A letter to the American public: Know the monster if you must – but know the protectors too
Corrections officers, our protectors, need your interest, research and compassion just as much as the infamous predators and anonymous inmates they protect us from
I came of age in Wisconsin, home of the violent and perverse serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. At the time of his arrest, I could barely stomach the awful stories of him preying on vulnerable young men, who were about the same age as me, in a city I had visited often. Thirty years later I am just as horrified by Dahmer’s actions and equally puzzled about the Netflix decision to release a dramatic television series about this awful man, a true monster who was in our midst.
Just the trailer of the Netflix series “Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” had me emotionally queasy and on the verge of physical illness. I wrote to my Corrections1 colleagues, “This is gross. Yuck, yuck, yuck.” I can’t bring myself to watch the fictionalization of his crimes.
Apparently, Netflix knew there was an audience for the gross, yucky and disturbing. Since the release of “Dahmer,” the number one piece of content on Corrections1, by a large margin, is the video “Jeffrey Dahmer's last interview.” After watching the Netflix series or because of the series, people are searching for more information on Dahmer. Search interest in “Dahmer” surged on September 20, peaked on September 25 and remains high as I write.
Meanwhile, search interest in “corrections officer” and traffic to non-Dahmer content has remained level. I know there is a fascination with the horrific, but please pause your research on the monster and spend a few minutes getting to know the protectors and the challenges they face.
We need more protectors
Thick walls, high fences and rows of security cameras are visible demarcations between the outside and inside. But the true protectors of our communities are the corrections officers who work on the inside to keep us safe on the outside. Most of our jails and prisons are chronically and dangerously understaffed. Problems with recruitment and retention of corrections officers existed before and were exacerbated by the pandemic.
Corrections officers need better working conditions
Recruiting and retaining corrections officers (COs) is complicated by low pay and high stress. Unsafe ratios of prisoners to guards, mandated overtime, old technology and inadequate personal protective equipment are constantly putting COs at risk of physical injury, sleep deprivation and emotional stress. Combined, these factors put COs in danger of acute traumatic stress, post-traumatic stress and suicide. The day-to-day working conditions must improve if corrections is to become a healthy and sustainable career option.
Equip and train COs to do the job well and safely
Our corrections officers need more and better equipment for deterring violence, detecting contraband, monitoring the movement and activities of prisoners and keeping themselves safe. Fentanyl and other dangerous drugs are being carried into prisons and flown over the walls by drones. Many COs lack body cameras that might deter violent behavior or at least capture violence to help bring charges and prosecution against the criminals who attack them.
COs need more training in assessing acute mental illness and requesting medical assistance from correctional nurses and paramedics. They also need training and tools to restrain violent inmates whose behavior puts themselves and others at risk of injury.
Simplistic political rhetoric impedes innovation
Corrections officers, as well as our communities, need politicians willing to go beyond simplistic issue-framing on crime of “lock them up” or “give them all a second chance.” There is no silver bullet to the many problems that ail crime and incarceration. Law enforcement, social services, mental health care, criminal justice advocates, academics, technologists and corrections leaders need political support and funding to innovate and launch 1,000 new solutions. They also need funding to research which of those solutions make an actual impact on reducing crime and the continuing funding to scale the best programs across communities and states.
Balance your concern, research between inmates and Corrections officers
Corrections and criminal justice are often discussed as if they’re a pendulum that must swing all the way to the right or all the way to the left. But the problems in corrections, like nearly everything else, are too nuanced to be either this way or that way. It’s possible to be concerned about the living conditions of inmates and the working conditions of corrections officers. It’s also possible to simultaneously support prosecution and sentencing to the fullest extent allowed by state and federal law while also advocating for programs that focus on rehabilitation and rapid community return.
But for the safety of our COs and the many inmates peacefully serving their sentences while awaiting release, we’ve become too interested in the true monsters, like Dahmer. No-cash bail releases, softening the language to rename inmates as “offenders” or “persons experiencing incarceration” and broadly granting early release without consideration to an individual’s past crimes and promised threats are enabling too many would-be monsters to continue committing crimes of violence and terror.
Corrections officers need your interest, research and compassion
If you must watch Dahmer’s last interview or if you advocate for prison reform, please keep in mind the dangerous working conditions and safety of the corrections officers who are protecting your community. They need your interest, research and compassion just as much as the inmates, both infamous and anonymous, from whom they protect us.