When I reported to my first prison, I remember driving down the picturesque country road in the lower Hudson Valley area of New York. I drove around a bend and suddenly there stood massive 40-foot concrete walls with tall towers looming over me. The first thing that came to my mind was, “What the f**k have I gotten myself into?”
I doubt I’m the only new correctional officer who has had this reaction. People would ask me, “Does being a correctional officer change you?” It took me a long time to realize that yes, being a correctional officer would have life-changing effects on me and that it was imperative I take steps to make sure that what happened inside those walls didn’t haunt me on the outside.
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I truly can’t complain about the career itself—it pays well and the benefits are good. No correctional officer is becoming a millionaire, but if you’re disciplined about finances, you can live a comfortable life. However, this job can take a huge toll on a person in unexpected ways. New and veteran officers alike must prepare themselves for the momentous stressors they will inevitably face.
Starting Off as a Correctional Officer
As a new officer, I did not know what to expect at all. I was in my early twenties and this was my first “real” job. After shadowing a more experienced officer for about a month, I was cut loose on my own. I was suddenly responsible for things! About 10 minutes into my first solo shift, I had an inmate tell me that he was going to kill me. I put on a tough smirk, but I don’t think it worked very well. I think he probably saw through it. But I did not die that day.
However, I remember realizing as I clocked out for the day that there is absolutely no guarantee I will clock out on any given night. While there are a million ways that I could die—a tree could fall on my car on the way to work—I had chosen a career where I was purposely going to a place that housed convicted murderers, and some of them might want to kill me too. It is a reality I’ve never taken lightly.
You Will See Bad Things
Throughout my career, I’ve seen plenty of violence and horror. At one maximum-security facility where I worked, I saw an inmate get cut so badly that his face was essentially split into two sections. I have seen numerous cell fires and chaotic large-scale fights involving a lot of inmates (although the majority of them are small fights that can be broken up).
I have seen inmates die naturally and not so naturally. I’ve cut inmates down who have hung themselves. I’ve seen lots of inmates die from communicable diseases whether it’s AIDS, Hepatitis C, or another of the many infectious diseases that are common among inmates. As a correctional officer, you become obsessed with taking precautions to prevent getting—or spreading—disease. I wash my hands incessantly all day and always take my boots off before walking in the house.
Working in Corrections Will Change You
After a few years of being a correctional officer, one night my wife told me that I had become a real a**hole. And she was right. I didn’t even realize it had happened—I had become a different person—and that was the truly scary part. Being a correctional officer does change you. I had changed and apparently everyone had noticed but me.
The toll this job takes on a person can be devastating. As discussed by Dr. Michael Pittaro, a criminal justice professor at American Military University, correctional officers have a suicide rate that is twice that of the rate of the general public. One study that Dr. Pittaro cites from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries found that suicides among correctional officers are likely much higher than reported because such statistics only include suicides that happen in the workplace—not ones that happen at home or elsewhere. Sadly, I know of three officers who have taken their own lives, one of whom did so while on duty.
Suicide is often the culmination of the many stressors that plague correctional officers. Pittaro also cites a 2013 U.S. Department of Justice’s Programs Diagnostic Center Study that found most correctional officers experience some level of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during their careers. The stress of working in corrections contributes to the fact that, on average, correctional officers don’t live to see their 59th birthday. Such statistics should make every correctional officer pause and evaluate how they are dealing with the many stressors so they too don’t become another statistic.
Healthy Ways to Manage Stress
In the academy, the advice I was given about managing stress was to “leave it at the gate” or just do your “eight and the gate.” However, I had no idea how to just forget everything that had happened during the workday. After you have human waste thrown on you, or have cut down yet another inmate hanging from the bars, it’s really hard to just “let it go.” I have yet to meet another correctional officer who can do just “eight and the gate” without taking conscious steps to deal with their stress.
Here are some of the ways correctional staff can cope with the stressors of the job so they don’t get burned out, have it negatively impact their personal lives, or worse:
- Talk it out. Find someone you trust to talk about the things that are affecting you. I found that my wife was not very receptive to my war stories and it actually made her stress and worry more. There is absolutely no shame in seeking out a professional therapist or psychiatrist to help you de-stress. I know, only crazy people go to shrinks, right? Not true. These professionals are trained to listen to you and give you guidance on how to overcome some of the demons. Do not let your ego or pride get in the way of seeking professional help. However, if you don’t want to see a professional, try your local clergy. Whatever your faith may be—whether it’s a pastor, priest, Imam, rabbi or other—turn to them for guidance. They will listen and guide you, and it typically only costs a small donation in return.
- Find a hobby. You have to enjoy your life. Why else would you do what you’re doing to support it? Make a point to find a hobby you enjoy. Perhaps it’s re-building Volkswagen Beetles, collecting rare coins, hunting, fishing or coaching – it doesn’t matter what it is. Just find something to get involved with that can easily take your mind off things.
- Work to keep friends who are not in corrections. You will always have a strong bond with fellow officers and staff because they’re people who go to battle with you, but don’t only have friends from work. Make an effort to stay in contact with old friends and those who do not work in corrections. This will allow you to talk about things other than work. When you are not at the prison, why talk about it? While it’s true that people come in and out of your life and we all get busy, there are things you can do to nurture friendships. Make a concerted effort to stay in touch—a simple text can go a long way. Make plans to get together and follow through. It’s not always easy, but having good friends outside of your job can make a big difference. It will serve you well to have friends who don’t remind you of work.
Taking the steps above can be hard. Sometimes you need an event or a memorable moment to gut-punch you into actually doing something. Remember how my wife told me that I had changed, and not for the better? That was the moment I realized if I kept doing what I was doing, I could lose her, the kids, and the life we had built. And that truly scared me.
I knew I had to do something to make sure the toxicity of the job didn’t affect my personal life. The first thing I did was stop talking about anything related to work when I was at home. To this day, I very consciously don’t discuss anything work-related after walking through my front door. Instead, I turn to clergy as well as some close friends if I find I need to talk it out and vent.
I have also found my hobby or Zen place, so to speak. For me, I find peace through learning and reading, so I decided to continue my formal education. Not only was this beneficial for my mind and my resume, it is a great example to my children that learning never ends.
I also make time to go to my kids’ soccer practice, Boy Scout meetings, or Aikido practices and just spend as much time with my family as possible. These family activities fill my mind with positive thoughts and allow me to relax. I’ve found that when I attend these events, I can let my guard down, even just a bit, which has allowed me so much more enjoyment in life. Slowly, the walls I put up to protect myself have come down and allowed me to make room for more important things in my life.
It took me too many years into my career to consciously realize that I had to put my family first. I do what I do as a correctional officer because I want to serve my community and make it a safer place—for my family! This realization and renewed focus actually helped me become more tolerant of the monsters behind the walls because I know what I’m doing is ultimately for the benefit of my family. For them, I’m willing to keep walking through the gates.
About the Author: Jason Whitehead has served as a correctional officer with the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision since 2005. He has also been an Adjunct Professor in Criminal Justice at Morrisville State College since 2016. He has a Master’s of Intelligence Studies with a Concentration in Criminal Intelligence from American Military University. He also has a Bachelor’s of Technology in Criminal Justice from Morrisville State College and an Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Onondaga Community College. To contact him, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.