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Here’s why COs are a vital part of public safety

To the person who would still question the role that prisons play in public safety, I’d like them to imagine our country without them


AP Photo/David Goldman

“Historically, correctional officers have been viewed as ‘guards,’ occupying isolated and misunderstood positions in prisons and jails. In recent years, the duties of these officers have become increasingly complex and demanding. They are called upon to fill, simultaneously, custodial, supervisory and counseling roles. The professionalism, dedication and courage exhibited by these officers throughout the performance of these demanding and often conflicting roles deserve our utmost respect. The important work of correctional officers often does not receive the recognition from the public it deserves. It is appropriate that we honor the many contributions and accomplishments of these men and women who are a vital component of the field of corrections.”

-President Ronald Reagan, Corrections Week Proclamation 5187, May 5, 1984

During Corrections Week it’s important to recognize the contribution made by correctional workers across the country. Corrections may be the most underappreciated of all professions within the public safety field. This is our opportunity to send the message to corrections staff and to the public that the profession of corrections is important and the service that they provide is vital to creating and maintaining safe communities.

It’s understandable that the contribution and role of corrections staff goes largely unnoticed, especially considering that there is confusion even within the correctional community about the role they fill. Within some states, correctional officers have full peace officer status. In other states, correctional officers have limited peace officer status. Yet in others, there is no designated peace officer status for correctional officers. There are even those working within corrections who deny that correctional officers have any role in law enforcement. With this in mind, it’s no wonder the corrections industry continues to suffer an identity crisis within the field of public safety.

Denying that correctional officers have a law enforcement role reveals a lack of knowledge with regard to the duties of correctional officers and to the laws of the land. Each day correctional officers break up fights; stop physical assaults and sexual assaults. Each day correctional officers are tasked with preventing escapes and contraband trafficking within correctional facilities. So each day correctional officers enforce laws within our nation’s correctional facilities. Again, denying the law enforcement role of correctional officers reveals a lack of knowledge with regard to the duties of correctional officers and to the laws of the land.

Those working within community corrections also suffer the same identity crisis. Their roles and value within law enforcement are largely diminished even as they enforce laws and orders of the court. Like their brothers and sisters working within prison facilities, probation and parole officers are consistently asked to do more with less. All of this takes place as they deal with an increasingly dangerous population, as prisons are asked to make space and release offenders who would have previously served longer sentences.

In harm’s way

Most importantly, all corrections staff, whether working in correctional facilities or in a community corrections role, in a security role or in a support services role, place themselves in harm’s way each day in the name of public safety.

The statistics revealing the dangers of working in corrections are not indicative of what really happens each day in correctional facilities across our country. A criminal who harms or assaults a police officer on the street is generally sure to face criminal charges. These numbers are reflected in law enforcement reports and are indicative of the dangers of street policing.

Unfortunately, thousands of assaults take place each year within correctional institutions across the United States that are never reflected in these same reports. Why? Because many staff assaults occurring in jails and correctional institutions are handled internally through an administrative disciplinary process rather than through a formal criminal process. The result is an unrealistic and diminished view of the actual dangers inherent in corrections.

In what is perhaps the most challenging task for corrections professionals, they are expected to return offenders back to the communities better than when they left. In most cases they are successful, as a majority offenders never return to prison.

You service is important

Unfortunately, we don’t hear the success stories as they don’t seem to make good news stories. Instead, we hear only of those offenders who violated again, harmed society again. The fault and blame is often placed on the correctional departments rather than on those who make the laws and allocate money (or fail to allocate money) for rehabilitation efforts.

I’d like to remind correctional professionals across the country that the service you provide is important. The role that you provide to public safety is vital, and what you do matters.

To the person who would still question the role that prisons play in public safety, I’d like them to imagine our country without them.

Rusty began his career in 1997 working as a correctional officer at a men’s medium security prison. While working in the prison, he also served as K-9 sergeant, lieutenant and captain. He was a member of the Correctional Emergency Response Team for 15 years and held law enforcement instructor certifications in defensive tactics, chemical agents and firearms. In 2013 he became a full-time academy instructor where he instructed courses in several topics within the field of corrections and law enforcement. In 2019 he moved to his current position where he serves as a Department of Public Safety Bureau Chief. Rusty received his Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Bellevue University and completed graduate work at Fort Hayes State University. Rusty can be contacted by email.