Balanced Life Is Essential to Healthy Staff Attitudes
Lester, Thomas L., Corrections Today
After managing treatment programs for inmates for 13 years in Oregon's Mental Health Division, I decided to take an assistant superintendent position at a medium security facility with the Department of Corrections. The mental health position was a good job, but I wanted to work in prison operations.
When I worked in the mental health field, I believed that all people have dignity, that change is possible in anyone, and that inmates are people who simply have progressed (or regressed) further along the line of criminal behavior and thinking than the rest of us. In other words, we all have the potential to be criminals, but we make decisions daily that keep us on the straight and narrow.
I wondered if these beliefs would change as time passed in my new position. Would I become more conservative, more like a hard liner? Would my everyday experiences fundamentally change me? Would I be a different person to my wife, my children?
Anyone who has worked in corrections has come across burned out staff who have given up both on the inmates and themselves. I did not want that to happen to me, but I was unsure of the forces I would encounter in my new position and how I would respond to them.
It has now been three and a half years since I joined the department. Has the experience changed me? Were any of my initial concerns realized? I think the answer is a qualified "yes."
I have noticed a tendency by some staff to view the inmate as something other than fully human. Sometimes those views are expressed overtly. For example, I have heard staff make statements such as, "Only animals would do something like that."
More often, such attitudes are conveyed in subtle ways. A typical statement might be: "What do you expect? He's an inmate." Staff try to differentiate between themselves and inmates and thus fall to recognize their similarities. Over time, this affects the way staff view and relate to inmates.
When one tours a segregation unit and looks deeply into the eyes of inmates, sometimes one sees a human being looking back. Other times, one sees nothing and realizes that human nature is a mystery that may never be fully understood. …