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Balanced life is essential to healthy staff attitudes.

After managing treatment programs for inmates for 13 years in Oregon's Mental Health Division, I decided to take an assistant superintendent position at a medium security facility with the Department of Corrections. The mental health position was a good job, but I wanted to work in prison operations.

When I worked in the mental health field, I believed that all people have dignity, that change is possible in anyone, and that inmates are people who simply have progressed (or regressed) further along the line of criminal behavior and thinking than the rest of us. In other words, we all have the potential to be criminals, but we make decisions daily that keep us on the straight and narrow.

I wondered if these beliefs would change as time passed in my new position. Would I become more conservative, more like a hard liner? Would my everyday experiences fundamentally change me? Would I be a different person to my wife, my children?

Anyone who has worked in corrections has come across burned out staff who have given up both on the inmates and themselves. I did not want that to happen to me, but I was unsure of the forces I would encounter in my new position and how I would respond to them.

It has now been three and a half years since I joined the department. Has the experience changed me? Were any of my initial concerns realized? I think the answer is a qualified "yes."

Staff Attitudes

I have noticed a tendency by some staff to view the inmate as something other than fully human. Sometimes those views are expressed overtly. For example, I have heard staff make statements such as, "Only animals would do something like that."

More often, such attitudes are conveyed in subtle ways. A typical statement might be: "What do you expect? He's an inmate." Staff try to differentiate between themselves and inmates and thus fall to recognize their similarities. Over time, this affects the way staff view and relate to inmates.

When one tours a segregation unit and looks deeply into the eyes of inmates, sometimes one sees a human being looking back. Other times, one sees nothing and realizes that human nature is a mystery that may never be fully understood. For me, that realization was a jarring experience, one that made me wonder whether it was I who had changed or the inmates who were refusing to change.

When walking through a prison, one becomes acutely aware of the weight of human damage, brokenness, despair, hate, fear and anger that is present. The inmates' needs and hurts are so overwhelming that one tends to deal with them by closing down a part of one's emotional self.

As a result, some staff become thick skinned, developing a "tough guy" attitude to survive. The real danger is when supervisors develop similar attitudes. Those who have done so are likely to be less aware of the signs of staff burnout.

A Proper Balance

Once I became aware of how these experiences were affecting me, I had to make some hard choices. I found myself looking for ways to balance in my personal life what I experienced at work. I became more involved in my church and with friends who were not in the corrections field. I needed to have some perspective on life that was very different from my work experience. I have found that maintaining this balance is absolutely critical to keeping a healthy attitude in my job.

With the proper balance in my life, I have come to view my job as an opportunity to help others change. Without that balance, I easily could see my work as a constant confrontation with hopeless, negative people. I made a conscious decision to view my work in a positive way and did not allow my work environment to make the decision for me.

I do not think my essential beliefs about people have changed. However, through my current position, I have gained a greater understanding and respect for corrections workers at all levels. We are expected to do an almost impossible job in a very difficult environment.

That environment can negatively affect our attitudes and behavior both on and off the job, unless we make a concerted effort to maintain a healthy balance between our personal and professional lives.

Thomas L. Lester is assistant superintendent at the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Ore.
COPYRIGHT 1994 American Correctional Association, Inc.
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Title Annotation:A View From The Line
Author:Lester, Thomas L.
Publication:Corrections Today
Article Type:Column
Date:Jun 1, 1994
Previous Article:Acknowledging a select few who represent the work of many.
Next Article:Demystifying treatment by involving all staff in therapy.

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