Dear Corrections Employee,
The wife of a corrections officer once told me, “When my husband got a job at the Department of Corrections as a Corrections Officer, I had no idea that it was a package deal—that we’d be signing up too, as a family.”
Since then, I’ve heard similar statements expressed by other family members of corrections staff as they navigate through the uncharted waters of their loved one working in corrections, and while trying to understand and adapt to changes in their life as a family.
More often than not, your spouse and your other family members enter into the world of corrections uninformed and unprepared for the toll this occupation can take on you, and by extension on them, and the changes they will be experiencing in their home life as a result of your job demands.
Your family members are happy that you will have a steady paycheck with benefits. They are thrilled to hear that your paycheck could be augmented through the pay differential of shift work, through working on holidays, and through overtime. But they do not yet know how these work conditions translate in real life, or how they can affect your family life and your well-being.
Your family members usually do not know or understand:
- that, when you enter the corrections workforce, they too will be entering a world with its own language and its own rules, a world which operates on basic assumptions that are vastly different from those of the free world
- that in the corrections world things happen that are so far out of the ordinary, that if they were told to people on the street, many would just refuse to believe them
- that your family’s established rhythms, traditions, and practices will be affected by the nature and demands of corrections work, and what may be needed to address that
- the lifestyle changes that shift work, overtime and changing schedules bring, and they are not mentally and practically prepared for the sacrifices that these changes require
- that the corrections mindset will come home with you, and that, in addition to you acquiring desirable new skills, you might also be shaped negatively by the job, and so become someone quite unlike who you used to be prior to starting your corrections career
- your department’s policies and procedures, your administrative regulations, your work circumstances and details, the work jargon you use
- what it is like to work all night and try to sleep during the day
- the power dynamics of the paramilitary rank structure that is now your workplace
- that their ability to intimately “connect” with you may be impacted as time goes by, possibly eventually you two becoming strangers to one another at the emotional level (Explaining to your partner what life behind the walls or in the field is like often proves to be too unpleasant to you, too energy consuming or too difficult to do. And you don’t want to be talking about work when you are home. You also do not want to scare or traumatize your spouse, or you cannot discuss a case under investigation. So, conversations might tend to stay shallow, superficial, with you typically answer the question, “How was your day?” with “Fine,” regardless of what has actually happened that day at work. After a while, your spouse may feel like they do not know you anymore, and/or they may stop asking you questions)
- your being chronically physically and emotionally exhausted, and not having the energy or motivation to do much when off work; why you no longer want to engage with the children like you used to do (And your spouse may get angry at you about that)
- why you are steadily gaining weight, with your blood pressure and blood sugar readings no longer falling in the normal range
- why you are becoming more impatient, irritable, or prone to anger outbursts for no apparent reason (Your spouse may snap back at you, resulting in verbal clashes that you are likely to win, just because you are well practiced at doing so at work. Only the victory at home comes with a steep price tag of emotional distancing and something dying inside after each such fight. And the fact that your fuse keeps getting shorter may quite simply scare your loved ones. As a result, they may avoid spending time with you or discussing sensitive or controversial family needs and issues, again leading to emotional distancing and disconnection)
- why you have increased your alcohol or tobacco consumption, or why you now engage in other compulsive and escapist behaviors, such as excessive playing of video games, gambling, or online sexual activities
- why you have developed gallows humor that may be appalling to them, rendering you not very likeable to them, and perhaps even repulsive
- why the sky-rocketing, shocking to them increase in your use of profanity, often regardless of who is present;
- why you are becoming harder, more calloused, or judgmental of others (Your stinging comments about people stun them: “What happened to the person I married?”)
- why you seem to be indifferent when you hear about instances of harm befalling on people, and your apparent lack of compassion (A spouse once asked me, “Does this come with the job, or is he just heartless?”)
- why you talk to strangers curtly, perhaps even aggressively, apparently assuming the worst about them (Your family members may be embarrassed by your behavior, thinking that you are being unnecessarily mistrusting, biased against certain groups of people, and no longer kind, considerate or objective, which can lead to friction between you)
- why you talk down to them in ways that they find to be demeaning, insulting and hurtful, ordering them around and trying to control their every move, sometimes even using the very same language with them that you would at work with individuals you manage
- why you are becoming increasingly stricter with your children, overly worried about their safety, laying down rigid rules, and running background checks on their friends and their parents (Your spouse cringes when you say things like, “I’ll make sure that none of MY kids ever become inmates!”)
- your objections as to why they must not go to certain places or associate with certain people (They find your increasing concerns about danger and your pervasive mistrust of people to border on paranoia that interferes with normal social functioning)
- why you turn down invitations to family gatherings, school events, or other social activities (They may end up going alone, feeling more like a single parent than a partner in a marriage, raising the children and running the household on their own—no longer enjoying the teamwork they used to have with you)
- why you are starting to show signs of serious anxiety, alcohol abuse, depression, or post-traumatic stress
- why you cannot get through a sleep cycle without thrashing, yelling, kicking and punching in your sleep (This happens so often that even sharing the bed with you—when they get to do that—becomes an issue).
My clinical and training experience with corrections families is that if these issues are left unaddressed, they will eventually hurt marriages and parent-child relationships.
Families cannot continue with life as usual after one of them hires on in corrections. Proactive measures, preparation and new learning are needed to protect your most valuable earthly investment—your family.
I believe that it is also imperative, and a moral obligation, that corrections agencies help equip adult corrections family members with effective strategies for dealing with the “bleeding” of correctional work stressors into family life.
Helping corrections families is not simply something to be addressed haphazardly, as an afterthought, or once a year during a Family Day. Rather, this goal must be pursued rigorously and systematically, starting on graduation day at the Training Academy.
Doing so is truly a win-win both for employees and their families, and for the agencies for which they work. Employees and their family members should be handed “hazmat suits” to wear as they tackle correctional work stressors. And agencies would benefit because an unhealthy family life will inevitably mar work performance and even employee retention.