A letter to my corrections family during the COVID-19 crisis

Caring for ourselves during trying times can help keep our lives in balance

By Maya J. Mason

I’m worried about you. To be clear, I’m not worried about your ability to do your job during this stressful time. Correctional officers tend to thrive in a crisis. We will outperform the masses when the stress is on. We show up physically and mentally when things are crazy or dangerous, and when others are panicking.

I’m worried about you for two reasons:

Stress levels are high right now, which requires extra energy, so something has to give.
Stress levels are high right now, which requires extra energy, so something has to give. (Photo/CorrectionsOne)

1. Stress levels are high right now, which requires extra energy, so something has to give.

2. What will become of you when this is over?

What do I mean by something has got to give? Being amazing in the corrections field can take away your humanity if you aren’t careful. Hopefully, you have found a balance, but let’s not pretend that this outbreak hasn’t upset that balance. Things at home and work are crazy. The things you have done to maintain your humanity are now going to be more difficult, if not impossible.

So with additional stressors combined with fewer opportunities to manage them, something will suffer. What will it be? For the first three days that the reality of this crisis set in for me, I don’t think my toddlers’ teeth got brushed. What is going to suffer for you? Your family, your physical or mental health, your home, your finances, all of the above?

What happens when the pandemic ends?

When this is over, what will happen to us? With an estimated death toll of up to a million people, almost everyone left will likely be affected by a COVID-19 death. This will be a traumatized world.

Correctional officers may slip into “fix-it” mode without even noticing. Instead of slowing down to tend to ourselves, if we aren’t careful, we will choose only to look outward to fix things: facilities, families, communities. While others are tending to their wounds, we’ll still be burning the candle from both ends. While this may seem noble, we all know you can burn the candle from both ends for only so long without feeling the effects.

I’m still youngish and I’m healthy. If I contract the coronavirus, I will likely survive. But I need to do more than survive. I need to thrive. My children need a mom, not a robot. If I’m going to thrive, even in a crisis, I need to remember I am more than a corrections officer. The best way to protect myself, my facility, coworkers, family and community is by occasionally taking off my corrections hat and attending to myself as a human being. Doing this will be different for all of us and deciding how to do this will take energy we might not think we have. But as far as I’m concerned, it's not optional.

How to cope during the crisis

My primary client population is our high trauma group and I coordinate our peer support team. I also have been successfully managing an anxiety disorder for most of my adult life. With this combined knowledge and experience, I’ve compiled a list of suggestions on how to maintain our balance during and after this crisis:

Eat well: Schedules during this time will become overloaded. Forced overtime will become our norm. Tensions will run high in our client population and we will see an increase in critical incidents. Still, you must eat. We all know that like a car without gas, humans without food do not function and this is especially true during stressful times. Make time to eat. There is still fresh produce in most grocery stores, try to incorporate them. If you do contract COVID-19, you need all the vitamins and minerals you can get.

Drink water: For similar reasons as to why we need to focus on eating, we need to stay hydrated. Dehydrated bodies cause disoriented brains. Stay hydrated to stay sharp.

Sleep as much as you can: Unusual schedules paired with forced overtime make sleep seem like a fantasy. But find the time. Sleep is essential to your functionality and virus-fighting abilities. Even power naps are better than nothing. If you need help sleeping, check out these hacks.  

Be mindful of personal hygiene: There’s a lot of focus right now on flawless handwashing; please keep doing that. But also remember your entire hygiene routine. Making time for a shower or bath can help you mentally slough off stress and distress.

Create and embrace new routines: This crisis creates major changes at home and work. Instead of doing the bare minimum to make the changes work for now embrace these as long-term changes. Most tasks are harder when you are only half invested. Even if these changes are temporary, embracing them as long-term will make them easier.

Find ways to do things that lower your stress. If you are a gym person, find a way to do your workout at home. If you generally enjoy having a beer with a buddy once a week, then a video chat beer may be in order. These might not be great substitutes for the real deal, but they are better than nothing. Find your substitutes and embrace them. 

Practice ”earthing”: Earthing is a nature-focused form of grounding. Grounding has been shown to have so many benefits for stress. Thankfully, COVID-19 has not taken the outdoors from us. Go to your yard or balcony. Breathe the air, touch the dirt, feel the sun. Check out this info on earthing.

Be fully present for social interaction: Whatever social interactions you’re having now, whether with coworkers or family, whether they are from six feet away or via video chat, be mentally and emotionally present. Make sure you are listening. Take joy in other people’s joy and feel sadness when others feel sadness. You must make sure you connect with others. Check out ideas here.  

Limit media usage: This is a time where it would be easy to take in too much screen time. It may be harder than ever to limit your screen time but look for alternatives, perhaps books, cooking, building, organizing, or painting. Besides the damage that screens can generally do to our mental health, now our screens also contain constant information about COVID-19. Chances are, you know what you need to know about the virus at this point. Give yourself a break from COVID-19 when you are home.

Make lists: Make two lists a day. Create one list of things that must be done and one list of things you want to do. When you’ve completed the things you must do, you may look at the want-to list, This will help you prioritize, keep perspective and stay organized. When you get to the end of the day, throw your lists away. Don’t wake up the next morning with yesterday’s list weighing on your brain.

Listen to music: Music is medicine for the soul.

Brothers and sisters, stay strong, be well, maintain hope, ask for help. We’ll get through this together, - although from six feet apart.

About the author

Maya Mason is a facility-based juvenile probation officer in Anoka County, Minnesota. She has worked in the criminal justice field for more than 10 years after completing her bachelor’s degree in legal studies and a minor in criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin Madison. Maya primarily works with female offenders with extensive trauma histories. Maya is the founder and coordinator of the Anoka County Juvenile Center’s Peer Support Team. Maya also writes for Twiniversity and MN Parent Magazine.   

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