Monday, August 4, 2014

Some Thoughts Of An Old Retiree...

I read about another staff suicide that happened recently. Staff suicides are always a tragedy. Not only does that staff member's family have to deal with their loss (and most likely guilt wondering what they could have or should have done to prevent it) but BOP staff, both active and retired, across the nation feel the loss. Those who knew the person can often feel guilt as well. We never want one of our own to go down - particularly at their own hand.

I don't know what led this young man to take his life. I do know that in all my years of medical and prison work, I've witnessed and worked with people who have had demons that eventually got control of them. Most are successful the first time but I've seen people try to take their own lives who were stopped and rescued and I've seen others who kept trying until they were successful. One never knows what goes on deep within a person's psyche. 

One thing I know for certain - there is nothing in the Bureau of Prisons that's worth ending your life. Work is not, and should never be something you take your life over. You can find a new job. You can't bring yourself back.

I knew a staff member once who got into a physical relationship with an inmate. Rather than face the consequences of her actions - she was probably looking at serving some time for it - she tragically took her own life. She had two young children who are now without their mother. Had she faced her consequences head on and dealt with them she would be done with any sentence she would have received and her kids would still have their mother. Truly sad.

On the various BOP pages I read about the current demand from the union for more staffing and at least two officers in each unit. Staffing began being cut back in 1999 or 2000, when I was a Captain. My regional Correctional Services Administrator told me I had to rearrange my roster and reduce my correctional complement by two positions because of budget restrictions. I was against it then and I'm against it now. It doesn't take a genius to realize that if the inmate population continues to climb and staffing remains the same or goes down even more then the danger factor and the possibility for life threatening incidents vastly increases.

When I started as an officer at the US Penitentiary in Lompoc, California, back in 1986 it was a full fledged penitentiary. We had some really bad boys. Yet the officers all worked the housing units alone, even on the Evening Watch, with 126 inmates. I could be wrong but I don't recall the union, at that time, in Washington demanding a staffing increase for safety reasons. In fact, I don't recall the union demanding increases in staffing until the budget cuts began at the turn of the century. We told the region the complements we needed, they told us what we were going to get, and we reworked our complements to make the numbers work. There was overtime for everyone because of the lower numbers of staff but there was a seemingly endless supply of overtime funds. It was when the staffing numbers began dropping and the river of overtime money slowed to a trickle that the real complaints began. Of course, having a couple of officers murdered by inmates certainly contributed to it.

When I was at USP Leavenworth in the early 90s there was one cell house, B Upper, that had three officers on the Evening Watch. It was at least twice as big, and maybe 2-1/2 times as big as the units in Lompoc and housed that many more inmates. Having three officers greatly helped manage the inmates in the unit and did add to the safety of each of them. But that didn't mean if an inmate wanted to attack a particular officer he couldn't do it. The other inmates could easily distract the other two and even get each officer into a separate part of the unit. Two officers in a normal size housing unit does not guarantee officer safety. There is no guarantee of officer safety in a prison.

I read something earlier today that pretty much nailed it. When we old-timers worked the housing units we were taught that the best way to run your unit was to communicate well with the inmates, treat them with respect and build a reputation as an honest and straight up officer. Experienced staff and even inmates told us that. We didn't baby the inmates, we didn't fear them, we didn't put them down and we weren't their friends. We were honest with them even when we said no to their requests. And for that we got respect in return. Of all the times I worked in Seg units I never once got slimed or assaulted by an inmate. I knew many officers who did. And oftentimes those officers were the ones who treated all the inmates like dogs. 

It seems communication and rapport between staff and inmates is a dying art. For that matter the level of communication and rapport between line staff and management seems to be breaking down as well. At one institution the union president, a GS-08 officer, talked to management staff as if he was the boss and we were the subordinates. He told me once "I have more power here than the Warden." I told him that first thing the next day he should go up to the Warden's office and tell the Warden he was relieved of duties - that the union president would be running things from then on. Funny - he didn't do that.

For those who hate the job and do nothing but complain - I would advise you to start looking for something else. Working in prisons is difficult enough for those who don't hate it. If you hate your job and hate your supervisors you can be nothing but miserable. And miserable people often screw up at work and/or at home.

I suppose I have been blessed. I enjoyed my job with the Bureau of Prisons. I enjoyed the interaction with inmates and staff. I enjoy friendships with hundreds of people around the country after working in 8 different locations. And I am thankful that I have never been in a position or situation wherein I contemplated taking my own life. I cannot imagine what that must be like. As the saying goes - suicide is a permanent solution to what could be a very temporary problem. That saying isn't true for everyone but I think it's true for most.

My sincere condolences go out to the family and friends of that staff member who couldn't cope with his pain any longer. You left behind people who care about you and who would have been there to help had you but asked. To any other who may be considering it - I ask that you please take one bold step and reach out to someone before surrendering to that final, unchangeable option. You might be embarrassed to tell someone how you're feeling but being embarrassed is better than being dead. You can overcome embarrassment.

These are just my own thoughts and opinions. You may agree or disagree. But I've done and seen a lot of things in my life and I know a few things. I wish all of you the very best but above all - emotional peace.

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