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Correctional Officers Wellbeing Op Ed

Shira Schoenberg and The Republican/MassLive should be commended on the recent article detailing the horrific rate of suicide among corrections professionals.  This is a very real and tragic actuality in our profession.

The constant stress and dangerousness of the job of Correctional Officer indeed has the potential to have devastating and lasting impacts on the health and even the life of that professional. Often these stressors can regrettably lead these dedicated, hardworking men and women to substance abuse, alcoholism, and ultimately suicide.  

While the average life expectancy of any professional in America is 75 years old, the average life expectancy of a Correctional Officer is 59 years old. The risk of suicide is 39 percent higher for Correctional Officers than in all other professions combined.

At the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department we have been on the forefront of addressing the potentially negative and cumulative effects of stress and the emotional challenges faced by our correctional personnel on a daily basis.  For those of us in this profession, we have understood these issues have existed for decades. 

We have implemented a myriad of programs designed to improve the lives of our Officers and work to help them through the rigorous and demanding elements of their jobs.

Our department offers an Employee Assistance Program, providing a variety of confidential counseling services for employees and their families upon request.  Additionally we have a Critical Incident Response Team, providing peer support services and assistance during serious events, and an Employee Activities Committee which provides opportunities for staff and their families to positively interact.

These programs provide our employees with a support network of professionals who understand the incredible stress that comes with being a Correctional Officer and offer sustainable assistance to help those Officers in times of need.

We continually provide our staff with training on mindfulness techniques in an effort to create awareness to the body’s physical and psychological response to stress.  We provide group exercise and injury prevention programs, weight loss and activity competitions, and educational workshops and training on the benefits of a proper diet.  We believe that a healthy well rounded mind, body and spirit allows individuals the ability to leave work at work and fosters a healthy positive home life. 

We have also implemented several critical scheduling systems to lower the impact of job stress.  For example, we have in place a rotation system that changes the Correctional Officer’s post assignment every six to nine months. This rotation allows the Officer to rotate between different core assignments and responsibilities in an effort to ensure that staff does not burn out in any one position.

In the living units, where enormous employee stress is generated, we operate a unit management system.  This system is a team approach to managing that particular unit.  The Correctional Officer is in charge of the living unit.  However, he/she has support from a Correctional Caseworker and Counselor that are assigned to that specific unit as well.  This helps to distribute the many needs of the inmate population to a team rather than placing all of the responsibility on a single Correctional Officer.

The sad reality for so many Correctional Officers is many of them believe that their important and difficult job of providing a safe, secure and humane institution for all the staff and inmates is a thankless one. This is why we have worked so hard to bring value and recognition to our Correctional Officers for their great work.

At the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, each May, we recognize several Officers during National Correctional Officers Week. This is a week-long recognition dedicated to honoring all of our Correctional Officers.  We also recognize staff monthly and quarterly through an Employee of the Month program as well as Employee of the Quarter ceremonies.

Our department strongly believes the Officer’s family must also receive support and encouragement as they, too often, bear the burden of the significant stress that their loved ones face at work.  The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department provides regular activities for our employees and their families.  Some of our activities and events include employee golf and softball tournaments, bus trips to ball games, a father/daughter dance and several holiday trips.  We feel it is important to show support to our staff as well as our extended Sheriff’s Department family.  

A significant topic in the national discourse today is Prison Reform.  As we find better, more effective ways to manage and rehabilitate our prison population, we must always remember not to leave the well-being of our brave Correctional Officers out of the discussion.  I am proud of the men and women that work at the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department.  I am grateful for the professional work each of them does every day.  These men and women are my family.  I am honored to be an employee of this department, and I am committed to do what I can to make the lives of those who serve on the front line as rewarding, fulfilling and safe as possible as we work together to serve the great citizens of Hampden County.