide rate of police officers. In another study, COs were found to have a 39% higher suicide risk than the rest of the working age population. I mention that because it just shows how intense the work is. There’s a lot of folks that do have the balance in their life and can go home and separate it, but it’s tough.

Leonard: Well, correctional officers and I would imagine falling not terribly far beyond on that, parole and probation agents/police officers, they’ve been described as having the most dangerous and difficult jobs in America. Then we also talk about the institutionalization effect. What happens to inmates that are caught up within prison systems. Roy, the question is going to go to you, you said a little while ago, you guys are serving life. You guys are serving a life sentence, because if it’s difficult for the inmates and it has a psychological impact on them, it has a psychological impact on you and your coworkers as well.

Roy: Yes, for the rest of your life. We don’t look at society the way that the rest of the population does. You’re right, we don’t get to leave it at the door. Our way of thinking, our way of acting, our interaction with our families and our friends and society in general is completely changed. It’s probably closest to PTSD or prisoner of war surviving and coming home, you are changed forever.

Leonard: It doesn’t leave, that’s the bottom line.

Roy: Yes.

Leonard: I do want to talk more and sensitive individuals to the issues that are unique to corrections and the reason why we’re having the conference on June 10th, but once you get everybody there, what are they going to learn? I would imagine that there are techniques to help correctional officers, parole and probation agents deal with the stress that they encounter on a day to day basis correct?

Maureen: Yes, that’s true.

Leonard: Tell me about those.

Maureen: Well, I think that we’re looking a number of different things. We’re certianly making available the research on this topic to just get administrators and leadership onboard with this. I think that there will be a lot of discussion around how you just care for yourself as an individual in terms of how you eat, how you spend your free time, how you interact with your peers and your family. There’ll be discussion around some stress relief techniques, how important it is to engage in interests or hobbies that have absolutely nothing to do with criminal justice or corrections. I think one of the things that’s also important to point out is that not only does this issue impact the individual, but it also impacts organizations, it impacts administrations, and there’s a saying that the culture’s in the walls. If you have an organization where this is not attended to and we talk about staff being our most valuable resource, you can anticipate high rates of sick leave, disability, and I think that’s why it’s so important that leadership really become proactive about paying attention to this.

Leonard: Not dealing with it has it’s cost.

Maureen: Sure does.

Leonard: That’s the bottom line behind all of this. It has its costs in terms of, as you just said, sick leave. It has its cost in terms of psychological adjustment. It probably has a cost in terms of lawsuits and accusations of unnecessary use of force or illegal use of force within correctional facilities. All of that is in play unless individuals have a healthy work life balance and unless you deal with the stressors that occur within correctional facilities. Roy, did you want to take a shot at that?

Roy: Yeah, so, the ACOS, the American Correctional Officers Association, the biggest thing for us is we’re not like the rest of the population. We are more aligned with the police officers. We die between the ages of 59 and 62 on average. The last study put out by Florida showed that. So everything is skewed. We have to be proactive in making sure that our life is in balance and that we’re keeping that stuff up front, and Maureen’s absolutely right. It is an organizational thing along with an individual thing that has to be all the way around, because our lives are shorter.

Leonard: The first thing we need …

Roy: We have to do more.

Leonard: The first thing we need to do, Roy, is to get administrations to admit that there’s a problem, correct?

Roy: We have to get them to do more than lip service. We have a lot of lip service across the nation about, “Yeah, we’re aware of the problem. We’re talking about awareness.” We need them to do. We need them to put money and activity and change from what is the regular work style which is if you work for a state or federal agency, you work 8 hours then you go home and you just keep repeating the cycle. If health is so important then we’re going to have to pay people to go work an hour early or get off an hour or give them an hour lunch and let them shower so that they can get to the clinics together instead of putting it back on the individual, individual, individual. It has to be let’s do.

Leonard: Law enforcement agencies across the country are now saying this is an increasingly important issue. Yes, we have talked about it for a long period of time, but it’s clear that in some cases police officers experience the trauma of the street, they experience the trauma of their job and that trauma is taking its toll in terms of how they interact with individuals caught up in the criminal justice system, how they interact with neighborhoods and it’s not pretty. The results have not been pretty. We can see this on the law enforcement side. I would imagine that if we do not address it on the correctional side, the same things are happening or going to happen. If you have a person who is traumatized, how hasn’t dealt with it, who is under an enormous amount of stress, who hasn’t dealt with it, suddenly finds himself in a physical confrontation with an inmate, it could prove to be an ugly … I guess it could prove to be ugly by ignoring the issue of correctional officer stress, right?

Roy: Absolutely.

Leonard: We have to pay money, we have to do things, we have to invest in this topic or it has the possibility of getting out of hand and creating circumstances that we’re not going to be very proud of. Either one of you?

Maureen: Well, yeah, the circumstances can be certianly events that happen within an agency or institution or just a very unhealthy culture. I think the good news is that there are places around the country and, Roy, you can certainly speak to that within your state that have really begun to pay attention to this and have begun to create policy around the importance of correctional staff wellness, have been creating what we call peer support groups, peer to peer support within institutions, doing some of the things that Roy was talking about in terms of funding for little bit more balance in your life in terms of physical exercise, but I think that often times what happens is when this issue pops up, management or leadership may say, “Well, go to talk your EAP.” Your employee assistance personal counselor, and that really is not effective, because those folks are usually contracted to provide services and they really don’t know what goes on within an institution or within working with probation or parole. Roy, you’ve done some pretty interesting work with this Heart Set in Oregon.

Leonard: Okay, I do want to get in on the Heart Set, but we’re more than halfway through the program. Let me re-introduce the both of you and Roy, I’ll come back to you with that question and also talk a little bit more about the particulars of the conference.

Maureen Bule is with us today from the National Institute of Corrections, been there since 2001, a recognized leader in the area of evidence based and gender informed policy; also in terms of compassion fatigue and secondary trauma with people within corrections. Roy McGraff is also by our microphones via Skype. He began his career in 1984, served 20 years with the Oregon Department of Corrections and Roy is also active in this area. We are talking about a virtual conference from the National Institute of Corrections on correctional staff wellness. It is on June 10th from 10 AM to 3 PM eastern standard time. The two points of contact are NICvirtualconference.com. NICvirtualconference.com or 800-995-6429, 800-995-6429. We’ll repeat that at the end of the program.

Roy, what is Heart Set?

Roy: Heart Set is in a nutshell your ability to interpret the signals from your heart. Not just how fast it’s beating or what your blood pressure is, but does what your feeling … Is it in alignment with your thinking? You can simply go am I in harmony with what I’m doing or am I in conflict with what I’m doing? That’s what it comes down to. What your goal is to be in harmony with what is going with you. Correction officers a lot of times, we ignore that. We put a lock box on our hearts and we ignore them and then we get use to having that lock box on and we ignore it when we’re at home. It’s unlocking that thing, looking at it more than just a pump and realizing that we can use it to help make better decisions and work on that so that we improve our lives by realizing it. It’s crazy watching people argue with me and then they come back a couple months later and they go, “I get it. I get it. It’s starting to work.” They’re happier people.

Leonard: But what started the work specifically, Roy? What are they doing? Are they doing transcendental meditation? Are they doing stress analysis? Are they doing deep breathing exercises? Are they balancing their work and home life? What’s going on?

Roy: The ones that get it right away had more of an open mind about it, and they realize that, yeah, my heart is where all of my really good decisions come from. The ones that don’t get it initially argue, say, “You can’t use your heart. You’re going to get manipulated. You’re going to get used by inmates and everybody else.” Then they realize and they leave and they say that deep breathing and trying to align your thinking to get to where you’re at doesn’t work, but then they try it. Eventually it does. There’s always some event in their life where they have an aha moment.

With me, what I’m showing them is look, it starts out simple. All I need you to do is go beyond tactical breathing. Okay? I need you to go to deep breathing exercises using this little piece of equipment and you’re going to have to think at the same time that you want to be in a calm state. That you want to have good feelings and I need your breathing to go at the same time which requires you to focus on your heart rate. Once we get them to put all three of those in line, they realize that that’s what it takes to get there and that they can personally impact how they feel.

Leonard: All right, thank you. You’re talking about …

Roy: … More than just blood pressure.

Leonard: But you’re talking about people understanding, recognizing correctional officer stress, wellness, again applies to parole and probation, applies to law enforcement as well, but the tactic that you’re using is a matter of deep breathing exercises?

Roy: It’s that, it’s biofeedback so you can actually see it.

Leonard: Okay.

Roy: Then it’s the realization of what you’re doing and it’s being explained to you by somebody who’s been there and done that. It’s not by a clinician. It’s by another corrections professional and it doesn’t have to be a corrections officer. I’ve got people who are stressed out working in offices that work in the corrections field that have never been inside of a prison, and they’re stressed out because of the environments that permeate the department. They thank us for these techniques. It’s deep breathing, it’s part of a mediation level, it’s part of biofeedback, but all of those components are just to get a hold of them and get them to realize that this is real and they can use it to impact their lives right now both at work and at home.

Leonard: To either one of you, how many correctional agencies would you guess out there now that are really taking this to heart? Really looking at the stress levels of their officers and really trying to do something about it?

Maureen: You know, I don’t … I can’t put a number on it, Leonard, partly because there’s over … There’s well over a thousand prisons across the country and that 3300 jails, but I can tell you that when I’ve talked to some directors of corrections, they are very, very interested in this emerging topic. It’s been looked at I think for years as burn out. Burn out is when you’re just exhausted by doing the job, but we know that it’s much more than burn out. As Roy said, it’s often times PTSD.

Leonard: When I have walked into prisons, walked through prisons, interacted with correctional officers, sometimes spending shifts with them when I was with the Maryland Department of Public Safety, I was amazed as to how good they have to be. I was amazed. All the stereotypes of “prison guards” went out the window the first time I actually interacted with correctional officers in prisons. They have to be very good. They have to bring their A game every single day. It’s not like a law enforcement officer that you can run and escape it. You can get in your car and drive away from anything if you have a need to. In the correctional setting, you have no place to go. You have to deal with whatever is in front of you at that particular time. To do that intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, you’ve got to be on your … You’ve got to bring your A game every single day and nobody can do that.

The time I’ve spent with correctional officers, I said to myself, “It’s impossible for correctional officers to bring their A game every single day.” I walked away from my experience in corrections saying, “These are unsung heroes, number one, in many instances and number two, these are individuals that are prone to have lives that may not work very well because of the level of stress that they have to deal with.” Roy, am I in the ballpark or am I not?

Roy: Yeah, you’re absolutely in the ballpark. Once I realized this stuff about the Heart Set, and it’s not just it, it clicked on for me. Then I went back and people are saying, “Where’d you go? What’d you do?” I tell them and I’ve got staff that normally won’t ever talk to me and they’re going tell me more. Then all of a sudden, I turn into a counselor, because they’re going, “Look, my family life sucks. I’m looking for something. I’m thinking about quitting. I’m really in depression, do you think this will help me?” It’s like wow, there is a serious need out there for us to focus and give corrections officers and corrections employees as many tools and options to try to improve their lives so that they can be fulfilled like everybody else.

Leonard: Maureen, go ahead.

Maureen: If you can just add to that, Roy, I think one of the things that we don’t think about is that when you walk into the facility, you walk in with your life. You walk in with if you’re going through a divorce, if you’ve got trouble with in an illness with a child, if you’ve got financial problems, you walk in carrying that and it’s really hard to separate that sometimes. Add to that is that the environment particularly in institutions is … Often times when we have offices, we have something familiar to us, we have a picture or something like that, you can’t that bring that kind of thing into the institution. It’s a tough role and there’s a lot of sort of additional things that go along with it.

Leonard: I think it’s almost an impossible role even for parole and probation agents. Again, I keep saying that if you deal with an individual who’s constantly caught up in the criminal justice system, constantly caught up in drugs, not doing the right thing, interacting with that person’s family, trying cognitive behavior therapy to bring that person along and considering the fact that in most states, you have any where from 100 to 150 people on your case load, you’ve got the process a certain amount on any given day, wow. I think it’s a system set up for an enormous amount of stress and resulting dysfunction unless we chose to address to it.

Roy: Yes, for me, absolutely. The things that we don’t know right now and that I think one of the wellness conference goals is not to be reactive, but to be proactive and to address the issues all the way around from educating staff and families from the front and before you get into the career and that continually as you go along throughout your career and starting from the top and working our way down instead of saying, “Hey, go to EAP,” as the solution. Yeah, it has to be all of it, because you can’t be 100% all the time.

Leonard: Correctional officers, parole and probation agents, law enforcement officers, all of us have to believe that there are techniques that … We have to buy into the work life balance. We have to buy into the techniques and by and large, if we’re given that instruction, we’re willing to buy into the different things that we can do to reduce our levels of stress and trauma, right?

Maureen: I think that if you see it makes a difference with your peers who have been exposed to some of this work, I think that’s good advertising for it.

Leonard: Okay, one of the things I want to do before closing the program is also remind everybody that there is a virtual conference on this very important topic, correctional staff wellness. I can’t tell you how important of a topic it is. The National Institute of Corrections is doing a virtual seminar on June 10th from 10 o’clock in the morning to 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Go to NICvirtualconference.com, NIC, National Institute of Corrections, NICvirtualconference.com or 800-995-6429, 800-995-6429.

Ladies and gentleman, this is DC Public Safety. We appreciate your comments. We even appreciate your criticisms and we want everybody to have themselves a very, very pleasant day.

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