How empathy and kindness aid safety and self-preservation in corrections

It is possible to practice both vigilance and kindness during interactions you have related to corrections


Think back to your first day in corrections. How do you compare to the person you were then? Would you rather hang out with who you were at the beginning of your career, or who you are today?

As we progress through our careers in corrections, some of the most important efforts we can make for ourselves and our families involve trying to maintain our compassion, stay positive, and keep a sense of humor mixed with humility.

If you read this article and roll your eyes, you may need to do some self-reflection. The mindset you bring to your facility could ruin or save your career. The reasons as to why you are in this noble profession could potentially cost your agency a couple of million dollars, or your reason for coming to work today could shore up public support for what you do.

From a self-preservation perspective, beyond the stoic face we use to legitimately protect ourselves from some dark realities in a corrections facility, we must find safe ways to engage in positive interactions related to the job. Corrections staff deserve to be in good emotional and physical condition when we retire.

It takes some effort and serious internal fortitude to constantly be on the lookout for dangers and manipulations inside a jail or a prison, while at the same time demonstrating a positive attitude. But doing both is not impossible. Finding good moments during your career in corrections will ultimately benefit you and your team more than it will the people in your care and custody.

Appreciating a mother's dedication

My night shift went out for breakfast regularly at the end of our workweek. We had a regular spot, and our favorite waitress, “Kim,” knew our orders. She was a pro and worked hard, power walking between the tables and making sure the dining room was running smoothly. We always tipped her well. Kim treated my crew like family.

I was running visiting one day and in came Kim with two kids who seemed a little young for her. She checked in to see her son, who was an inmate in our medium-security housing unit, awaiting trial. Kim recognized me and looked embarrassed. She explained she had temporary custody of her grandkids and was bringing them to see their father. She went on to say that she hoped he would see what he is missing and get on the right path to be a good father to her grandchildren. 

I ran into Kim in town regularly, sometimes at the restaurant, sometimes at the grocery store. She would show me pictures of her grandkids and tell me how they were doing from time to time. Her son came in and out of the jail and ended up catching a solid felony. When his paperwork came in, we drove him to prison and that was that.

Years after I lost track of Kim, her son and her grandkids, I ran into her at a local grocery store. She made a beeline toward me to chat. Kim told me her son was eventually released from prison and slowly made improvements in his life. He was now employed and keeping clean. She proudly described the job he had. She felt he was doing something important. We shared a moment as fellow parents who get happiness from the success of our kids and relief when our kids survive difficult times. I kept a healthy emotional distance from Kim. You just don’t know if an inmate’s parent may be part of a manipulation strategy. But at the same time, I knew there was a potential community partner in the mother of an inmate.

Vigilance and kindness can co-exist

Few parents are proud of the incarceration experienced by their sons and daughters. That said, they are still the parents of their children with a very real emotional attachment regardless of how poorly their children have performed in society.

In our contacts with inmates’ parents, we can choose to treat them with judgment for producing a burden on the justice system, or we can treat an inmate’s mother with dignity and respect, knowing she is watching her son behaving very poorly and bringing shame on her. How many times have you watched your own kid do something and pull your hair out? Do your children’s actions always reflect on your parenting skills? Keeping that in mind, start with the mindset that even more so than you, an inmate’s mother wants her kid to get better and not return to jail.

It is true that an inmate’s family members may knowingly or unknowingly be part of a manipulation strategy. Just as with inmates, exhibiting kindness and empathy should never lower your radar for possible shenanigans. It is, however, possible to practice both vigilance and kindness in a dynamic response to any interaction you have related to corrections.  

When you acknowledge the efforts and struggles of an inmate’s parent, you are creating an ally in that parent. The parent becomes a force multiplier for the efforts you and your justice partners are making to provide a path out of the incarceration cycle. Additionally, if a parent’s attitude towards corrections staff is positive, that translates to better rapport building between corrections staff and the inmate population. Some level of respect between corrections staff and inmates makes for a safer facility for inmates and for staff, especially during tense moments.

It is commonly known that good deeds are as beneficial to those who perform them as to those who receive them. Regardless of whether your kindness changes the people in your custody or not, it will most likely improve your work environment. If you plan on spending 50-60 hours in your facility every week for the next 20 years, consider how you want to spend those hours and in what condition you want to retire.

NEXT: How correctional officers can improve inmate communication

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