How 'us against them' causes corrections fatigue

It is possible to be humane toward offenders while focusing on maintaining safety, leading to increased career satisfaction


Let’s look at two scenarios.

Scenario 1

Correctional worker 1 looks forward to going to work. He has a supervisor he can approach to get questions answered and to get support as needed, and he has coworkers who pull their own weight and get along with each other reasonably well. He is strongly driven to impact offenders positively, even if in small ways that may seem insignificant to some.

It takes tremendous amounts of interpersonal skill and self-control to balance prioritizing physical safety considerations with attempts to be a positive and supportive role model on the other.
It takes tremendous amounts of interpersonal skill and self-control to balance prioritizing physical safety considerations with attempts to be a positive and supportive role model on the other. (Corrections1)

He views his work as a way to earn an income and an opportunity to keep people safe, as well as role model life skills to incarcerated offenders. He follows policy, consistently holding the line with offenders, keeping them accountable, and treating them firmly, fairly and respectfully.

He also consistently tells offenders that he believes they can do better than where they’re at if they apply themselves and take advantage of opportunities offered to them during their incarceration.

Scenario 2

Correctional worker 2 dreads going to work even though he has a supervisor he can approach to get questions answered and to get support as needed, and even though he has coworkers who pull their own weight and get along with each other reasonably well. Quite simply, he hates his job and despises offenders. He’s even said that he feels like a prostitute because he works in corrections just for the money.

He feels like he is wasting his life watching people all day long, and trying to get them to comply with orders that they do not want to follow. He sees no point in what he is doing. His attitude is reinforced by coworkers who hold the same views, and by the revolving door of recidivism – learning of yet another released offender who is convicted of yet another crime.

My interactions with correctional staff across the nation during the past 20 years lead me to conclude that corrections as a profession is in dire need of an increase in the number of staff who fall in the first of the two categories described above – those who find positive meaning and purpose in their work.

Finding positive meaning

Imagine what it would be like if the majority of correctional staff looked forward to going to work, not only for the paycheck and benefits, but also because they knew that once in a while they would have the opportunity to make a difference for the better there, both by keeping others safe and by influencing offenders positively within policy – even if only occasionally and even if only in small ways.

Imagine if they did not view their job as walking into a war zone for 8 or 12 or 16 hours per day, where they are essentially warehousing people who hate being there, and where they are constantly in harm’s way, sometimes witnessing unspeakable horrors, only to return the next day to do the same thing all over again.

After his liberation, Viktor Frankl, MD, who survived four Nazi concentration camps, wrote a book titled, "Man’s Search for Meaning." In it he proposed that striving to create positive meaning in response to life’s events is human beings’ most powerful motivating force. Frankl suggested that finding positive meaning makes it possible for people to endure even unimaginable adversity, suffering and loss.

One way for us to create positive meaning is by doing something that makes a positive difference in other people’s lives, something that impacts them for the better. Prosocial people derive a sense of joy and satisfaction from knowing that they are investing their time, energy and money in something that can make the world a better place, even if this effect is limited to a very small corner of the world.

For two decades I’ve addressed the realities of corrections fatigue in correctional staff’s lives. By corrections fatigue, I am referring to the negative changes in staff’s personality, health, functioning, core beliefs and behaviors, and in the entire workforce culture, due to the cumulative and interacting effects of work-related stressors.

For years in the course, “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment,” I've taught that lack of positive meaning about the job contributes to the build-up of corrections fatigue in staff and that finding positive meaning in the job helps corrections fatigue to diminish and a sense of fulfillment to flourish.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the essence of corrections work – what is done, why and how. It seems to me that, at least in the U.S., corrections work sets correctional workers up for job dissatisfaction, for corrections fatigue, right from the start. This is the case particularly for custody staff who are tasked primarily with maintaining institutional safety.

Adopting an adversarial posture

One reason for this is that, simply by virtue of their respective uniforms, correctional workers usually enter a workplace dominated by an “us against them” mentality in relation to staff’s relationship to offenders. Staff are asked to control and gain the compliance of individuals who are automatically viewed as their enemy, as liars, “con artist” manipulators and a threat to their lives.

In order to survive such an environment and not be assaulted or deceived, staff may adopt an adversarial, confrontational posture with those they manage, and erect high psychological walls to avoid getting manipulated. Staff learn to “lump” all offenders together as “bad people,” as dangerous criminals without a conscience who have committed horrific crimes.

This “us against them” mindset becomes the staff’s default setting when they interact with them, resulting in staff getting “stuck” in a confrontational mode, even when that is not necessary. Their fundamental goal becomes enforcing their will over that of the offenders while staying safe. The job becomes about who is going to win this power struggle, this battle of the wills, about who is going to outwit whom. This can lead to an escalation of conflict and possible violence that could have been avoided. Of course, these negative exchanges add to staff’s corrections fatigue and job dissatisfaction and reinforce the belief that all offenders are always dangerous and always up to no good.

Diminished humanity

Sooner or later, staff may lose sight of the humanity of the individuals in front of them. Disrespect of the offenders is not far behind. Offender communication is dismissed as most likely fabrication or deception. When people are treated with contempt, they are very likely to respond in kind and live down to our expectations. (And conversely, if we treat them in ways that safeguard their basic human dignity, some of them may surprise us by rising to the level of our expectations.)

Associated with the “us against them” mindset is the belief that all offenders are “lost causes,” hopeless, irredeemable, too “broken” to be “fixable.” This dramatically lessens the probability they will interact with offenders in constructive ways since they have come to believe that this will be a waste of time and effort. Or, if offenders seem to be making progress, staff may regard that as a temporary, fake, or manipulative “con,” perhaps as a way to earn “good time” or to increase their chances of parole.

Yes, some offenders have embraced a life of crime, and will not want to change. Others though are distressed enough by the consequences of their criminal actions that they are seeking ways out of the pit they got themselves in. Some of those may be dealing with addictions or other mental health struggles. Or they may come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds of poverty or limited educational or employment opportunities. Others may have difficulty making wise decisions or controlling their impulses.

In war zones, military personnel must maintain an attitude of readiness to combat their enemies and a clear “us against them” distinction. However, that stance is usually adopted for a relatively short time – months or a few years. Correctional staff, however, may maintain this hostile posture (at least while at work) for literally decades. It becomes exhausting to maintain such a warrior stance long-term as it involves generating the stress response in their bodies over and over again, eventually possibly leading to inflammation, which has been associated with physical illnesses. It takes a lot of energy to keep up a combative, hostile mindset, hypervigilance, and readiness to react. It is no surprise that sooner or later staff get worn down due to the build-up of corrections fatigue.

It is understandable that staff may take a mental shortcut and “lump” all of the offenders together as “evil.” Especially in institutions where there are high rates of violence, it is easier and faster to categorize all incarcerated individuals as being one step away from major manipulation or homicide than to try to assess each person’s status on an ongoing basis. It is easier to write people off and remain disengaged than to engage with them as human beings. These are natural reactions, part of our survival mechanism, based on the maxim, “Better safe than sorry.” To keep us physically safe, the brain in post-traumatic mode is dedicated to our survival by remaining “ON,” hypervigilant, seeing threat and danger “behind every bush,” and being ready to go to battle in a heartbeat, at the least provocation.

A cycle of negativity

It takes tremendous amounts of interpersonal skill and self-control to balance setting sound professional limits and prioritizing physical safety considerations on the one hand, with attempts to be a positive and supportive role model on the other. It takes effort, skill and wisdom to develop professional boundaries that are not bunkers, and that are not swiss cheese either. And it takes much more time and energy to evaluate people on an ongoing basis, judging each person on their own merit, than to assume that all offenders are “bad news.” It is especially challenging to do all that when dealing with people who may be habitually trying to push or even collapse other people’s boundaries, or who may be continually looking for ways to manipulate and exploit others’ weaknesses.

And when staff are exhausted physically and emotionally due to being understaffed or due to other demands and complexities of the job, they may simply have no desire, energy, or time to engage offenders in positive ways.

Yet, if these views of “us against them” are left unchallenged and unchecked, and if the effects of psychological trauma remain untreated and unresolved, corrections staff end up with two negatives. Firstly, they get locked in a mindset that impairs their ability to skillfully prevent or de-escalate conflict with offenders. Hostility is almost guaranteed to beget hostility, with violence being not far behind, reinforcing the destructive cycle and the “us against them” mindset. Secondly, staff are robbed of opportunities to satisfy the primary driving force for deriving satisfaction at work – the creation of positive meaning. This leads to ever-increasing despair and a sense of futility – corrections fatigue.

How to balance safety with meaning

Over the past several years, several correctional departments have moved toward promoting more in-depth communication with offenders, including treatment and rehabilitation efforts.

From speaking with staff of various ranks and job descriptions across the country, my impression is that some do not “buy” into this approach, because they feel unsafe following the new protocols. They may even regard the new approach of their agency as sacrificing staff safety for political correctness. Hardwired for survival, staff are driven by a strong urge to keep their psychological shields up, to not engage the offenders in significant conversations, to not relate to them as people. 

What can then be done for correctional staff to achieve more of a balance between safety and helping within policy, vigilance and meaning, without embracing a possibly perilous Pollyanna perspective?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Try not to view offenders as if they are all the same, cut out with the same cookie cutter. The reality is that they all have different histories, abilities, skill sets, soul injuries, motivations and genetic makeup. Staff need to study the offenders in their care and, as much as they can, identify their strengths and weaknesses, their assets and liabilities, and their ways of operating. And these observations need to be ongoing and focused on looking for patterns and consistency (or the absence thereof).
  2. It may help to remind oneself that no matter what their history or pathology, incarcerated people are still human beings. And because of that, they should be treated with fundamental respect, to honor their basic dignity, a dignity that does not have to be earned; it is simply there from the start. Those who come from a spiritual/faith perspective may find it helpful to remember the saying that humans are created in God’s image and likeness. That little phrase can help them hold onto the possibility that underneath all the horror, hopelessness, or violence, a divine flame is burning, even if it is only flickering.
  3. Realize that you have the opportunity to be a positive role model to offenders. Conduct yourself with dignity and quiet strength. Focus on staying calm and civil, firm and fair, and do not react in anger when frustrated. At the end of the day, review your shift, and note where you did not take the bait of provocation, where you laid down the law (instead of coping by looking the other way), where you confronted as needed, where you provided help. Let these moments be sources of satisfaction for you.
  4. Look for ways to influence offenders positively, and remember that you can help different offenders in different ways and to different degrees. Some may be helped to never come back. Others may be helped to the point that they come back after four years instead of after six months. Some may be helped to complete their GED, others to learn to not explode whenever they get angry. Some may be helped to learn how to keep their cell tidy, others to communicate with family members in civil ways. Some may be helped to learn to knit, others may be ready to be taught parenting skills. Some may be helped to learn to admit when they do something wrong, others may be helped to learn that they can legitimately ask for something they need.
  5. When offenders seem to be making progress and you wonder if they are faking, give them time. Sit back and observe their behavior. Ask other staff from your shift or from other shifts how these offenders behave around them. Watch, ask questions and give them opportunities to make choices, and see how they behave long-term. Very few people can fake positive changes for months or years on end.
  6. Correctional agencies should offer staff in-depth training in communication and other interpersonal offender management skills.
  7. Correctional agencies should offer resources for staff to deal with occupational stressors, including exposure to trauma, such as EAP and other mental health services that specialize in trauma resolution for public safety personnel, and peer support based on best practices.
  8. It is imperative that supervisors treat subordinates with respect and consideration, modeling to them the behaviors they want their subordinates to implement with offenders.
  9. What if the “us against them” was replaced by an “us and them” mindset? Not in the sense that staff and offenders are one team (they are not!), but in the sense that they are two teams that affect one another profoundly, two teams that co-exist in the same environment – the same pressure cooker – for a season. If so, maintaining their professionalism can make the staff’s experience as safe, constructive, and meaningful as possible.

And yes, there’ll be times when staff will be tricked and taken advantage of due to their giving an offender the benefit of the doubt. In fact, a friend of mine – a retired correctional professional – told me that everybody who works in corrections gets “taken” at least once during their correctional career. However, the key is what one does with that experience. Will they determine to never ever again extend themselves to be helpful to offenders? Or will they analyze the situation, and try to identify what they missed, and what they can do differently next time?

Some of the healthiest and most satisfied correctional professionals I met combined being humane toward offenders (respectful and caring, as the situation required), with focusing on maintaining safety and security (following policy, setting limits and holding offenders and staff accountable). They never used degrading terms with offenders, and they treated all offenders with courtesy and civility. And at the same time, they never befriended offenders, they did not try to meet their own needs through offenders, and they never forgot the heart of their agency’s mission – to keep offenders, staff, and surrounding communities safe.

A retired correctional administrator who came up through the ranks told me that he still has a shoebox full of “thank you” letters that he received from offenders throughout his 30+ years career in corrections. He told me that it felt good to know that he had influenced some people positively to some degree during the course of his career and that these notes reminded him that his work had value. Yes, someone may say that these letters were manipulative attempts to earn favor or trust in order to trick and exploit. That is always a possibility. But all of them? That is highly unlikely. And even if only one was genuine, it would be grounds for deep satisfaction and mission success.

Reprinted with permission from the January 2021 issue of the Correctional Oasis, the monthly ezine of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach.

2020 © Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC

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