Since the criminal justice pendulum in the United States has swung towards more rehabilitation and re-entry efforts and away from sheer containment, and since custody staff are the correctional employees that offenders interact with the most, custody staff’s job description has expanded.

In addition to ensuring safety and securing offenders’ adherence to rules, custody staff are now tasked with being part of the effort to help “reprogram” offenders’ thinking toward becoming more prosocial and toward making more constructive choices.

This complex and demanding task requires the use of interpersonal skills beyond those needed in traditional custody work, such as good communication and de-escalation skills. Custody staff’s expected involvement with offenders now may range from empathetic listening, to giving words of affirmation or encouragement, to engaging in the application of motivational interviewing techniques or problem-solving strategies to defusing an interpersonal conflict. In short, custody staff are currently expected to operate as both cops and helpers, as both law enforcers and mentors, as both disciplinarians and lay counselors.

The intent for promoting such dual professional roles is good. It does make eminent sense that offenders should be given every opportunity to improve themselves, so there are positive outcomes to their incarceration experience, whether they return to the community or not.

And at the same time, the expansion of the custody staff’s role increases the complexity of their work and its psychological burden on them. To understand that, the context in which custody staff operate needs to be considered.

There are two types of danger that shape corrections work, because the possibility that they may happen is ever-present: the danger of violence and the danger of being manipulated by offenders.

Custody staff’s dual professional role is expected to be carried out in a context where the potential for violence and manipulation is never eliminated. Staff may be assaulted at work, witness violence against others, and might endure verbal assaults and verbal threats on a regular basis. And they may at times encounter offender manipulation “games,” or see other staff be taken down through such “games.”

Both the likelihood of violence and the likelihood of manipulation happening can lead staff to feel apprehensive around offenders. The natural reaction to the anticipation of something dangerous happening is to try to reduce the probability of that risk occurring. So, it is natural for custody staff to try to maintain their distance from offenders—both physically and psychologically—in order to decrease the probability of their becoming targets of violence or manipulation. Custody staff would rather be able to watch offenders from a safe distance while “standing” behind psychological walls, interacting with them only as needed, and intervening only when necessary.

However, this “behind the wall” stance runs counter to the requirements of the dual role relationship—being cop and helper—when managing offenders. Anticipation of the dangers of manipulation and violence interferes with what it takes to interact with offenders in a lay counselor/mentor role. This is because this role requires approaching and “connecting” with offenders, getting to know them as people by asking probing questions—and not avoiding them.

And this urge to stay away from danger is not just a thought that crosses staff’s minds. Rather, it also exists at a “hard-wired,” neurological level. With every negative work experience regarding offenders, the brains of custody staff store potentially life-saving information, equating with danger, and perceiving them to be the “enemy.”

Offenders and their reminders become cues that now trigger in staff’s brains and bodies cascades of biochemical events, resulting in the fight-or-fight response. These are automatic physiological realities that happen involuntarily and are usually followed by self-protective thoughts and actions. Such reactions can happen at any time, not only in the midst of critical incidents. Under such conditions, empathetic communication and motivational interviewing techniques take the back seat, if they are considered at all.

Studies have shown that about one-third of custody staff meet PTSD criteria on valid screening instruments. That means that about a third of the custody staff have significant offender-based traumatic triggers. Similarly, having been manipulated, having witnessed the outcomes of other staff being manipulated, or merely being concerned about that happening, can cause custody staff to experience anxiety and/or hostility when interacting with offenders.

Yet, the custody staff’s expanded professional role now includes being supportive to those who trigger fight-or-flight alarms in their brain—to approach them instead of avoiding them.

It is a highly demanding expectation to ask custody staff to set their physiological and psychological reactions aside on a regular basis, and instead to be impartially, objectively and even empathically available to offenders in a helping role. Such an expectation places a considerable psychological burden on custody staff, especially if self-regulation and interpersonal skills are not their strong suit. That is, custody staff are asked to override their apprehensions, frustrations or grudges regarding offenders daily, and instead build rapport with them within an at times tumultuous professional relationship.

Being able to pull that off requires that custody staff exercise supreme self-control, superb management of their emotions and thoughts, and effective processing of high-stress events on an ongoing basis. This is what it would take if they are to be able to interact daily with offenders with a clean and receptive slate. It takes a tremendous amount of self-regulation skills to be able to be genuinely supportive to those perceived to be “the enemy.”

(By “professional rapport” with offenders in the context of corrections work I mean one-way relationships of staff with offenders wherein the staff manage and tend to offenders’ needs, while maintaining their own professional boundaries—not disclosing personal information to offenders, and not looking to them to meet their own personal needs or wants. This type of rapport is unlike the usual relationships in the “free world,” which are based on mutual disclosing, and a degree of mutual dependence and trust. Custody staff’s professional rapport with offenders must be more akin to the relationship of psychotherapists with clients. Therapists focus on client needs and show empathy, but self-disclose minimally, and do not seek to meet personal needs or wants through their clients. Maintaining such tight professional boundaries requires self-awareness and self-discipline, and adds to the psychological burden of the custody staff’s job.)

And to be effective as law enforcers in addition to mentors, custody staff must interact with offenders as helpers while also remaining vigilant, on guard, keeping “emergency preparedness plans” at the forefront of their mind at all times, in case violence does break out or in case they become the target of a “game.”

It is not suggested here that it is impossible for the dual mindset of self-preservation and supportiveness to co-exist. It IS possible, especially in correctional environments where violence is not a frequent occurrence. However, having these two mindsets, and switching from one to the other according to situational demands, is hard to do. As mentioned earlier, it takes above average skillfulness, motivation, flexibility, and tenacity to switch back and forth as needed, especially over time as more negative events and interactions with offenders take place.

One way to address these issues is to train staff on self-regulation skills, interpersonal skills, and professional boundary maintenance in the context of complex interactions and long-term relationships (as in correctional institutions staff may interact with some offenders for years). Administrators can begin to address these matters at the hiring stage by selecting candidates that demonstrate a proclivity for skillful self-regulation and verbal communication, while also being able to hold their ground, and providing new hires with relevant training.

In addition, policies must be in place so that appropriate consequences are meted out to offenders for violence and for other rule violations. It is vital for staff to perceive that their safety and their welfare are valued by administrators. If instead staff perceive treatment and rehabilitation trends to be synonymous with offenders not being held accountable for their actions, they will resent these new trends, and may follow the letter but not the spirit of these reforms. Moreover, when such policies for consequences to rule violations are in place and enforced, staff are seen by offenders as merely carrying out the agency’s policies—not as taking matters of justice or revenge in their own hands. This helps preserve custody staff’s helper/mentor status with offenders.

If this dual-role complexity that custody staff are facing is not acknowledged by administrators, and if staff are not supported through policies and trained regarding their very demanding job roles, it is likely that some may deal with the “helper” job requirement by simply “going through the motions,” only paying lip service to the expectation that they function in a supportive role toward offenders. Other staff who experience negative interactions with offenders firsthand may pull back from the helper role, opting to operate along the containment part of their job only. And some may even choose to mete out their own justice to offenders.

Given the difficulties of what custody staff are tasked with, it is critical to validate custody staff’s dilemma (self-preservation vs. helpfulness), and to provide them with policy support, ongoing specialized training, and any other tools needed to assist them in fulfilling both of their key job requirements in today’s changing corrections world.

1 http://desertwaters.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/PTSD_Prev_in_Corrections_09-03-131.pdf

2 http://desertwaters.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/MCO-Paper_FINAL.pdf

3 https://www.michigan.gov/documents/corrections/MDOC_Staff_Well-being_Report_660565_7.pdf

About the author: Caterina Spinaris, Ph.D., Licensed Professional Counselor, is the founding director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, http://desertwaters.com, which helps correctional agencies counter Corrections Fatigue in their staff by cultivating a healthier workplace climate and a more engaged workforce through targeted skill-based training and research. Based on her research and clinical experience with corrections employees, Caterina designs evidence-informed educational wellness materials and interventions for correctional agencies. In 2016, the course she authored, “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment™,” received the Commercial Product Award of Excellence by the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel.