What Actually Matters When Working in Corrections?

As a corrections professional, you learn that every step in your day carries significant importance. From the moment you strap on your boots each morning to the moment you kick them off your feet at the end of shift, every single step mattered.
Chris Riedmueller
Chris Riedmueller
Kenzie Koch | Marketing Specialist

We have all learned a lesson at some point and thought to ourselves, “Well, that would’ve been nice to have known earlier.” This especially rings true for correctional officers that have tried to maneuver the things that actually matter in this field of work. Chris Riedmueller,GUARDIAN RFID Product Trainer, is a 14-year veteran in the corrections industry and in this blog he shares some of the lessons he learned (and many lessons he wishes he would have known earlier) about what really “mattered” throughout his career when he first started as a Juvenile Detention Officer. This blog serves as either a friendly reminder to those with a few years of corrections experience or as a “heads up” to those who are new boots. Chris is proud to share these lessons through his own examples so you don’t have to learn them the hard way. 

Does my Appearance Matter? 

Absolutely. When starting in corrections, you may not initially think that your appearance matters much. You’re working with inmates, why would they care how you’re dressed? Your team will typically require BDU pants and either a BDU shirt or a polo. This uniform appearance is meant to show professionalism. But again, who cares about looking professional in front of inmates? We’re going to let you in on a little secret: if you dress like a slob, you will be treated like a slob. If you come to work with stains on pants, wrinkles on your shirt, and uncombed hair, you give off non-verbal cues showing you don’t care about your job. Your supervisor sees it. Your coworkers see it. And most importantly, the inmates see it. Presenting yourself in this lazy manner puts a target on your back for inmates to take advantage and try to manipulate you into finding other “lazy” ways of doing your job, such as not completing your rounds. On the other hand, if you show up to work in a clean and pressed uniform, you show that you put the time and effort into looking strait-laced. You are much more likely to be treated with higher respect by the inmates when you look like you mean business. If you don’t already, ensure that you have the sharpest uniform on your shift, the shiniest boots, and always fall within your department’s grooming standards. Your daily appearance will be remembered when you put in for that promotion, not just the suit you wore to the interview.

Does my Attitude Matter? 

Without a doubt, your attitude matters. If your demeanor is not in-check at all times within the confines of a correctional facility, you may face a long uphill battle. Your supervisors will key in on your behavior, your coworkers will begin losing faith in you, and inmates may target you in retaliation to your words and actions. Corrections is a TOUGH profession, but we are called to greatness in the darkest of places. We are called on to be calm during the storm. Do we have to react to violent situations? Yes. Are we always on heightened alert? Absolutely. Should this change our attitude? Never. As a corrections professional, we should model the behavior we expect from the inmates. Carry yourself with pride and steadiness.

Does my Mental State Matter? 

Taking care of your mental health is arguably the most important part of working in corrections. It’s no secret that working in corrections can be a deeply emotionally-impactful job. Sometimes it may even feel like your mental state is on a rollercoaster ride, up and down and up and down and up and down. However, no matter the trauma you face, you are trained to remain calm and make reasoned decisions, despite the chaos surrounding you (which is why correctional officers have a skyrocket-high rate of PTSD).

We as correctional staff [suffer in silence](https://guardianrfid.com/blog/we-suffer-in-silence). Some of us deal with the daily stress better than others. Some of us can’t cope at all. Some of us have seen some horrendous things that people should never witness and things we will never forget. Some of us have even had to do things that are the things nightmares are made of.
Lt. Bryan Hughes

Typically, there’s an awful unwritten rule attached to the job which is to never show emotion as it can be portrayed as weakness. And unfortunately, being emotionally impacted by the job can often be viewed by the workforce culture as evidence of being undependable in a crisis and ultimately unfit for the job. This nasty stigma creates a fear of rejection by peers in the agency, or worse, fear of losing one’s job if deemed unfit for duty. Holding in emotions, especially after a trauma, distorts inner worlds after carrying all the internal weight. Officers can become psychologically dissociated, disconnect from their true emotions, and start to avoid reality. 

Dissociation involves staff disconnecting themselves from their true emotions and thoughts about a disturbing event - [blocking them out of their awareness](https://guardianrfid.com/blog/breaking-the-im-good-code-of-silence). Some cope by shutting events out of their awareness, “compartmentalizing” them. This activity of putting memories of unpleasant events (and the associated emotions) in “compartments” amounts to engaging in dissociation.
Caterina Spinaris, Ph.D, LPC
Desert Waters Correctional Outreach

Understanding mental health is a beast of a task, but the most difficult hurdle to overcome is the very first step: acknowledging that a problem exists. That’s why it’s essential for corrections professionals to be aware of their own mental health, be open and honest about mental health struggles, and help others see a light at the end of the tunnel. Building open-door relationships between a team and simply asking “how things are going” can be all it takes to save the life of a silently-suffering colleague. 

Does Communication Matter? 

Every conversation you have as a corrections professional matters. Whether it is a shift briefing, pass down at post changeover, or even a brief five-second conversation with an inmate, every conversation plays an important role in your daily tasks. Why are staff encouraged to use active communication, including active listening, with other staff members and inmates? It’s because of the nature of this job; it can sometimes lead to your day-to-day activities feeling tedious. If you intentionally talk with your team and inmates, your tasks won’t seem as dull. In fact, other officers (and even inmates!) likely know more about your daily tasks than your spouse. It's important to utilize those peer relationships because when the job emotionally drains you, those peers are often the ones that pick you up and put you back together.

"Active listening" is an area I personally struggle with, so I purposefully focus on listening when I am around peers and inmates. You may spend five seconds with every inmate on your block during every round. It may seem like a mundane task, but that five seconds is important to the inmate. If you dismiss their conversation or disrespect them, they will remember. I am not saying that you have to cross barriers or become close with the inmates, but actively listen to them and ensure that you handle their requests appropriately.
Chris Riedmueller
Product Trainer GUARDIAN RFID

I’m Off Duty, do my Actions Still Matter? 

From the second you enter the view of the public while in uniform, you represent your agency from that point forward. Even when you take off your uniform and wear your daily clothes, you still are remembered as someone who works in your jail or prison facility and will still be expected to represent your team. The public identifies you as a hand-selected representative of the sheriff, chief, or warden and holds your agency head accountable for your actions. It may seem a bit harsh knowing that you will always be held to high expectations, but it actually isn’t that far off how you would represent yourself on a daily basis anyway. For example, when you go to the grocery store where you’re confident you won’t run into anyone you know, you will still be respectful to everyone else in the store. You *hopefully* wouldn’t run in the doors screaming and throwing around egg cartons just because you knew nobody would recognize you. Point being, regardless of where you go or what you do, if you have integrity, it shouldn’t be a problem representing your facility with and without your uniform.

I made every effort to make no stops on the way to or from work while in uniform. If I knew I had to make a stop, I would bring a change of clothes and change before I left the facility. As a supervisor, I had the unfortunate task of having to apologize to a member of the public on multiple occasions for the actions of my fellow team members for loudly cursing in a convenience store or demanding discounts at a restaurant. Personally, I treated every interaction with the public as if my sheriff was standing right behind me. That genuine behavior brought relatively few sour grapes throughout my career. Was it always easy to take the high road, especially when getting yelled at for something that I didn’t do? No, it wasn’t easy, but I could always go back to the sheriff and say, “Boss, I handled it with respect”. Today, more than ever, we are placed in the public eye. Stay true to your values and morals at all times, and it will be hard for someone to misrepresent you.
Chris Riedmueller
Product Trainer GUARDIAN RFID

Aside from acting like a respectable normal human being while you’re off duty, there are some officers who may even go as far as to want to further help their community during their spare time. If you haven’t considered this, it may be worthwhile. If you already serve your community while on-shift, it should be a piece of cake to do it off-shift. Depending on the size of your community, you may have limited, or plentiful, options with which you can serve off-duty. From being active in your church, joining a civic organization, or being a volunteer coach or umpire in a youth sports league, you have options. If your community is large enough, you might be able to volunteer with the Boys and Girls club or Big Brothers/Big Sisters.

You may think, “I already spend all my time serving my community while I’m working, why should I have to do it more?” That’s a completely fair thought. However, one reason why you might want to work with the community while off-duty is if you’re looking to further your career. When moving up the ladder in any field of law enforcement, hirers look for connections to the community as part of their hiring process. Being involved in the community can help lead to greater outcomes, especially with a focus on community policing. Mentorship opportunities can be extremely difficult but rewarding. Another reason to serve off-duty is that it can recharge your batteries, so to speak. Corrections can be an exhausting job, both mentally and physically. Serving your community is a way that allows you to see and feel the difference you are making. Whether it’s seeing a kid smile because they’ve won their first soccer game or mowing your elderly neighbor’s yard and seeing them beam with pride, that immediate satisfaction can help you center yourself. 

Correctional officers enter the field for a variety of reasons. Some utilize the opportunity to enter the field of law enforcement, some look for a structured career post military, others are simply looking for a change of pace, and some find it by mistake. Whatever the reason, they all ended up being officers. No matter how different their backgrounds are, they all will learn that their actions matter inside and outside of the walls. Those who work in corrections are undervalued more often than not, and we at GUARDIAN RFID applaud those who take on the challenges that correctional facilities present and are here to help hold the line, steady and taught, for many years to come. As always, get your team home safe.