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‘From Guards to Guardians': Program focuses on the mental well-being of correctional facility personnel

This free educational enrichment program helps correctional officers re-envision their lives and their work environment


AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

From new hires to old-timers, nothing is more important than correctional facilities finding ways to maintain healthy employees. That is the goal of “From Guards to Guardians,” a free educational enrichment program directed toward correctional officers and civilian staff that is catching on with correctional agencies around the country.

Already the program, created by Unconditional Freedom, has gained participants from several prisons and jails across the country. And on May 9-13, The Unconditional Freedom Project was in Washington DC representing correctional officers at the Blue-Ribbon Commission: A Hearing on the Correctional Staff Wellness Crisis.

The Purpose of ‘From Guards to Guardians’

The program is helping correctional officers re-envision their lives and their work environment to embrace their roles as officers and as individuals with human needs. The intent of this program is to help build a corrections environment conducive to the well-being of everyone behind the walls by:

  • Working with agencies to improve the work environment through employee engagement.
  • Helping educate officers on ways to maintain a healthy mind and body.
  • Assisting agencies with implementing programs beneficial to employees’ physical and mental health.
  • Helping educate officers to understand they are not alone and have people they can turn to for help and how to contact them.
  • Helping agencies assist officers and civilian staff with battling employee anxiety, burnout and PTSD, the three leading causes of workforce turnover and employee physical and mental illness.
  • Providing agencies with a list of active and retired officers willing to be mentors for other officers in need of help or just to answer questions.

Helping correctional officers

The “Guards to Guardians” program starts from the premise that officers are the building blocks for lasting positive change within the prison system. It envisions the prison system as somewhat of a monastery, in that it can be a place for penitence, contemplation and restoration of the incarcerated.

Correctional officers are essential in maintaining a sense of order, safety and nourishment and the program aims to foster such an environment by elevating the role and duty of officers from the term guards (defending against outside intrusion) to guardians (facilitating the overall well-being of the incarcerated).

The recasting of roles is especially critical considering negative media depictions of corrections officers that tend to strip the profession of the dignity and appreciation it deserves. The negative perception, compounded with the general stresses of the profession, tends to create a feeling among officers that they are not held in high esteem like other members of the criminal justice system, such as police officers and other first responders.

The program is designed to help correctional officers process the stress and anxiety they face on the job. With reading and integration exercises, officers can start to dismantle the armor that has hardened their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual bodies over time. The goal is to help officers improve decision-making, communication, mental health and overall quality of life.

Participants in the program receive:

  • Free copies of the “Guards to Guardian” workbooks.
  • Free workshops led by the “Guards to Guardian” director and experienced correctional staff to take officers through the four-week learning program.
  • Access to veteran correctional officer staff who are willing to answer questions and/or be mentors.

The “Guards to Guardians” program in action

Sheriff Matthew Kendall of the Mendocino County Jail in California has had a good experience with the program.

He first had contact with Unconditional Freedom a couple of years ago through his inmate services coordinator and eventually partnered with the group to start a restorative justice program at his jail. Sheriff Kendall said the program incorporates perspectives for his deputies, the victims of crimes and the inmates. He appreciates the fact that Unconditional Freedom puts into perspective the entire society inside the jail.

Sheriff Kendall does not believe the correctional system is currently doing everything it can for incarcerated individuals. Simply warehousing and care, custody and control are not enough. Having programs in place for inmates makes them more resilient and open-minded to recovery. The sheriff lists his garden program and bee program that is run by the inmates with supervision as an example of getting away from the warehousing mode.

The sheriff further explained the program helps in the following areas:

  • The program helps deputies deal with stress and overall wellness.
  • In the program, the inmates admit their guilt, which is the first step to recovery by coming to terms with their situation in jail.
  • Law enforcement represents the victims, and this program assists with not only getting the inmates on the right track but also helps provide the victims the assistance they need to overcome after being subjected to a crime.

I asked Sheriff Kendall about the benefits he has seen from the program and he gave the following results:

  • The jail is easier to run.
  • He has healthier officers.
  • He has healthier inmates.
  • Fewer assaults on staff.
  • Reduction of cost with reduced injuries.
  • Savings in healthcare costs.
  • The jail saved over $10,000 in vegetables for inmate meals.

The sheriff says that rather than skewing to the right or the left path, Unconditional Freedom is working hard to find the middle ground that can actually have a positive impact. He believes programs that address the needs of all stakeholders – officers, inmates, crime victims and society at large – can transform the nature of corrections into a positive and enriching experience for all involved.

Click here for more information about Unconditional Freedom and “From Guards to Guardians.”

Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.