Working in corrections is a very complex endeavor. It’s difficult, boring, challenging, and full of contradictions. Are we cops, social workers, enforcers, or teachers? Actually, we are asked to be all these things. And while training has improved over the years, today’s correctional professional remains under-trained in some important areas and maybe over-trained in other areas.

People come into corrections for a variety of reasons, but most probably want to help on some level. We want to help protect society, be part of the law enforcement team, and maybe even help the offenders. Most corrections professionals begin their career with a positive attitude and an empathetic heart for humanity.

Unfortunately, after some well-intended training and a few months on the job, we quickly become jaded, cynical and may even feel to “fit in” we need to become more hardened in our approach. Becoming hardened may be the result of being hurt by offenders – physically injured or scarred from emotional and mental manipulation. We see hardened veterans who appear to be doing well and we tend to emulate their tough behavior. We may have even heard the words, “firm, fair and consistent” so many times that we forget working with people is a nuanced activity. Our attitude turns negative and our empathy for humanity begins to fade. After a few short years, we are disenchanted, grumpy and stressed. We become consistently angry or “hardened,” and it effects the way we manage ourselves in our social interactions. We’re just not as nice as we once were. Our family and friends see the change, but we may not want to hear that they no longer recognize us.

I was a decent corrections professional, which meant I was nice to people. I was blessed to have good mentors who taught me to communicate well, and keep a sense of empathy when working with offenders. I think I managed to stay pretty nice, most of the time, because that’s how I was raised. I was once told by a grumpy old veteran, “We never say please and thank you to offenders.” Of course, that’s not how I was raised to interact with other humans, so I discarded that notion and “please and thank you” served me well for over thirty years … thankfully. I believe now that being “nice” can actually save your life – now AND later.

Don’t get me wrong. Safety and security are always the priority, but how we achieve safety and security varies greatly with each situation. Certain situations dictate a more hardened and measured response based on policy and sound training. But, when possible, let’s try being nice.

I’m not suggesting we bend the rules, cross professional lines with the offenders, or become so soft that we give away the farm. Nice might just mean staying positive, and exhibiting an optimistic attitude. Maybe we smile a little, or at least save the grumpy face for when it’s really needed. Maybe we use positive language and empathetic tones, and refrain from name calling, swearing, and belittling comments. Maybe we practice a little empathy, and remind ourselves that offenders are humans, too. They often have mental health issues, and some have been hurt beyond measure. These are not excuses for crimes and bad behavior, just something we might consider when interacting with all humans.

I think most correctional professionals were raised to be nice people, which probably led us to public service in the first place. And over time we just lost sight of our better self. Sadly, at times, we may have even found ourselves sinking to an offender’s level of poor behavior. Give yourself permission to be your better self, again.

So why should I be nice? What’s it going to help? How’s it going to keep me safer?

I’m so glad you asked!

Treating offenders nice is not new. There have been offender programs for years that relied on more empathetic approaches … staff modeling positive behavior, communicating effectively, and even collaborating on plans so offenders might succeed upon re-entry. Isn’t successful re-entry the goal of corrections?

Real public safety is a low recidivism rate. Yes, it’s their responsibility and their actions that bring them back to jail and prison, but, while we have them, don’t we have an obligation to expose them to positive, prosocial possibilities? Don’t we have an opportunity to model decent language and encourage good behavior? We can be nice, even when they aren’t. It’s not hard, and we never know when it might pay off. Don’t tell me this only applies to Mental Health, Teachers, and Program staff. This obligation belongs to all corrections staff and you are either part of the solution, or you are part of the problem.

Beyond the benefits to offenders, being nice is good for YOU, the corrections professional. Being nice NOW is a simple conversation about shared safety. It’s not guaranteed, but the nicer, more respected staff are not usually the ones getting assaulted. Rather, they are often warned about pending problems, and can often be the staff who de-escalate situations. Again, this is not a guarantee. Nice staff still find themselves in tough situations, but the odds can be reduced.

The ripple effect of being nice is also a benefit to the entire team. It’s not unusual for a staff member and an offender to have an altercation that results in the offender taking his/her revenge on another staff member on another shift. So, if I’m not inciting offenders unnecessarily, I’m not likely to endanger my partners. (By the way, as an added bonus, the nicer staff may be passed over in this scenario, as the offender seeks to assault staff “they already don’t like.”)

It may be impossible to measure but, my experience informs me that grumpy staff end up writing more reports and using more force. This is not because nicer staff won’t enforce the rules or use force. I just think staff using positive communication skills are less likely to escalate situations. I never shied away from backing up my partners or responding to alarms, but there were times I wondered later if the responding officer’s sour attitude and negativity contributed to that conflict. Hard to say. Every unit has its grumpy staff, and you know who they are. The grumpy staff bring anger, negativity, and conflict. Sometimes they even enjoy it and brag about it. Nicer staff bring calmness. I was blessed by the fact that my early mentors taught me the value of correctional calmness.

Experienced corrections staff also know how a unit’s personality changes from shift to shift, day to day. The offenders don’t change, but the staff do. The staff – good or bad – have an influence on the atmosphere and the tension felt in the unit; it’s palpable. Often one grumpy officer or one power-hungry supervisor can make life miserable for everyone involved, staff and offenders. Staff complain about this in private, but often shy away from confronting a partner’s negativity. They usually think a supervisor should manage this, or they sink to the same level … presumably to fit in. For a group of brave people, and we are … we often fail to stand up to the bullies in our own ranks.

One other consideration for being nice NOW … If I can maintain my respectful, nice demeanor at work, I will have fewer stressful days and probably bring less stress home to my family. Maybe my home life will be less troubled, my relationships might be better, and maybe I won’t need a six-pack to wind down after each shift. That’s right, those problems we experience at home are not always someone else’s fault. We bring work home with us, more than we think.

And how will being nice save our life LATER? Later is after corrections, in retirement. In the Desert Waters’ training, From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment™, we discuss the cumulative effect of daily stress experienced by corrections staff. Decades of stress builds up and takes its toll on our life. If we can do our work peacefully, reduce some of the stress, and avoid some of those bad days, our accumulation of Corrections Fatigue might be reduced. Happiness and positivity also counter the unavoidable stress! Maybe we get to live longer and maybe the life we have left can be more enjoyable – free from health issues, isolation, strained relationships, substance abuse, sleepless nights, and exhaustion. If we can avoid bringing stress and negativity into our golden years, we just might live longer, happier lives.

I don’t know of any retired correctional professionals who don’t have scars from their years inside. These are sometimes real physical scars, but often they are mental and emotional scars from doing hard, stressful work in one of the most negative environments known.

Corrections work is often done with little or no real support along the way, and a complete erosion of our better self. We learned how to be hard and in retirement we begin searching for that good person we once were. Hopefully we live long enough to find that person again.

Be nice.