It occurred to me one night during a conversation with a fellow corrections friend that the wellness game being played in corrections agencies seems very déjà vu (French for “already seen,” AKA “old news”) for some reason. It hit me when I was driving to work this morning: the corrections wellness game is mostly about defense.
Correctional agencies have long suffered the effects of not being able to change, this we know. We have been saying for decades that prison reform is needed and yet we never seem to achieve that reform. We sit at conferences and trainings that show us immediate steps we can take to respond to the “issue of the year,” and yet meaningful long-term strategies elude us. There are always reasons given for that (even good reasons) that include staffing, political climate, budget constraints, etc. But then I have noticed that over the years when litigation strikes and mandates come, there seems to be a fairly immediate strategy for the next snap (anyone else missing football?)
Traditionally, corrections training has centered around reacting to the situations that arise in our facilities. When this happens, we do such-and-such; when this behavior is present, we use this amount of force; when we find contraband, we shake down this way. We have defensive strategies for every eventuality we can think of – and there are many such.
But even the best defense needs an offense to win the game. Now, I know there’s always going to be “that one time,” so let me save you the Google search. In 2006, the Chicago Bears defense scored more points than the offense to win the game by 1 point over the Arizona Cardinals. However, this is not a strategy that any coach leans on regularly … except maybe in corrections.
What does this have to do with correctional staff wellness? A lot, in my estimation.
We have to start building wellness systems that look past reacting to bad moments, and start building prevention strategies. How many of us have gone to work to hear about another failed marriage, substance issue, conduct issue, or coworker who has died early of a heart attack or by suicide, and thought to ourselves, “Here’s another corrections casualty?”
We may do a fundraiser for the family or make some jokes about dating sites, but in the end, there is probably little, if any, discussion about preventing future occurrences. And so corrections goes. Defense is necessary to fight the enemy off so the strategy can advance the mission. Defense will always have a vital role to play. We sing chants about it. But let me ask you, when the game is tied and time has run out, which team has the better chance of winning the game?
Offense. The strategy, the playmaker, the pathfinder. Wellness strategies in corrections have to play offense, too. What does that look like in corrections? It looks like prevention education at the beginning of the career, teaching staff how to prepare now before the career gets hard and has them worn down. Helping them put in safety rails for their relationships with loved ones, making sure they have a care plan in place before trauma exposure finds them, and creating an environment where asking for help is embraced instead of ostracized.
Offense includes leadership who model wellness and make it part of their values when they make decisions and interact with staff. Staff wellness takes investment of both finances and human capital. It requires a well-thought out implementation plan and a voice at every decision table. Staff wellness is not an after-thought when something has gone bad or wrong, it isn’t solely a recruitment and retention plan, it isn’t a show to put on one week every year in May.
Staff wellness is a culture that staff at every level subscribe to.It’s making the staff wellness training or events as high a priority as safety and security training, and by doing so sending a loud and clear and convincing message to our frontlines that YOU matter, the whole you, not just “the body to fill the post” you.
Offense is passing when we can’t make a run, and owning our part in a turnover. Most importantly, offense is a shared responsibility between the individual and the agency. Prison reform and staff wellness hold hands, one can’t happen without the other, as Caterina Spinaris says. Let’s make sure they play for the same team with a good strategy.