Correctional commitment in the face of emergencies

Across America every day, corrections professionals forego their own family’s needs in order to keep the general public safe

During times of natural disaster, such as recent tornadoes in Oklahoma, and Colorado’s wildfires, families and communities struggle to reassemble their worlds turned upside down after loss of life and property. With homes, schools, and businesses damaged or destroyed, the stunning disbelief of such tragedies takes its toll. Finding the strength to start over, to heal minds and hearts and to find new places to call home are steep hills to climb.   And few citizens have a concept of what it’s like for employees of prisons and jails who experience such a traumatic event.

When weather reports turn nasty, and warnings are imminent, traditional businesses and offices may close their doors and send employees home to connect with loved ones, and move out of the storm’s path to find shelter. But corrections personnel cannot go home, cannot collect their family members, or be present to hug and comfort spouses and terrified children. Instead, they are obligated to remain behind the razor wire, in order to start defending in place. Despite the danger, and without missing a beat, they continue to maintain the safety, security, and good order of the facility.

Corrections workers take an oath to never abandon their posts, so defending in place becomes the highest priority. Emergency plans are activated and command centers opened in order to mitigate whatever the consequences of the weather-related emergency might be.

Nurses continue medication management or triage. Food service personnel remain at work, to prepare meals and implement back up plans if power supplies are limited. Physical plant managers and maintenance technicians stay in facilities to keep systems running and interruption to services at a minimum. Security can never be compromised, but during these moments, electronic systems may fail, and staff will be assigned to non-traditional roles in order to keep the facility secure.

While the public expects nothing less, these events chip away at the emotional well-being of staff. They are torn between knowing the absolute obligation of job responsibility, and guilt about being separated from family. As events unfold, the part they play in the big story is replayed over and over in their heads, like a movie; shift schedules are disrupted and needed sleep doesn’t come easily.

Incarcerated offenders have access to televisions, and as weather reports are broadcast, inmates become increasingly anxious about their own families. Female offenders are apt to be especially distraught, and management strategies become vital. Housing officers and others know to stay focused, practice good listening skills and offer encouragement, despite feeling nervous themselves.

After the storm has passed and damage is known, media invariably provides audiences with anecdotal examples about acts of kindness and gratitude expressed to first responders, offering immediate and life-saving assistance. Rarely is there a story about correctional staff who, during the worst of circumstances, remain on the job with the mission first and foremost in mind.  

Across America every day, regardless of natural disasters or other circumstances, corrections professionals forego their own family’s needs, in order to keep the general public safe. They are willing and able to do just that and deserve our gratitude and support.

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