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Book excerpt: Respect: It’s Not Enough

Veteran CO offers effective coping methods to combat the stress-filled career of a correctional officer

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Arthur H. Mooneyhan spent three decades working in the prison system. He is also an ordained pastor and evangelist. In “Respect: It’s Not Enough” he shares real stories from the streets and inside the prison walls that emphasize the value of respect. His book offers life-changing healthy intervention and alternative solutions to help correctional officers contend with the potential adversities of the correctional occupation. The following is an excerpt from his book. Click here to order.


Arthur H. Mooneyhan spent 30 years working in the prison system.

To add to an already stress-filled situation, the environment inside most correctional facilities is ever-changing and extremely unpredictable. There are outside CDCR buses and other transportation units relocating inmates in and out of different facilities every day. Inside the correctional facilities, inmate movement is also conducted in the form of bed, yard and cell moves. This repetitive movement causes a continual substitution and the potential for turmoil among the inmate population.

I spent the majority of my career on level two and three facilities. In this level of custody, inmates have plenty of freedom to spend on the open yard, outside their housing units, to partake in yard activities, to converse or conflict, during daylight hours and into the evening well after daylight hours. Malice and menacing are common during yard activities, making the prison yard continually infused with the potential for upheaval among the inmate population.

Sometimes there are signs of tension in the yard that would indicate a problem. Large groups of inmates congregated together for protection because they are at war with another ethnicity or gang. Or inmates dressed for “combat” by wearing multiple clothing layers with heavy jackets to try to shield them from stabbing instruments used during an altercation. Other times there is no warning at all. An emergency alarm sounds or a radio call is transmitted, and your routine day erupts into utter chaos. You immediately respond to the affected area to access the situation and offer your assistance. You normally have no idea what kind of havoc or situation you will be running into – melee, riot, staff assault, cutter, hanger, weapons involved. All these haunting thoughts and many more echo and race through your mind as you respond with all diligence.

It appears that more research seems to be surfacing regarding the lives and job-related stress associated with a correctional officer’s career and the catastrophic cumulative effects on a CO’s health. It’s a long time coming being that the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, the Denver Post and other resources state that the national life span average is 77, whereas a correctional officer’s life span plummets to 59. There always seems to be a lot of talk about prison reform, but correctional officers are being left out of the conversation!

Correctional officers have a 39% higher suicide rate, PTSD rates 10 times higher than the general population, a divorce rate that’s 20% higher than the national average, and heart disease affects us at a rate that is 50% higher than any other occupation. These statistics are sobering, even more so because they are so underreported.

We walk around with our arms pumped up and our chests out and say to ourselves, “I got this,” when in reality, no, you don’t “have it,” but in time, overwhelming stats dictate that it will probably get you! Stress, PTSD, heart disease, and these other mentioned ailments are silent but violent killers! They are no respecters of pride, status, or personality, and they don’t always give you a warning until you are infected and never even saw it coming. These devastating wounds are not visible from the outside.

I know that there are many out there who are in the same position I was. It’s not like you have the option to simply change your career overnight and do something different or less stressful. You are not automatically predestined to be a product of your work environment, surroundings, or the adverse conditions that so often accompany your stressful carrier. But if you don’t have a life outside your job, chances are you will! Because the hardest prison to escape is in our own mind.

There are healthy habits and programs that you can incorporate into your personal lives that will defer or even eliminate these stats from ever becoming part of your personal story. Be intentional to formulate some non-work-related healthy activities.

Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Get involved in a church. No, I don’t only say that because I am a pastor! In a good, healthy church, you and the whole family can get involved, which does wonders for your personal and family health, strengthening that family bond.
  • Walk and talk with family, friends, or both, perhaps at a park, school, or after mapping out multiple trails.
  • Kayak, paddleboard, or go fishing.
  • Take up a hobby or pursue an interest.
  • Work out at home or join a gym and work out. Exercise is essential for stress relief, whether swimming, running, Pilates or whatever!
  • Listen to some soothing, relaxing music.
  • Drink tea, or another soothing non-alcoholic beverage, which will assist in those negative stats not becoming part of your personal life story!
  • Forgive: When you choose not to forgive and get over it, no matter how bad the circumstances, you remain the victim!
  • Accept people for who or what they are! You only drive yourself mad when you get angry and judgmental, disapproving of others. And it doesn’t change a thing.
  • Volunteer in your child’s classroom, whatever the teacher would have you to help with, class projects, field trips, and so forth.
  • Go to the school office and request to take your child out of school and take them out for a special lunch. They will remember it forever!
  • Make an agreement with your spouse that when you get home from work and change clothes, you are to be left alone in an isolated area like your bedroom for thirty minutes or so to change clothes, shut your eyes, and relax before getting involved in your home life duties and responsibilities.
  • Have open talk family meetings with your spouse and kids, asking them for their honest opinion: Are things okay? What needs to change? What do we need to do differently? Ask them open-end questions and listen to their responses.
  • Above all, do not let your pride or ego get the best of you. If you need outside professional help, then get it! It’s available to you and is normally free of charge, due to your high-stress occupation.

I can honestly say there are probably a handful of inmates that I have had interactions with throughout my career whom I would feel totally at ease with having as a next-door neighbor.

One, in particular, was an inmate clerk during my tenure as an outside community work crew sergeant. We will call him Mike. Mike told me his story, and I will never forget it. He explained to me that he came from a single-parent home. His mother had passed when he was young, so his dad raised him alone. Right after graduating from high school, Mike wanted to attend a university. Although his dad was very wealthy, he told his son, “Mike, I found a way to do it on my own, and you are going to do the same. I’m not paying any money for your college education.” Mike went on to tell me that he was an avid scuba diver at the Channel Islands, an area that I was familiar with off the coast of California, in the Pacific Ocean. He was also a part-owner of a large boat with two other friends, and they frequently used it to accommodate their fishing and diving excursions.

One day a man approached the young men at their boat dock, and he explained to them that they could utilize their vessel to pick up a package for him across the border of Mexico, just a few times a year, and make a lot of money. Mike now had his way to “do it on his own” and pay for his college education. His new way of doing things paid for his entire university education. The problem was that after he graduated, he thought, Now I am going to work a regular nine-to-five job when I can do this a couple of times a year and make a whole lot more money, live comfortably, with plenty of free time to do what I want?

Mike and his counterparts were arrested for drug trafficking, and he was serving his time in the state prison. He said that it gave him a lot of time to slow down and think about how stupid a choice he made being young and dumb. That if he didn’t get arrested, he would be fish food on the bottom of the ocean somewhere. He then made a statement that I will never forget: “So when I was arrested, I wasn’t so much arrested as I was rescued from my stupidity!”

There are those occurrences when the system proves effective, and this was one of them.

About the author

Arthur Mooneyhan retired after a 30-year career in the prison system, inclusive of 25 years as a correctional sergeant. He worked in two different correctional facilities. He served as a trainer in conflict management, in-service training instructor, and also on the negotiation management team where he held the position of primary negotiator for multiple years. He is also a pastor and evangelist who has served the church as a youth minister, young adult leader, teacher, counselor and missions multiple times in different countries around the world.