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Helping Each Other: The Magic Questions

October 10th, 2019

In my 27 plus years as a jail deputy, I worked inmate housing units,
work release and classification. I use the knowledge and experience I
gained in my jail in service classes. One of the classes that I present is
Suicide Prevention. Those of us who have worked inside a jail and
encountered inmates [and their problems] on a daily basis were trained to
ask about suicidal ideation. By doing so, hopefully the inmate will open up,
talk and be receptive to qualified staff talking to them and not committing
suicide. Corrections officers would rather have inmates talk to them about
suicide rather than taking their own lives. A big part of our job is
maintaining the safety and protection of the inmates-from other inmates,
and from themselves.

I also teach stress management for staff. I stress the importance of
staff looking out for each other. In corrections, we speak of the
‘brotherhood of the badge’. In the jail, we are supposed to be watching out
for each other, especially the veterans looking out for the inexperienced
‘newbies’. We may say: ‘Hey-slow down on your searches’, or ‘don’t spend
a lot of time socializing with inmates, keep your mind on the job’.
There is another aspect of this-looking out for each other as the stress
of the job sets in. I have encountered jail officers in my classes saying that
they do not have any stress in their lives. I respectfully counter with the
fact that stress is a part of life; Hans Selye defined it as the nonspecific
response of the body to any demand made upon us (Cornelius, 2005, 5).

The demands-stressors are everywhere-and one cannot escape them. They
include things off the job-such as traffic, illness, family issues and things on
the job. Things on the job can be argumentative inmates, shift work,
overtime, a mentally ill inmate, inmates fighting or an upset supervisor.
If we do not manage our stress effectively, it can wear us down; tire
us out and burn out will result. Stress can have an effect on both our
physical and mental health. However-not all stress is bad. Physical exercise
or going on vacation are examples of positive stress. They are demanding,
but are beneficial to us. Negative stress may be the things on the job that I
described above. The key is to have effective stress management
techniques in your life-family time, exercise, relaxation, hobbies and so on.

Some COs prefer to keep the stress in-they do not want to appear
weak. After all, from the time that they go through the academy through on
the job training, they learn to be firm when among inmates. Be no
nonsense-keep your mind on the job. Never show weakness; never let your
guard down.

However-those of us in the field, as well as many mental health
professionals, have come to the realization that it is good for us to vent, to
let off ‘steam’ and to talk about our stress with others who may be able to
help. Everyone faces crisis in life; I have as well and so have you. I
discovered when you talk to people, you feel better, you let tension out, and
you feel a renewed sense of hope.

The field of corrections is struggling with stress, and its negative
effects on staff, both at home and on the job. According to Dr. Michael
Pittaro of American Military University, a 2013 U.S. Department of Justice
Programs Diagnostic Center Study stated that corrections officers have a
much higher rate of suicides than in other fields. During their careers,
correctional officers may likely experience some type of post-traumatic
stress disorder or PTSD. In addition, corrections officers, on average will not
live to reach age 59 (Pittaro, 2015). No job, especially corrections, should
shorten your life or affect your health. As I say to my classes, ‘working in
corrections will eat you up and spit you out-if you let it’.

Nevertheless, there is hope. Many agencies have instituted peer
support officers and employee assistance programs, or EAPs, to help
correctional staff deal with stress. They can help employees avoid burnout,
divert a marriage from divorce, and help to point the staff member in a
positive direction. There are many publications and on line resources.
Correctional officers and civilians can get the help they need. As like any
serious problem life throws at you, the first step is acknowledging that a
problem exists. The second step is opening up to people in our lives that
can help.

Moreover, this brings me to the main point of the article: The ‘Magic
Questions’. If a correctional staff person, either sworn or non-sworn,
appears to be stressed out, colleagues must throw a lifeline. Stressed out
staff may be sitting in their cars before or after a shift, going to a bar after
work, not going home or sitting alone in the staff break room, staring into
space. They may be people who are usually sociable, positive and always
helpful-but now their demeanor and mood are dark. Open and honest
concern from friends and family may be just the thing to stop the stressed
out employee from the ‘brink’, such as suicide, drinking, etc.

The Magic Questions

Just as with suicidal inmates, the ‘Magic Questions’ are simple and
direct. A helpful CO does not have to be a therapist. Approach the person
quietly and if possible in private, and ask:

  • Are you OK?
  • Is something wrong?
  • Do you feel like talking about it?
  • You seem down-is there anything that I can do?
  • Hey-you don’t seem like yourself today. Are you all right?
  • Is everything all right at home?

One more thing-if you ask a ‘magic question’ to a stressed out friend,
colleague or supervisor, make the time to listen to the answer. You are
throwing the lifeline. If the person opens up, they are asking for help, just
like a depressed inmate. If you cannot talk at work, because of the
workload, etc., arrange to follow up over a cup of coffee or a meal. If you
say to come over after work, or the person invites you over-make sure that
you follow up. In corrections, we have a tendency to hold things in; we
want the person to let us in. Moreover, if that person opens the door-we
can help.

Finally remember-we are all brothers and sisters behind the badge.
Ask the ‘Magic Questions’ and let us help each other. No one has to go
through stress alone.



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