I started as a state correctional officer at MCI Norfolk medium-security prison in Massachusetts in May of 1982 and left the department in 1998. In 1988, I helped co-found the Massachusetts Correctional Officers Federated Union, and served on the executive board for nine years. During my tenure, I started connecting with the officers around the country, sharing universal concerns and addressing issues we all have in this business. Utilizing those connections, I set up a network called the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network, which I’ve run since the mid-nineties. Recently, I merged my organization with One Voice United, founded by Andy Potter, a retired correctional officer out of Michigan. Our two organizations have very similar concerns, and it seemed like a perfect fit to put the two together. In August I assumed the position of National Director for One Voice United.
We often come to this job for the economic necessity, for the benefits. By my second year, I loved what I was doing and thought I was doing something good for society. When I first started, Officers had a say. If there was a classification hearing, when the inmate was going to be considered for lower security, they would bring us in and ask for our opinion. The same used to be true for disciplinary or parole hearings, our opinions mattered. We don’t do any of that anymore. We are just warehousing. We hold them until their sentence is done and try to make sure that no one gets killed. When one inmate tries to kill or injure another inmate, we get in the middle and stop it and usually neither one of them dies. Whether it’s an assault, a medical emergency, a fire or a riot we are the first, last and only responders behind those walls.
I became jaded by the system when I realized we’re not about correcting; we’re about making sure they don’t get out until they’re supposed to. That diminishes our roles as correctional officers. I started medicating heavily with alcohol to cope. After my fifth or sixth year, it started to get worse. I drank heavily for about five years. Being a CO is probably one of the toughest mental jobs there is. When I started, I ran a housing unit for 44 convicted felons and myself. When I left, it was up to 66. You’re in a constant state of hypervigilance where you must always be on, even with all the downtime. The biggest problem is that things can go from zero to 160 in seconds.
We have months on end of mundane routines doing the same thing every day. Then one day you come in and, five minutes after your shift begins, there’s a shank at your throat or one of your brother’s or sister’s throat, and you better be able to react properly and immediately. That type of stress takes a tremendous toll physically and mentally. We have a high suicide rate, twice the number per capita of what police officers have. We have 156 estimated suicides per year. It’s a very demanding job and we get no accolades. People don’t realize the toll that can take on us, especially since we don’t talk about it a lot.
Family and friends will tell me I’m not the same person I was when I started the job. I count the change now when I leave the store. If I go into a restaurant, once I sit down and I look around, I realize I have positioned myself so nothing can come behind me. It becomes instinct and that shouldn’t be natural. You don’t trust people like you used to, you start to believe everybody’s trying to con you, inmates and management. All we have left is each other. We won’t talk to our families about what we see and what we have to do on some days. It’s just not something you share at the dinner table. It builds up inside you and there’s very few release valves, thus the high divorce rates, alcoholism, substance abuse, opioid use, painkillers, in our ranks. It’s devastating. We have a 34% PTSD rate. That’s beyond epidemic and no one’s paying any attention to it. Maybe the only way anyone’s going to care is when they start to realize the economic cost, which is tremendous.
We now have 60% of the inmates coming into the prison system with mental health issues. We’re not trained in mental health. They shut down our mental health facilities in the eighties and at the same time they started the war on drugs. The increased population made the job so much more difficult and made rehabilitation virtually impossible. It affects our mental health, too. There are no movies or TV shows that show how we put our lives on the line for guys that may have been put away forever, but we get in there and we do that every day. Where are those stories? You never see that stuff. When you don’t have that type of recognition or any job satisfaction, it wears on you, it makes you feel worthless.
There is a lot of personal stress, not just PTSD we deal with. It’s not a disorder for us. It’s PTSI, it’s an injury. It’s a post-traumatic stress injury caused by the job. When you say disorder that implies that you have some personal control over that, like an eating disorder or alcoholic, that’s not the same here. This is a brain injury from the trauma we deal with day after day and what we see and hear, because we all work in the same basic environment. When you have an officer that is murdered or taken hostage in Colorado or Minnesota or wherever, that has a huge ripple effect throughout the entire corrections community. Every single one of us knows that next shift, it could be us, and our families know it, too. The trauma we suffer is not just individual, it’s collective.
Fortunately, I’ve never had suicidal thoughts, but I know people who have. I had a very good friend, a Sergeant. He was a trainer for one of the organizations I worked for. We were all at a conference and we started talking about wellness and he raised his hand. He told us about the day his son, who was also a correctional officer, walked in on him when he was sitting on his kitchen floor with a gun in his mouth. He was this happy-go-lucky guy. You never had any inkling he was dealing with demons. It floored us.
It opened the floodgates, though, and people started talking and that’s what we need more than anything. Our job says you can be small, you can be heavy, you can be tall, you can be short, you can be of any religion, race or gender, but you can’t be weak. When it comes to dealing with the stresses of the job it’s a catch 22. You need the help, but if you go to get help, you can lose your job. So, what do you do? 156 of us commit suicide. We drink ourselves to death. Many can become physically abusive. We all know when we sign on that this job comes with physical danger, but they don’t tell you about the danger to your mind and spirit. Over time you begin to lose your natural tendencies towards human empathy and compassion, a part of your humanity is slowly whittled away.
When you have 11 correctional officers die in the line of duty across the country each year, but you have 156 take their own lives, you have to ask, “where’s the real problem?” Is it the inmates? Or is it the job? It’s the job. But that’s good news, because that you can control, that you can change. That is what we’re trying to do now, and the first thing we must do is educate our managers and get them to change. In the culture of corrections, if you have a prison that’s run poorly, don’t look at the officers, look at management. The way we’re trained and the way a prison runs is a direct reflection of the people who run it, not the people who carry out the orders. Corrections is a paramilitary organization. Policies and decisions are made top down.
Surviving behind the walls comes down to respect. If you are firm, fair, and consistent and maintain a respectful relationship with the inmates most of the time that respect will be returned, you can also find out a lot of stuff that can save your butt. I remember one time at MCI Norfolk I had just arrived at my housing unit and was about to head upstairs to do a check. One of the inmates in the housing unit turned to me and mouthed the words “be careful”. Earlier that day when I was heading into work, I noticed there were more officers than normal in the parking lot. I thought it might be a training exercise, but when I went upstairs to roll call, we were told it was getting a little rowdy inside. We were warned that we may have a couple of situations and to be especially observant and cautious.
We hit the quad and there had to be maybe 300 inmates walking around. I went to my housing unit and relieved the officer on duty. I asked if he was going home, he said no, they were going to reassign them. I read my logbook, counted my keys, and made sure I did my check. Everything was good. I was about to make my round when the inmate mouthed those words to be careful. Just as I’m heading up the stairs the Lieutenant comes in and says “get your log, get your keys, lock the office door, and get outta here. Go and head to the ad building.” I did exactly what he said, and I remembered “be careful”.
As I’m heading to the ad building, I hear through the gates all the guys in their tactical gear coming in and behind them come the dogs. Behind them come the guys with loaded firearms. We took that place back in an hour. We had that place back under control. Not one person got hurt, not one officer, not one inmate. It took us two days to get the people who were really causing all the problems moved out of there. I didn’t go home for two days.
But no one got hurt and that is not something you hear about on the news. There is so much negative stigma of what goes on behind these walls. Bureau Justice statistics did a study on prison rape, and it comes out close to what you see on the streets. I am not downplaying it, it’s horrendous when it does happen. But most things people are told that go on in corrections are overblown and people judge us on that false narrative.
On a separate occasion I put myself in a situation that I had to think long and hard about for a long time afterwards. I was responding to a fight between two inmates and it could have cost me my life. About thirty inmates had surrounded the two combatants and I didn’t let my training take hold. I jumped in and pushed my way through when I should have waited for backup. I’ll never know if I emerged unscathed out of the respect I had in the unit or if it was just luck, but I was very fortunate that I didn’t have a real problem.
I’ve seen inmates come to an officer’s rescue more than once. The good stories are the inmates that don’t come back, when one of them makes it good. It’s also good to see the things that my brother and his sisters are doing that people don’t know about, like all the charity work. These people go out and work in their communities. I know when I was with the union in Massachusetts, we used to do an event every year for abused mothers and children. There’s a lot of good stuff that correctional officers do around the country that no one ever hears about.
I was lucky that in my personal life, my wife and I reconciled after being apart. I also stopped drinking. As of today, I haven’t had a drink in 13,14 years. I tried to stop before for my family, but if you’re an alcoholic, you’re an addict and unless you are ready to stop for you, you won’t stop. I’m grateful that I’ve had my sobriety and it’s a much better way to live, but I’m still a statistic when it comes to corrections in that the abuse got to me.
I hope that people will take a little more time and consider who we are and what we do. I wish we could mandate that politicians go to prison, go to a state facility or a county jail on a Friday or Saturday night. Make them spend four hours with line staff in uniform like a rookie and go to the chow hall, walk the yard, do a headcount. Then draft your legislation and make reforms because we want reforms too.
We don’t want these guys to come back, but we can’t do our job if we don’t have the staff or if we’re not trained to properly help with the rehabilitation process. So, let’s use the staff we have and train them properly and get staffing ratios to where they should be so that we can give these guys and gals a chance, so they don’t have to come back. Let’s take this opportunity of reform to de-escalate. Let’s take this chance to train our officers better, not just in hand-to-hand combat, which we need to know, but let’s train everyone in emotional intelligence, learning how to de-escalate situations quicker, better, faster, more consistently.
That’s what One Voice United is – a voice for reform for those who work there and as a result who live there. There are many areas where we want the same results as many other stakeholders do although our motivations may differ. Everybody in the reform movement thinks private prisons are a bad idea. Great, we do too, let’s get rid of them. Everybody in the reform movement agrees that inmates need more programs. Everybody agrees that we should separate the mentally ill inmates and put them in a situation where they are not in so much danger and they have a chance for success and to get treatment. We all want more effective training, better de-escalation skills and wellness programs that affect everyone in corrections. Those are reforms that Officers, the incarcerated population, families, and inmates’ rights groups agree with.
We need pre-hiring psychological screening, and the pay and benefits must be commensurate with what the job is. From day one, when they hit the academy cadets need to have a mentor, someone they can speak to about the problems behind the walls, about dealing with the internal bullying, and about the pressure of the catch 22 of not being weak and having someone to talk to. We must set something up for their families so that they have help, and follow our officers throughout their careers and train them every year in new de-escalation, emotional intelligence and stress coping skills. Then they can communicate better with the inmates and among themselves and make it a safer place for everybody.
We need a plan for those who will soon retire and ask them if they are interested in staying in the field, maybe mentoring children, maybe going to boys’ and girls’ clubs, or mentoring new officers that come on board. We must give retirees the psychological help they need. Our suicide rate after retirement is depressing. The estimated suicide ideation rate of retired correctional officers is 17%.
Mortality rates of correctional officers are between 59-61 years old. We give up nearly 20 years of our lives to do this job. The very least society can do is give us the tools to live a little bit longer and improve our well-being.