Corrections officers: A stress-free life?

According to CareerCast, an internet career site, "correctional officer" was not in the top 20 stressful jobs this year

I was checking out CareerCast's most stressful jobs of 2010, and to my surprise, "correctional officer" was not in the top 20. Maybe even more amazing were the jobs that are on the list, including real estate agent, advertising executive and public relations officer. I'll bet many of you would beg to differ.

In fact, a C.O. who read the article was so astounded that his job was not considered, he decided to educate CareerCast and its readers with some choice comments. Here's what the anonymous commenter said: "A correctional officer's job is often considered dangerous with inmate confrontations in many injuries and death. C.O.'s are expected to control their emotions...respect and nurture. Yet discipline prisoners who have an us-against-them mentality."

Prison employees have a double stress whammy which doesn't compare to many other jobs. Unlike a police officer or an EMT, you are inside the facility throughout your entire shift, compounding the pressure.

"There is no escape or reprieve to the outside world," explains psychologist Marissa Mauro. "You're dealing with crisis situations like fighting among inmates, suicide attempts, suicide ideation, attempted homicide, medical emergencies, personal threats and prison lock downs." On top of this, it's still tough to admit you need to see a shrink, as this is seen as a sign of weakness instead of as a sign of strength.

Mauro says she often refers C.O.'s who come to her with mental health concerns to a civilian therapist. Get over being embarrassed about it. Or the job will eat you up, she said.

Manny Borquez, a former Western Region union leader sees therapy as a must if you're having psychological problems associated with the job. Years ago, he was on the front lines fighting for change in mental health policy.

His issue? Borquez believed it was imperative that a C.O. with mental health issues, should be compensated for seeing both therapists outside the prison as well as for seeking help fromstaff psychologists. He was always skeptical seeing counselors employed by the prison, he says, "...because you always felt the inside guys were gonna tell on ya." It was Borquez who fought and broke that glass ceiling by convincing the Regional Director that prison staff should have a choice of therapists. "That way, more people actually went for help!" he says.

Borquez had a terrifying experience himself as a young C.O. just starting out. One fateful day, he was ordered to make a medical run during a freezing storm. He knew the driving conditions were going to be bad, and told his supervisors he didn't think he should make the trip on the icy roads; but, no one would listen to him.

He got the inmates inside the facility van, buckled everyone up, and, with every bone in his body screaming not to do it, he started the ignition. He'd only gone three miles when the accident happened. His van skidded on merciless black ice and one inmate was killed. It took Borquez years of therapy to accept what happened: "I live with the guilt to this day."

All in the family
Borquez likely had PTSD from the accident, a condition Dr. Mauro sees frequently from her patients. "PTSD is possible in any situation in which an individual perceives an event as traumatic." And there are many situations inside a prison which can cause emotional trauma.

Borquez describes the career of a prison employee this way: "It's intense. You're always on edge because you never know when something's going to happen. Staff members go off the deep end. They commit suicide. There are lots of broken marriages."

Mauro says family therapy is a good idea if a C.O. is struggling to separate work from home. Sometimes, domestic violence becomes an issue. "Families can be affected in a number of ways. For example, large amounts of time spent at work, stress brought into the home environment from the prison, and increased hyper-vigilance come with the job."

She advises jail staff to " make sure they take time for themselves." By the way, operating in such an intimate environment, it's easy to get close to the inmates you see every day, but Mauro advises against it. That means don't tell them about your kids or your hobbies. If a prisoner attempts to get too close, shut the relationship down. "As with any professional relationship, clearly state your boundaries."

Working inside a prison is a job unlike any other in terms of drama and intensity. Maybe next year you'll break into the top 20 at CareerCast! As an outsider looking in, I'd put your stress level up there with anyone who works in public relations or real estate.

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