A New Vision for Correctional Officers

Incarceration has been failing for decades as a means for promoting public safety. More often than not, the finger is pointed at the unreformed inmate as the source of that failure. What about those who work in prisons and jails? What responsibility do they bear for promoting real change that reduces crime and restores communities? What difference could they make if they were trained in the basic principles of human relations, business management, and motivational change, not to mention restorative justice?

In this article we share our experience, as longtime developers of restorative practices in a San Francisco County Jail, of the deputized staff who have assisted in bringing about a new vision. We honor the courage of those mavericks, and acknowledge the desire of many more to be a part of that vision. We recognize how a profession that is unavoidably brutal can, with the right institutional leadership, encouragement, and training, take steps toward becoming the noble vocation that many correctional officers long for it to be.

Schwartz and Levitas

A prisoner paints a guard: Someone Cares by Paul Bruton. Acrylic. Credit: Prison Creative Arts Project.

We have known decent, smart, and compassionate people who have worked as deputies or correctional officers. If that surprises you, you may be prejudiced. But you would not be alone, because the nature of the prison system encourages each of us to take sides and dehumanize everyone on the other side. The most inspiring people behind the clanging doors of jail and prison are those individuals—whether wearing prisoners’ fatigues, law enforcement uniforms, or civilian clothes—who resist that temptation and, in doing so, help to build humanity where it is in short supply.

How Prisons Fail Correctional Officers

Let’s be clear, there is nothing ennobling about our current prison system. The traditional way of incarcerating and releasing people is a “crime after crime.” Most members of the general public now know what industry insiders have known for forty years. In the typical jail or prison, men or women sleep in their bunks, play dominoes and cards, watch The Jerry Springer Show on TV, and scheme. About two-thirds of those released are rearrested within three years. The corrections system has failed the victims of crime and our communities’ needs and expectations. It has failed the people inside, and their families. What many of us do not yet realize is that the system has also failed the professionals who run it.

For sure, deputy sheriffs (or “deputies”) who work in county jails and prison custody staff (commonly referred to as correctional or corrections officers, COs, or sworn staff) have careers that appear attractive and are lucrative. They are paid to attend a mandatory four-to-six-month pre-employment training/academy. They begin their careers free of student loan debt. Many undergrads would envy that, along with the starting base salary between $45,000 and $65,000, an extensive benefit plan and defined-benefit pension that provides for retirement at age fifty-five with 85 percent of salary for life.

But the content of the standard training does not adequately prepare them for the realities they face on the job or the highly stressful and inhumane things they are asked to do. Occupational stress is a pervasive problem within all correctional jurisdictions. Deputies and corrections officers face the daily challenges of effectively managing the inmate population as well as their own stress levels. ...

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Sunny Schwartz is the author of the book Dreams From The Monster Factory: A Tale of Prison, Redemption and One Woman’s Fight to Restore Justice To All and has worked in the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department for thirty-one years. Leslie Levitas, M.A., has worked for the San Francisco Sheriff's Department since 1996. She has coauthored articles on a variety of topics related to criminal justice and social justice. Her writing and photograpy were included in the recent anthology Razor Wire Women: Prisoners, Activists, Scholars, and Artists (SUNY Series in Women, Crime, and Criminology).

Source Citation

Schwartz, Sunny and Leslie Levitas. 2012. A New Vision for Correctional Officers. Tikkun 27(1): 37.

tags: Economy/Poverty/Wealth, Justice & Prisons, Politics & Society   
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