What is a corrections officer worth to the taxpayers? Part I

Part one of a two-part series looking at the value corrections officers provide to society

In the last couple decades, I’ve heard people call corrections officers everything from “badge-carrying babysitters for adults” to law enforcement superheroes. Clearly, there is a wide variety of opinion on the value corrections officers provide to society.

Working in the public sector, it is necessary to show tax-paying citizens what they are buying with their tax dollars. Thus, in the name of accountability, it is important that a corrections officer justify his or her “worth” to the community, even when it seems obvious that protecting the public should have an extremely high value.

Often times, our society expresses the value of a service in monetary terms. Use those terms, there is no way that any country can adequately compensate corrections officers for what they do — whether they’re making minimum wage or $40.00 per hour.

I’ve witnessed the contrast in attitudes about the worth of a CO among some administrative personnel over the years. One day, perhaps prior to union contract negotiations, the COs’ skill set is seen to be no more than something like offering to biggy-size a meal, yet under other circumstances, like on awards banquet night, the CO is said to be unselfishly answering one of the highest callings known to humanity. It is with these varying attitudes in mind that I will attempt to assign a monetary value to what a CO does through a variety of methods.

The babysitting method

Inmates have said it to me. Family members and friends have said it to me. “Oh, so you are, like, a babysitter for adults, right?”

Really? Depending on the part of the country you live in, you can expect to pay pretty big bucks for day care services, and unless you have a willing family member, good luck finding someone to watch your child in the middle of the night! So before you write off the idea of being a babysitter, think of how nice it would be to actually be valued as much as a baby sitter. Using a babysitter pay rate of $5.00/hour (which, by the way, is a gross underestimation), anytime a CO is working in an area where there is one officer for every 40 inmates, he or she should be making $200 per hour. Without any other benefits added in, that would be an annual base salary of about $420,000. Not bad, but don’t count on it.

The "Fear Factor" method

Do you remember the show "Fear Factor"? On the show, contestants had the chance of winning $10,000 if they would do things like eat spiders or let rats crawl over them. Now and then, someone would decide one of these nasty tasks was a little more than they could handle, even for a chance at $10,000.

What do you think would happen if you approached the average citizen in your community and asked them how much money it would take for them to go to the segregation area of your jail where there is a naked, violent, 350 pound, mentally ill male intermittently screaming at the top of his lungs and laughing? The job of the citizen that you are asking, along with a couple of their friends, is to physically lay hands on this large inmate and move him to another cell. Did I mention that this inmate is also covered in his own feces and recently tested positive for Hepatitis C?

Do you suppose they would accept the challenge for the possibility of winning $10,000? A million dollars?

Yet, this is just one of many such scenarios that a CO could face on any day they show up to work.

Fig. 1: Maslow's 'Hierarchy of Needs' - Click the image to see a larger version

The essential life needs method

What if we were to assign value according to something like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? In 1943, American psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote a famous paper called A Theory of Human Motivation, which proposed a hierarchy of human needs. Maslow visualized this hierarchy in a pyramid (Figure #1). At the bottom of the pyramid are our most essential, basic needs — physical needs like air, water and food. At the top of the pyramid is what Maslow calls “self-actualization” — things like morality, creativity, and spontaneity. According to Maslow, once humans achieve one level of needs, they become obsessed with achieving the next level. “Safety and security,” the thing that Corrections Officers provide, is placed at priority level number two, just above physical needs.

What if officers’ pay checks reflected how much we value public safety according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Corrections officers would get the multimillion-dollar earnings that professional athletes, recording artists, and movie stars are paid.

Of course, this alternative economy would never work because our culture prefers to live with the fragile veneer over the surface of what is really important. It takes events like September 11th to remind the masses of what our true needs really are.

The line item method

What does the CO do for the community that could be included on the annual “bill” to tax paying community members if a line item approach were used? You know, like a hospital bill where every aspirin, procedure, bandage, and bed pan are listed? What are the costs of doing business to the officer that they probably never even think about? What are the services that they routinely provide that are taken for granted?

In part two of this article, I will put together a list of items that one might find on a bill from a corrections officer, for “services rendered.”


What good does it do to know the value of a corrections officer?

If you are a manager or supervisor, an employee’s job satisfaction is directly related to not just their paycheck, but also to knowing that they are valued. Possessing the knowledge of how valuable officers are to society might just knock the law enforcement profession out of the top 10 list for suicide rates. Beyond this, maybe it would even improve the “moral problem” that is whispered of in facility hallways, and maybe even cause people to want to stick around rather than looking for employment elsewhere.

If you want to be a leader, start letting others know how valuable they are. No one wants to follow someone that doesn’t trust them or places little value on them. Ask yourself, how do I treat things that I value greatly? The answer, of course, is that you take very good care of them. You treat them carefully and with respect.

Going beyond

• The value of a corrections officer should show up when the Sheriff is justifying his budget to the county commissioners
• The value of a corrections officer should be so well known by the public that when they hear of one bad cop, they would know it is the exception and not the rule
• The value of a corrections officer should be taken into consideration in determining how supervisors and managers treat their officers, and how one officer should treat another

All of this being said, the value of a corrections officer should never be used for a sense of entitlement, or for personal gain. If someone is using it this way, that person is in the wrong line of work.

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