Roundtable: How COVID-19 challenged corrections in 2020

The coronavirus impacted all aspects of correctional facility operations – from staffing to officer wellness


By Corrections1 Staff

We asked several Corrections1 columnists and contributors to share what they thought were the biggest challenges of 2020 along with advice on how to address these issues in 2021.

Each issue the experts mentioned can be linked back to the COVID-19 pandemic, so with that in mind, here are three ways the coronavirus impacted corrections in 2020:

For corrections, as well as for the rest of the world, the greatest challenge in 2020 has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
For corrections, as well as for the rest of the world, the greatest challenge in 2020 has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Roundtable participants

  • Jenna Curren, MS, is an assistant professor of criminal justice studies and a former Connecticut DOC lieutenant
  • Craig Gottschalk is an officer at Saunders County Corrections
  • Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC, is the founding director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach (DWCO), and a licensed professional counselor in Colorado
  • Gary York worked as a senior prison inspector for 12 years.

1. officer wellness

For corrections, as well as for the rest of the world, the greatest challenge in 2020 has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some reasons why.

Due to being considered essential personnel, many correctional professionals do not have the luxury of working from home. Rather, they have to report to their institutions, where social distancing is practically impossible.

Because of COVID-19, staff are contending with a threat to their lives unlike any they have encountered before. They are dealing with an enemy that is mysterious and unpredictable regarding its symptoms and its long-term effects, an enemy that appears to be everywhere, and that spreads in ways that are very difficult to control. And this threat remains open-ended, with no clear end in sight.

This enemy does not only threaten staff’s physical bodies; it also takes a high toll on their psycho-spiritual health through the stirring up of confusion and chaos, and the stealing of their peace of mind.

Fighting COVID-19 requires a whole new set of skills, as the coping tools staff have honed over the years to address physical danger or psychological manipulation do not apply here.

Dozens of correctional staff have reportedly died due to complications related to COVID-19, causing their coworkers untold grief and fear. In addition, many employees are out on sick leave or on quarantine at home due to their exposure to someone who has tested positive, causing unprecedented staff shortages, and necessitating that the remaining staff work overtime more than usual.

Some of the staff who did get sick due to COVID-19 have to contend with lingering symptoms, such as fatigue or coughing, even after their presumed recovery.

Due to the novelty of this virus, correctional agencies have had to change policies and procedures, perhaps more than once, as to how to best deal with this threat to protect staff and the incarcerated individuals in their care. Like trying to hit a moving target, the lack of certainty and clarity adds to officers' anxieties.

Political feuding about the use of facial coverings and social distancing, with arguments for and against, have created more confusion, animosity and emotional strain.

Moreover, the threat to health is not limited to staff. Rather COVID goes home with officers and threatens the health of their family members or whoever else they live with or interact with outside of work. Consequently, officers have the added burden of trying to improvise ways to keep from contaminating their loved ones. These concerns add to their ongoing, 24/7, worries related to the novel coronavirus.

Because of these reasons, purposefully investing in correctional staff wellness is crucial. Agencies need to provide practical and social support, resources and interventions to help get their staff through this crisis, and help them stay well in body, soul and spirit.

– Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC

This year has been one of the most challenging for corrections in decades. Correctional and detention staff have been faced with controlling the spread of COVID-19. Unlike many public employees, COs do not have the option of a “virtual check-in.” Officers must be present daily with inmates in often crowded conditions with little to poor ventilation. Every week we read about an officer testing positive with COVID-19 or worse, dying from a COVID-19 related illness.

Health experts advise people to get plenty of movement, lots of sunshine, rest and a good diet. For correctional officers, this is much easier said than done. Working regular days plus mandatory overtime in a prison or jail leaves very little time for officer self-care. Still, our brave men and women show up to work to protect our communities and face these dangers the best way they can.

– Gary York

With 2020 being a year of unprecedented times, a continued critical issue facing corrections is providing various resources to our staff, ensuring they are mentally, physically and emotionally fit to work in an environment where they are expected to protect and serve, regardless of the circumstances.

Working in a hazardous-duty position with the added stress of a deadly pandemic, only exemplifies the need for administrations to ensure they are providing their staff the support needed to continue to work at the level expected of them.

All officers, supervisors and support staff need to be given additional training on how to avoid “burn out.” All correctional staff also need to be trained on how to handle the various levels of trauma that they may face from working in a correctional setting during a pandemic. They should be aware of primary, secondary and vicarious traumas and, of course, be equipped with the tools necessary to acknowledge, understand and work through those traumas.

If we push training to the side, we will hinder the growth necessary for our staff to continue to do the important job that they do and if we ignore the fact that the pandemic has changed the way we run our daily operations, then we will face even greater challenges related to staffing issues, burn out and turnover rates in the coming years.

– Jenna Curren, MS

2. STAFF SHORTAGES

Due to dangerously low staffing levels from COVID-19, early retirement and slow recruitment, many states are having to shut down prisons just to have enough staff to handle the workload at other prisons.

On December 1, 2020, Texas officials announced that three more prisons will be shut down after already closing three lockups in September 2020. Even with the early release of inmates due to the pandemic, state prison systems are shorter staffed than normal this year. 

Although prison staffing shortages have always been an issue, 2020 has seen reports from all 50 states showing that staffing this year is more critical than we have seen in a long time. What are some of the causes of 2020’s staff shortages? Here are a few:

  • Officers leaving the job for fear of bringing an infectious disease home to a family member;
  • Officers retiring early due to being overworked due to staff shortages;
  • Officers leaving because of illness;
  • Sign-on bonuses are no longer attractive to new hires due to the current climate in corrections;
  • More risk this year and no pay raises for many states.

I personally know 12 officers who tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020; fortunately, all survived. Of those 12, seven retired a few years before they planned on retiring. They wanted to build up their pension a little more but said they had just had enough.

– Gary York

3. COMMUNICATION

Besides the physical, emotional and institutional challenges brought forward by the coronavirus, the corrections family has probably been most impacted by the failure of communication from political leaders, medical experts and administrators alike.

If anything, COVID-19 proved the value of open and honest communication throughout the year. When officers, inmates, administrators and operating agencies failed to receive open, direct and honest communication from medical experts and policy-makers, we were left to fend for ourselves as the pandemic began. What began as individual facility scrambles to meet local health authority guidelines transformed into broad intra-facility communication and cooperative efforts with judicial authorities and law enforcement as to facility entry and operational protocols. Most cooperative efforts are in place to this day.

Throughout – the communication from administration to floor officers - was critical to the success and acceptance of new and intrusive operational protocols, including the mandatory use of PPE when on duty. Like any group of individuals – blanket statements of “this will be how it is done” versus “let’s put together the best strategy to keep each officer safe and our inmates safe” and inclusion in the process provided the best acceptance and adherence to new operational guidelines. Officer buy-in increased substantially when they were included in the process. When communication was not efficient or truthful, the system was nearly inoperable.

Communication will be our biggest challenge in 2021 and to continue successful and safe operations of all facilities, communication needs to be the tantamount core value of officer and administrative interactions.                                                                          

– Craig Gottschalk  

LOOKING AHEAD

Correctional officers are warriors standing between criminals and society. We must strive to maintain a positive attitude and move into 2021 knowing that things can and will get better. COVID-19 will not last forever. Dedicated officers will always come forward and get the job done because it is in our blood. We will need some help in 2021 with adequate funding for corrections and political backing. Bombard your state legislature with letters and phone calls to help the prison system. We must flood politicians with our demands until they listen. Even in difficult situations we can find the best and remain positive. Let’s all work together to make 2021 a great year. Thank you everyone for your dedicated service.

– Gary York

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