In ongoing discussions and movements across the nation several reasons are given as to why we need prison reform in the U.S. Today I want to share with you one more such reason, a reason that has been embedded in the heart of Desert Waters’ mission since its birth in 2003.

This reason is the health and wellbeing, even the survival of what may be correctional staff’s most valued asset – their family life.

The words I am about to share may sound overly dramatic to some, but I know from hard data, and also from my interactions with correctional staff and their family members for 23 years now, that they are based on fact, and that, sadly, they prove to be true only too often.

What Do We Mean by Correctional Families Being Collateral Damage?

According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries, collateral damage in military terms refers to deaths of or injury to civilians (that is, people not in the armed forces) or damage to buildings that are not connected to the military during a war.

Correctional staff family members and their family life can become “collateral damage” when they are impacted by the destructive ways correctional work impacts their loved ones, which then “come home,” invading and overtaking their personal lives.

Negative consequences of correctional work can be thought of as falling in two broad categories:

  • the ways families are affected by lifestyle changes and external demands imposed on them when their loved one becomes a correctional employee; and
  • the ways families are negatively affected by their loved one’s Corrections Fatigue – negative changes in their loved one’s personality, health, and functioning – work-related changes that keep adding up over time.

These effects do not necessarily have to end in broken relationships or family violence. However, they can often lead to emotional distancing; family members not feeling emotionally safe around their correctional loved one; feeling cast aside; being rightfully concerned about loved one’s habits (such as a notable increase in alcohol consumption or the continual playing of violent video games); or “walking on eggshells” to not set their correctional loved one off, given the obvious increase in their moodiness and irritability.

These negative changes and their fallout occur in contexts where staff are not trained in handling work-related stressors, or are faced with work conditions and policies that undermine wellness. And they are not taught how to be supportive of their families, how to help them cope with the lifestyle and other adjustments that corrections work throws their way.

Similarly, adult families are not prepared or equipped to deal with the stressors of corrections work that impinge upon them.

Simply instructing staff to leave work at work without equipping them with skills, work conditions, and the opportunities to do so, such as through regular debriefings at the end of a shift, does not work well, especially on high-stress days.

Leaving work at work is more likely to be accomplished through healthy means, mostly on low-stress days, and by staff who are well-rested, and who have an opportunity to process their workdays’ events before they get home. These conditions are not typically afforded to U.S. correctional staff. (In Norway, by contrast, staff enjoy overlapping shifts. During the overlap, the exiting shift updates the incoming shift regarding observations about the incarcerated persons, discusses how challenging situations were handled and how else they could have been handled, and shares concerns. And Norwegian COs do not work much mandatory overtime.)

And when we say “family members,” let us not forget to include the parents and the siblings of correctional staff, and others close to them. I still remember the father of a Correctional Officer who worked at a particularly violent maximum-security institution, who told me with tears in his eyes, “We do not know who our son is anymore.” After reading our booklet Staying Well , he told me that now he understood more about what happened to his son, and how to best approach him.

Data

Regarding research data, one study indicated that staff’s Work Health impacted their Family Health unusually strongly (Spinaris & Brocato, 2019). As staff’s Work Health increased, so did their Family Health. And, conversely, as staff’s Work Health decreased, so did their Family Health.

(Work Health in that study referred to staff’s level of morale, energy – physically and emotionally, and job satisfaction. Family Health was measured by items such as, My work schedule causes conflict at home; My family has told me I should find a job outside of corrections; When I get home from work, I feel like I’ve got nothing more to give; Since I started working in corrections, I find it harder to express affection to my family. Do any of these sound familiar?)

Another study of Correctional Officers (Lerman, 2017) reported the following percentages of respondents agreeing at some level with the issues below:

  • 66% indicated that work makes it hard for them to spend sufficient quality time with family;
  • 65% indicated that they were told by family that they judge others more harshly since they started working in corrections;
  • 53% indicated that they are harsher or less trusting towards friends and family since they started working in corrections;
  • 41% indicated that they would be better parents, spouses or partners if they did not work in corrections.

Possible Solutions

These statements are not meant to blame anyone or hold anyone responsible for their genesis/origin. The correctional system in the U.S. has devolved in ways that only too often hurt all those who come in contact with it, even those who come in contact with it indirectly, such as staff’s family members.

We believe that all of us who are involved in corrections can help change that, when we all focus our energies on doing what we can within our sphere of influence.

So, what are we at Desert Waters doing about this situation?

Here are some of our efforts to date:

  1. We work to increase awareness about the correctional family as collateral damage by:
  2. Publishing articles such as this one, and dedicating entire issues of the Correctional Oasis to this subject;
  3. Speaking at conferences about it;
  4. Conducting research in this area; and
  5. Designing and delivering training for staff and their family members. One such training is Desert Waters’ Correctional Family Wellness™ (CFW) course, which has two versions – the first, CFW-F, for adult family members to understand and support their loved one who works in corrections, and the second, CFW-S, for staff to understand how their families are affected by their work-related changes, and how to support their families as they navigate these challenges. We train instructors who can then train coworkers and also family members on these topics.
  1. We work to devise solutions for these matters, and we collaborate with others who are interested in these same issues.
    1. We are starting to explore the possibility of offering one-day wellness retreats to correctional couples, to help them identify and address issues related to Corrections Fatigue and its consequences. Ideally, this would be in person, but virtual options could also be considered. (If you are interested in such a one-day wellness retreat for correctional couples in your area, or have some ideas about such an endeavor, please share your thoughts with us at admin@desertwaters.com.)
    2. We encourage correctional administrators to consider offering Family Days, perhaps off site, and adding an optional prison tour to be provided to adult family members who want to tour their loved one’s workplace.
    3. We strongly recommend that correctional agencies’ EAP services include family therapy and individual sessions for spouses/domestic partners.

References

Lerman, A. E. (2017). Officer health and wellness: Results from the California Correctional Officer Survey. https://gspp.berkeley.edu/assets/uploads/research/pdf/executive_summary_08142018.pdf

Spinaris, C.G., & Brocato, N. (2019). Descriptive study of Michigan Department of Corrections Staff Well-being: Contributing factors, outcomes, and actionable solutions. https://www.michigan.gov/documents/corrections/MDOC_Staff_Well-being_Report_660565_7.pdf