Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC, Founding Director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, has 21 years of experience working with correctional officers and correctional staff of other disciplines battling work-related mental health challenges. She has learned first-hand how correctional officers’ families are affected and provides corrections-specific and research-based training to limit the amount of detriment that is brought back home with the officer. The vast majority of what you are about to read below is from Caterina’s article, A Family Affair, and has been facsimiled with Caterina’s permission. Her article, along with direct quotes from industry professionals, will discuss the mental hardship this career can bring to correctional officers.
This path all started for Caterina when the wife of a correctional officer once told her, “When my husband got a job as corrections officer, I had no idea that it was a package deal: that we’d be signing up too, as a family.” Over the years Caterina has heard similar statements expressed by other family members of correctional staff as they navigate through the uncharted waters of their loved one working in corrections, and while trying to understand and adapt to changes in their life as a family.
From a correctional officer’s perspective, your family members are happy that you will have a steady paycheck with benefits. They are thrilled to hear that your paycheck could be augmented through the pay differential of shift work, through working on holidays, and through overtime.
However, they do not yet know how these work conditions translate in real life, or how they can affect your family life and your well-being. Those who enter the world of corrections are often unprepared for the toll this occupation can take on you and the changes your family will be experiencing in their home life because of your job demands. Family members usually do not know or understand that when you enter the corrections workforce, they too will be entering a world with its own language and its own rules, a world which operates on basic assumptions that are vastly different from those of the free world.
Below is a list of items that your family will likely not be mentally prepared for right off the bat. These are the changes and sacrifices to be aware of when accepting a role as a correctional officer. Your family members will struggle grasping the reality of:
- Understanding why your family’s established rhythms, traditions, and practices will be affected by the nature and demands of corrections work
- The lifestyle changes that shift work, overtime and changing schedules bring
- The corrections mindset coming home with you and potentially shaping you negatively into someone quite unlike who you used to be prior to starting your corrections career
- You’re chronically physically and emotionally exhausted, and not having the energy or motivation to do much when off work such as wanting to engage with the children like you used to do
- Why you may have increased your alcohol or tobacco consumption, or why you now engage in other compulsive and escapist behaviors, such as excessive playing of video games, gambling, or online sexual activities
- Why you have developed gallows humor that may be appalling to them, rendering you not very likeable to them, and perhaps even repulsive
- The increase in your use of profanity, often regardless of who is present
- Why you are becoming harder, more calloused, or judgmental of others
- “When you work in an environment like this, the stress and unpredictability will start affecting the view of the world and people around you, even your loved ones. You tend to see the evil in people and start to expect it from everyone. At the point you explode from stress and anxiety, you have no control over who you are.” -Anthony Gangi (Gangi, 2021).
- Why you seem to be indifferent when you hear about instances of harm befalling on people, and your apparent lack of compassion
- Caterina was once asked by a spouse of a correctional officer: “Does this come with the job, or is he just heartless?”
- Why there are times when you cannot get through a sleep cycle without thrashing, yelling, kicking, and punching in your sleep
- Why you talk to strangers curtly, perhaps even aggressively, apparently assuming the worst about them
- Your family members may be embarrassed by your behavior, thinking that you are being unnecessarily mistrusting
- Why you talk down to them in ways that they find to be demeaning, insulting and hurtful, ordering them around and trying to control their every move, sometimes even using the very same language with them that you would at work with individuals you manage
- Why you are becoming increasingly stricter with your children, overly worried about their safety, laying down rigid rules, and running background checks on their friends and their parents
- Your objections as to why they must not go to certain places or associate with certain people
- They find your increasing concerns about danger and your pervasive mistrust of people to border on paranoia that interferes with normal social functioning
- “After working in corrections for years, you have a heightened awareness because you know that things can happen in a split second. That being said, we have to give ourselves the space to decompress or the ability to turn off that mindset in a space where you feel safe to be vulnerable.” -Constantine Alleyne (Gangi, 2021).
- Why you turn down invitations to family gatherings, school events, or other social activities
- They may end up going alone, feeling more like a single parent than a partner in a marriage, raising the children and running the household on their own
- Why you are starting to show signs of serious anxiety, alcohol abuse, depression, or post-traumatic stress
- Why you are becoming more impatient, irritable, or prone to anger outbursts for no apparent reason
- You are likely to win verbal clashes as you are well practiced at doing so at work. Only the victory at home comes with a steep price tag of emotional distancing and something dying inside after each such fight. The fact that your fuse keeps getting shorter may quite simply scare your loved ones. As a result, they may avoid spending time with you or discussing sensitive or controversial family needs and issues, again leading to emotional distancing and disconnection
- Their ability to intimately “connect” with you may be impacted as time goes by, possibly eventually you two becoming strangers to one another at the emotional level
- Explaining to your partner what life in the field is like often proves to be too unpleasant, too energy consuming, or too difficult. You don’t want to be talking about work when you are home. You also do not want to scare or traumatize your spouse. So, conversations might tend to stay shallow, superficial, with you typically answering the question, “How was your day?” with “Fine,” regardless of what has actually happened that day at work. After a while, your spouse may feel like they do not know you anymore, and/or they may stop asking you questions.
Take it from the exact words of Stark County Sheriff’s Office, Sergeant Jeffrey Begue:
I truly felt after 23 years in this profession that I had adjusted well to the day to day grind we endure. As all of you, I have had my mix of good days and bad. I have seen my share of people come and go on both sides of the bars. However, it wasn't until recently that I truly found myself questioning my place in this cycle. It isn't the job; I know the job. It isn't the inmates; I know them better than I know some of my "friends". What I found myself questioning was where I lost my ability to "leave it at the gate" and why I didn't realize it was happening until I was consumed by it. It was changing me, changing my demeanor, changing my way of looking at life. Was it just me? I found myself thinking of work on my off time and hating the world when it was time to go back. I knew it was happening but didn't know why. I loved my job at one time. I just didn't know how to get back there.Sergeant Jeffrey BegueStark County Sheriff’s Office
If the issues above are left unaddressed, they will eventually hurt marriages and parent-child relationships. Families cannot continue with life as usual after one of them hires on in corrections. Proactive measures, preparation, and new learning are needed to protect your most valuable earthly investment—your family. Caterina believes that it is also imperative, and a moral obligation, that corrections agencies help equip adult corrections family members with effective strategies for dealing with the “bleeding” of correctional work stressors into family life. Helping corrections families is not simply something to be addressed haphazardly, as an afterthought. Rather, this goal must be pursued rigorously and systematically, starting on graduation day at the training academy. Being proactive is truly a win-win both for employees and their families, and for the agencies for which they work because an unhealthy family life will inevitably affect the agency’s work performance and employee retention.
If this reading hits home for you and you think it’s time to reach out for support, please visit Desert Waters Correctional Outreach to learn more about corrections-specific services Caterina and her team offer, which center on data-driven, skill-based training, research, and other psychoeducation products.
Gangi, Anthony (2021). The long term impact of working in a violent environment
Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmwUnyNfXEI
Spinaris, Caterina (2021). A Family Affair. Retrieved from https://desertwaters.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/Correctional-Oasis-09.2021.pdf