What It Is and How It Works
I still remember one corrections officer telling me that when he joined a corrections agency, other custody staff would not talk to him. But after he dealt with the murder of an incarcerated individual without blinking an eye – without showing any signs of emotional distress – he was warmly embraced by veteran staff and welcomed into the fold. He told me that the message he received that day loudly and clearly was that he should not show that he was bothered by anything he witnessed at work, no matter how gruesome. This officer went on to work for another 14 years in corrections, serving in the front lines. During the course of his (outwardly, at least) successful career, he went through two major relationship breakups, and he developed a dependence on alcohol and tobacco products, and a propensity to play violent computer games after work for 5 or more hours at a time, practically daily. He also developed and suffered from numerous post-traumatic symptoms for which he sought no professional help until they became incapacitating. Up until that point, the possibility of addressing his mental health struggles was not even a conscious option for him. This officer was operating under the oppression of the “I’m good!” code of silence.
When we hear the term “code of silence” most of us think of peer pressure to not report policy violations or any other type of professional misconduct committed by co-workers in criminal justice settings.
This article is about another kind of code of silence, the “I’m good!” code of silence, one that, sadly, may be of epidemic proportions in corrections and detention work settings.
The “I’m good!” code of silence is about peer and organizational pressure that staff experience to deny and cover up their personal distress and emotional turmoil, especially when these are due to the impact of the job.
This code of silence is just as damaging as any practice of a code of silence about professional misconduct, and, regarding its effects on staff well-being, it can be deadly.
Why Does the “I’m Good!” Code of Silence Even Exist?
Being emotionally impacted by the job may be viewed by staff in various workforce cultures as evidence of being “weak,” not worthy of respect, undependable in a crisis, and ultimately unfit for the job. Consequently, the peer pressure to conform to this standard of “I’m good!” is powerful.
This mindset typically starts at the Training Academy, where new recruits are essentially indirectly traumatized by viewing videos of assaults, riots and other incidents of violence, injury and death, and discussing the subject of inmate suicide, self-mutilation, or in-custody death due to overdosing on street drugs.
Yes, corrections/detention work is not for everyone. It is absolutely essential to train staff about what they might encounter in the workplace, and to evaluate as much as possible at this early stage who is ready for and capable of this type of work, and who is not. However, the fact that no attention is paid to the potentially traumatizing nature of such training communicates to the new recruits that the workforce culture’s norms are that they are expected to be impermeable to the traumatic content on the job. What is also communicated implicitly is that they should climb the learning curve quickly, and become desensitized to such exposures.
So new staff start out their careers operating under the assumption that if they are bothered by something they witness or experience at work, they’d better keep it to themselves, or else they may be rejected by their peers, become the object of ridicule, miss out on promotions, or even be considered unfit for the job.
In addition, because of the ever-present sense of potential danger in corrections workplaces, a perspective of “us against them” exists between staff and offenders, where each party views the other as a threat, and even as the enemy. When such an attitude of “us against them” is pronounced, that enmity leads to power struggles which dictate that, after a clash, staff not show that the offenders have succeeded in “getting to” them in any way. In order not to let offenders think that they have won a battle, the staff do whatever they can to look strong, invincible, impenetrable—no matter what they have seen, what they have endured, and how they have been affected. For example, an assaulted staff member may opt to tour their unit after their assault before leaving for a medical check or after returning from such a check, in order to show the offenders that they are on their feet and “unbroken.”
It should be pointed out that an attitude of resilience and hardiness” – keeping it together” – is necessary during and shortly after an incident of violence, injury or death, a near-miss, or the threat of such. Staff have a job to do, for which they have been trained. They need to remain in charge of the situation and respond quickly and professionally, follow policies and procedures, and remain functional, unruffled, unyielding, and in control in the face of danger or horror. In such situations, the staff’s ability to keep emotional reactions at bay – to “numb out” emotionally and not feel much – is useful and of value, as it helps staff operate and execute their duties effectively. And this stance conveys to offenders that staff are not incapacitated or cowering in fear, and that their spirits remain high.
However, at some point, and sooner rather than later, staff will need to receive support and “process” the impact of the event. This can be done by tapping into resources provided by their agency, such as peer supporters, chaplains, or behavioral health providers who specialize in treating psychological trauma, or through other means, such as talking with loved ones and friends, or engaging in expressive writing or spiritual approaches.
Oftentimes, though, no such support is sought or it may even be declined when offered, because of the “I’m good!” code of silence and the associated shame and fear of being regarded as “weak.” One correctional lieutenant I know spoke with contrition about the times he effectively shut down his team’s efforts to debrief after an incident by saying to them, “Yes, we can have the Crisis Response Team come talk to us about this, but we don’t really need to do that – do we?” Years later, due to his own personal experiences, that lieutenant understood and acknowledged the cumulative traumatic impact of the job, and regretted his stance with his subordinates.
It is also important to remember that corrections staff are usually not exposed to a single traumatic or otherwise high-stress incident only once in the course of their careers. On the contrary, the nature of their job includes exposure to multiple such events either directly, in real time, or indirectly—where they hear, read or view such incidents at a later time. As a result, the punch these incidents pack keeps adding up year after year.
Such are the inherent stressors and the inescapable realities of corrections work.
Yet, in workforce cultures where the “I’m good!” code of silence reigns, the prevalent expectation among corrections staff (especially custody staff) is that, when asked how they are doing following a critical incident, their answer will be: “I’m good!” Or, “I signed up for this. I trained for it.” Or, “It was just an inmate.” Or, “I don’t need to talk to peer support or a chaplain. I’m just fine.” Or, after they have been assaulted, “I don’t need to go to the hospital.” Or, “I want to come back to work tomorrow.” That is, after experiencing an extremely stressful event, staff may expect (and they may also be expected by their peers and by their supervisors) to “get back on the horse” immediately, or to not even fall off the horse in the first place, and to go back to performing their duties like nothing significant happened. “Just another day in paradise.”
Women staff, especially custody staff, can fall into the same trap, as they seek their male peers’ acceptance, to secure their place and sense of belonging on the team. In some ways, women staff experience even more pressure than the men to not show emotional distress on the job. Women staff have to overcome some male staff’s bias against them for working in a custody role. They also have to overcome concerns male staff may have that women may be too emotional and too empathetic, and consequently too fragile to do custody work – for example, that they may freeze and not fight when the battle is on. That is why women custody staff may have feel the need to prove themselves twice as much as men staff in order to be accepted as “good enough” and as “one of the guys.”
Separating the Real Deal from the Counterfeit
On the surface, saying “I’m good!” after a traumatic or high-stress exposure may look to some like the “real deal;” true resilience, true grit, toughness and strength to overcome adversity and to “bounce back.”
However, the staff’s claim of no adverse consequences of traumatic events may not be true resilience at all. In fact, some research has named this type of behavior “negative resilience,” false grit (Friedman & Higson-Smith, 2003).
Negative resilience has been defined as the appearance, the impression of bouncing back after traumatic exposure, when in reality those so exposed are coping poorly. Negative resilience is fake, a cardboard cut-out, an imitation – not the real thing. Negative resilience is typically driven by the belief that appearing to be “tough” under all circumstances, and not showing “soft” emotions, such as sadness or tenderness, are admirable goals to pursue if one wants to be successful in handling stress and danger the best.
Negative resilience has been attributed to “disenfranchised distress” (Friedman, & Higson-Smith, 2003). Disenfranchised means that the distress is present, but it is not allowed to be shown; its expression is banned, forbidden. That is, in corrections work settings, staff’s emotional distress due to the extremely stressful nature of traumatic events is not acknowledged or validated, it is not viewed as legitimate, understandable or acceptable.
Additionally, due to lack of training at their agencies and lack of trauma-responsive approaches in corrections workplaces, staff may simply not know how to handle the emotions and other changes that come with exposure to events of extreme stress. Their only recourse for coping may be firstly denial – “I’m good!” – which feeds the code of silence further, and secondly dissociation, that is, lack of awareness of one’s emotions and thoughts, or “checking out” through behaviors such as daydreaming. Both denial and dissociation are aided by practices based on avoidance, such as substance misuse and other addictive behaviors, and not focusing on the moment – both of which affect professional functioning.
The Damage It Causes
Because of the “I’m good!” code of silence, staff learn to experience unwarranted, unjustified shame about being human. They may be getting emotionally injured on the job, but they are confronted with the message that they should not acknowledge being hurt, and that such acknowledgment is shameful and unacceptable. They are even given the message that if they were strong enough, they would not get hurt in the first place. Regrettably, staff internalize these messages, absorb them, regard them to be true, legitimate, and valid, and live their lives accordingly.
As this becomes their norm, corrections staff become conditioned to keep their innermost life concealed even from their closest co-workers, friends and family members. It is as if they are wearing a laughing face mask, but, behind the mask, they are weeping. I can’t begin to count the times I heard it said after a corrections employee died by suicide, “We had no idea s/he was hurting! S/he showed absolutely NO signs of distress, ever!”
So, because of practicing the “I’m good!” code of silence, affected individuals can appear unscathed following traumatic incidents. However, due to the fact that a corrections career offers a “steady diet” of traumatic exposure and cumulative traumatic effects, at some point they can no longer keep up the front of “I’m fine,” and they “crash.” As Susan Jones, a retired warden, has stated, “We know that human beings cannot continue to ‘stuff’ these events forever. As corrections professionals we know that the effects of this ‘stuffing’ are often found in our relationships with other people in our lives, including our family, and in our bodies.”
The “I’m good!” code of silence strips staff of their freedom to acknowledge to themselves and to others – without shame – any lasting emotional wounding due to the job, or to accept that they are unable to work through traumatic experiences on their own. And as a result, it keeps them from seeking the relational support and help they may desperately need.
Practicing the “I’m good!” code of silence rewards affected staff with the short-term gain of earning their peers’ respect, and experiencing pride and self-satisfaction that they are tough. However, this short-term gain happens in exchange for long-term pain – lack of healing of the distress endured and lack of relief. Staff that do not address the emotional impact of the job cannot hit the “reset” button, be refreshed, and resume their careers in a relatively healthy state of mind. Instead, the inner pressure continues to build as more and more incidents get “stuffed” in staff’s emotional crawlspace during the course of their career, and the emotional burden keeps increasing. And one day the crawlspace may overflow. The door might blow open with the contents spilling over.
Staff’s overall self-care suffers because they cannot tend to distress when they deny its existence, or when they are not even aware of it. When the presence of pain is not acknowledged and seen as a signal to tend to a need, healing and resolution cannot take place.
Another consequence of the “I’m good!” code of silence is that when staff cannot have compassion for themselves regarding their suffering, they will also have difficulty experiencing empathy and compassion for others. They cannot be understanding or supportive of others, and they are unable to offer genuine words or gestures of comfort, when they have no understanding of their own struggles. They may also have difficulty with intimate conversations and exchanges. Their loved ones may experience them as distant, cold, callous, indifferent, uncaring, “hard.” As a result, the staff’s most important relationships may pay a heavy price.
Why the “I’m Good!” Code of Silence Must Go
Given how destructive the “I’m good!” code of silence is for staff, their families, and the entire workplace culture, one goal of corrections organizations must become to systematically debunk, dismantle, and dispose of it.
Yes, staff need to “keep it together,” to continue to function during critical incidents at work, while they are on duty doing their job of managing offenders or other staff.
However, there comes a time when reality must be reckoned with and acknowledged. Acknowledging reality is conducive to well-being and survival. At some point truth must be embraced. The truth sets free, but first it can make those that accept it feel miserable. The truth may cause staff to face their distress, so that they can own it, process it, and even grow from it. Staff need to become aware of how the extreme stress of trauma affects them, how their core beliefs about themselves, the world, and life changed because of it, and what they can do about it to reclaim themselves and their lives – to turn the piles of manure of their extremely stressful experiences to fertilizer as much as possible. Bouncing back after trauma in order to regain quality of life and maintain effective functioning at work and at home requires us to come to love the truth and shed the unwarranted and justified shame of being human.
How to Break the “I’m Good!” Code of Silence
Breaking the “I’m good!” code of silence requires the following ingredients, at minimum: trailblazing honesty and courage; the provision of suitable resources; policies about the management of staff exposed to traumatic and other high-stress situations; policies that protect staff wellness proactively; supportive supervisory styles; and confronting of misconceptions, prejudices and biases; education; and role modeling of transparency by leaders.
Education and the provision of resources must be accompanied by the transparent sharing of leaders. Such sharing involves leaders telling their personal stories about their struggles in relation to work stressors, the negative consequences trauma had on their lives, and their courageous journey through struggles to a place of openness and true resilience.
The use of mandatory overtime needs to be examined in this context, as the longer staff are at work, the more likely they are to encounter traumatic situations. Working overtime also means that staff have less time away from work to “decompress,” relax, recover, and reflect on what they have experienced at work. And they have less time to spend with loved ones, less time to enjoy and maintain their social support systems, and less time to engage in positive activities – all of which counter the poisonous impact on trauma.
In addition to the above, dismantling the “I’m good!” code of silence requires an agency-wide trauma-responsive approach that involves educating staff on the effects of psychological trauma and other high-stress events on employees and on their families, and that teaches them strategies to attain and maintain true resilience and well-being in the face of inherent stressors of corrections environments.
This type of education needs to be delivered proactively to all staff, as a form of emergency preparedness, repeatedly, and preferably annually. Adult family members need to be educated as well about the impact of trauma and other high-stress events, and about resources and ways to address that effectively.
And to support those who are affected in spite of their agency’s best efforts, agencies must provide mental health and other wellness resources, such as corrections-knowledgeable EAP and other community-based mental health providers, law enforcement chaplains, peer support, or community-based programs.
We need to normalize the experience of emotional distress, and accept the fact that as human beings we are fragile and we do have limitations regarding what we can endure.
The undeniable fact is that exposure to trauma, especially when it happens intensely and repeatedly, can have a multitude of adverse effects on those so exposed.
Some of my communications with corrections personnel from across the country and overseas fill me with joy and hope that the “I’m good!” code of silence is indeed being gradually taken apart in several corrections workforce cultures.
I’m thankful that increasingly more correctional agencies are providing a variety of wellness resources for their staff, while acknowledging the damage occupational stressors confer on staff’s physical, psychological and spiritual health.
In closing, here are the thoughts of two corrections professionals who have addressed these issues publicly:
“The biggest reason people like you and me go undiagnosed is denial. It is the fear and stigma attached to ‘Mental Health’ that keeps us from seeking the help we need. It is the unfounded fear that our brothers and sisters will think poorly of us and think us weak. It is this fear I am attempting to overcome in the hope you will overcome it as well.” Jeff Rude, Correctional Case Manager
“If you are struggling, you are not weak, weird or broken. You are human, and YOU ARE NOT ALONE. Reach out and get help when you feel it is time. There are many great people out there that are willing to help you. Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed about it. Reach out and GET YOUR LIFE BACK!” Michael Flowerdew, Correctional Sergeant
How “good” are you?
Friedman, M., & Higson-Smith, C. (2003). Building Psychological Resilience: Learning from the South African Police Service. In Paton, D., Violanti, J.M. & Smith, L.M., (Eds.), Promoting Capabilities to Manage Posttraumatic Stress: Perspectives on Resilience. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL.
Caterina Spinaris, Ph.D., LPC, is the founding director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, Inc., a Colorado-based 501(c)(3) corporation with the mission to advance the well-being of correctional staff and their families, and the health of correctional agencies, through data-driven, skill-based training. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 719-784-4727. The course she authored, “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment™,” received the 2016 Commercial Product award of excellence by the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel.