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Ho, Ho, Ho Hum: Working over the holidays

A holiday survival guide for corrections professionals and their families


For many of us, the holidays are moved up or back a few days to accommodate our schedules.

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The holidays are here. Most people will spend the time preparing for the biggest holiday in the world without a second thought. As they are hanging their wreaths and lights, we are handing out food trays and responding to alarms; and for many of us, while people across the country open their Christmas morning gifts, correctional officers are in the middle of another workday.

holidays increase stress for both inmates and correctional officers

The holidays are rough in prison. Suicide rates increase among both inmates and correctional officers. Tempers can easily flare, often from bitterness about having to work, or being incarcerated during these times. To make things worse, those of us working in state institutions are often barred from showing any signs of celebration, as management feels this may upset those who do not share the same holidays as you and the inmates, who are without their families.

It is easy to see how the holidays can be very tough on those of us who not only have to work those days, but also face an increase in violence around the holidays. It is one thing to have to work on the holidays, it is another to see an increase in the workload – exponentially so – while doing so.

What is usually forgotten is that while you are at work, inmate families are often allowed to visit on Christmas day. So while the criminal – who has often committed horrendous crimes to earn their incarceration is sitting at a table with his family – our own families are without their CO.

The above are all problems we are keenly aware of as law enforcement professionals. These feelings are universal in our profession, both in our nation’s prisons and in our street counterparts. As professionals, we are expected to rise above these feelings, and continue our duties without bias throughout the season; not an easy task.

how to adjust to holiday schedules

For many of us, the holidays are moved up or back a few days to accommodate our schedules. This is a great way to celebrate the holidays but often affects our kids. For a child, no matter what celebrations there may be on our schedule; the actual holiday can be a drag when all their friends are celebrating.

This wears on the family too. For those of us lucky enough to be near extended family, it can hardly be expected that everyone’s holiday plans are moved around your work schedule. Here are some ways to make the holidays work for you:

  • Talk to your family about your holiday plans ahead of time. With all the added stress at work, the last thing you need in your life is to hear complaints from your family. If you haven’t done so yet, especially if this is your first holiday away from your family, sit down and talk to your spouse or loved one. You knew this day was coming, and it is up to you to help plan around work.
  • Use the time you do have to celebrate. Most of us work between eight to 12 hours per day. Even for those of us that are forced into overtime at work, that only adds up to 16 hours. That leaves a minimum of eight hours somewhere in the day to sleep and spend time with your family (plus time to sleep). Like my old partner used to say, “Put the gun down and relax.” Rewind your life a minute to your days in college, or any time before kids. This important work is something you are doing for your family and the public’s safety. Whether that means that you celebrate the holidays with your family in the early morning or late at night, it can be done; and it can be fun.
  • Embrace an unconventional approach. There is no more exciting holiday than the unconventional one. Kicking the kids out of bed a few hours early to open their gifts, or allowing them to stay up late will be something they will always remember. This memory will be much more treasured than the carefully planned out Christmas that was a day early or a day late around your schedule. Yes, you will still have to work; yes, you will spend most of your holiday at work.
  • Know that no holiday is perfect. Remember that the holidays are, for many of us, a time for family togetherness, not perfection.
  • Do not over-compensate for your absence. Ask your family what you bought for them two holidays ago. Chances are they cannot remember. Now ask them what they do remember about the same holiday, and chances are the memory will be of the family, not the gifts. There is no reason to bankrupt yourself to make up for your absence. It will not work, and you will pay for it for the rest of the year.

What correctional officers want their families to know

If this is your first holiday as a law enforcement family, remember you are not alone. Thousands of families all through the United States have their loved ones at work during the holidays. You have a job also, to keep your often-grumpy CO in the spirit. Here are some simple ways to support your loved ones:

  • Be supportive. Words of encouragement are very helpful to him or her during this time. Let your CO know that you appreciate all the hard work he or she is doing for the family, and that the wonderful holidays you enjoy together are a result of this.
  • Don’t keep asking about time off. Stay away from having the CO explain to you a thousand times why he or she cannot get time off during this time. This is often impossible unless the CO has some time in the department.
  • Recognize the efforts your CO is making. Understand that while this can be a very stressful time for you, your CO is feeling tremendous pressure to make things perfect. Your CO wants everything to go off without a hitch as a way of making up for not being there all day on the holidays. This can often be seen in the form of extravagant Christmas light displays that took a full day off to set up, and many other excesses of public holiday spirit displays. Your CO is doing his or her best to keep the holidays normal for you and the kids.
  • Be your CO’s rock. Make sure your CO knows that you will still be there, no matter if he or she has to work, or worse yet, is ordered over on Christmas Eve or Day. More than likely, your COs has just spent the entire day listening to inmates complain, and maybe even dealt with suicidal or otherwise violent offenders, and has just found out he or she has to work extra. This is the time to be as supportive as you can; even if it takes everything in you to not break down.

I hope that most of you will already have the time off. For those of you who do not, consider my advice. You may lose some sleep, you may be exhausted when you come to work, but you will do so with the knowledge that this holiday, no matter what time of the day it was celebrated, was the best gift you could give, and this is the true spirit of the season.

This article, originally published December 2008, has been updated.

Sergeant Barry Evert has been with the department of Corrections since 1999, and has worked several high security prisons. Sergeant Evert is currently assigned to Pelican Bay State Prison, and has worked as a Sergeant since 2005. Sgt. Evert has 10 years experience in dealing with both street and prison gangs. His book, “Scars and Bars” is due out anytime, and is dedicated to helping new Officers efficiently survive their first two years on the job, both on the job and at home. To Sgt. Evert, correctional officer safety is paramount, and is the core of what he writes and teaches.