Carl ToersBijns September 24, 2014
Much has been said, written and testified on the conditions of solitary confinement on prisoners held at these isolation units commonly referred to as Special Management Units (SMU), Special Housing Units (SHU), SuperMax or Maximum Security. The main emphasis of such testimony, articles and growing literatures of the practice has overshadowed another meaningful human impact of those who work there.
Correctional officers, whether their assignment is short term or long term, working inside these special unit can be adversely affected by their own overall mental health wellness as well as changing lifestyles, behaviors and other essentials that go along with them working inside these unit. There are associated risks assigned to these work assignments we rarely talk about and its time we do so in order to attain a balance in this environment as well as identify the administrative, educational and social implications that seem to be undermined in a subtle yet destructive manner.
Officers assigned to the SMU or SHU are exposed to the same harsh conditions as prisoners but from the other side of the spectrum. The only major difference is the fact officer may go home after their shift is completed but some work 16 days inside these units.
Some are able to withstand the rigors of the job without any problems while others handle it poorly or not at all. There are special physical and psychological factors required to withstand the negative impacts of this kind of environment. An element that is often ignored when screening or assigning staff to such units.
This makes officers working in these isolation units vulnerable to many risks. The continuum of risks may range from verbal or physical assaults to weapons assaults or exposures to biohazards conditions up to hostage taking or homicide. There is another continuum rarely discussed and that is the behavioral continuum impacted by their role inside these units.
Their role is primarily postured or understood to be in a reactionary mode therefore the crime or assault has already been committed before the officer can react. There are preventive tools put in place but because human nature and behavioral triggers occur without prior warning, they do not adjust quickly enough for the time and place such violence takes place. Thus prevention is impossible. Hence the psychological factors are often ignored and focus is mainly stressed on the physical impact if made the primary objective of such triggers.
Ignored are situational awareness tools and other vigilance factors that make it safer and gives the environment elements to diffuse rather than escalate. Agencies have been widely criticized for the use of a SuperMax and there are calls for the practice to end. Their main premise is such concept violates human rights and are described as being disproportionate to the legitimate use of security and inmate management objectives.
Although this is the viewpoint of some mental health experts and progressive correctional experts, the fact remains there are similar and proportionate impacts on employees engaged in the application of such security and management policies and are doing this with total disregard to their own safety and wellness. Impacts that have not yet been studied or researched at this time.
Working inside a SHU destroys or mutates spirits, as well as hearts, minds and bodies. Each employee is afflicted or infected via the very same contaminants which have been identified to impact the prisoners housed there. The rate of becoming victimized is based on their own abilities to provide an immune system that is designed to be resilient, persevere, endurance, their own psychological strengths, and their abilities to adapt and overcome the negative forces at work inside these unit.
There are natural consequences of being exposed to these harmful features inside the SHU. This may be simplified by stating their mere social contact with these prisoners alters their own social behaviors and requires them to adapt or use their survival skills as much as the prisoner does when incarcerated and housed in such environments. It is a natural world of competition and an unnatural world of conflict. Regardless, the employees feels he or she must win. The administration expects them to win and the prisoner must submit. This is the reality when it comes to the environmental control mechanisms.
Notably, how a specific unit is managed determines the level of impact on the employees. The more extreme the enforcement policies are, the more extreme the pressures are to maintain compliance of such policies. This runs analogous with their ideology of behavioral expectations and imposed modifications. There are peer pressures for excellence and there are social cultural pressures to be faithful and loyal unconditionally when adversity stares them in their faces.
Based on these two elements; policies and ideologies, this establishes the culture that may exist inside that isolation unit. The more extreme the expectations, the more extreme the pressures by the culture to comply. Security and control can and has been implemented with inconsistencies caused by cultural indifference. On the other hand, the more isolated the unit is from administrative oversight, the more the dominant established sub-culture rules these daily events as necessary to maintain control.
This is the focus of this paper. The culture of harm imposed on officers working inside these units have not been recognized and addressed by penal experts or policymakers. There is a dire need to update the needs to assess and evaluation the physical and mental aspects of this job inside a SHU or maximum custody unit. The cost is too high to ignore such necessities.
Historically these units cultivate constant anxiety, resistance, conflict and various extremely violent damaging behaviors that require human adjustments as well as specialized training for job proficiency and mental wellness. This is created merely by mission and design coupled with the policies, ideology and sub-culture created.
Based on identified specific risks of this environment on prisoners we must balance the harm and address the risks to officers. This is not implying the officers suffer equal of more harm than prisoners but rather face the fact that officers are at risk of those same dynamics that impact prisoners housed there.
We must acknowledge after a long term assignment inside a SHU or maximum security unit the:
· Prisoners deteriorate rapidly increasing the difficulty of communicating effectively and reasonably with the officer in areas of compliance of rules and living standards.
o This results in misunderstandings and conflicts. It also impacts compliance and non-compliance issues delivered by the officer. Disorientation is a major factor impairing effective communication skills.
· Prisoners give up hope of being release or living thus created hostile or more difficult situations between them and the officer resulting in a high rate of non-compliance, self-harm mutilations, suicide attempts and successful suicides.
o This impacts the officer’s well-being and primary and secondary vicariously created trauma. It may also lead to impairments of their own sensory systems.
o Sadly, this makes them targets of harm for those with malice and violent dispositions.
· Prisoners may feel more vulnerable and experience a mental impairment which may result in them taking up violent offensive or defensive postures which may include barricading self or inflict unprovoked attacks on officers. Occasionally by delusion; other times by aggression.
o The preparation to extract a hostile inmate creates hormonal responses that need to be controlled and treated.
o Restoring order becomes a priority and other priorities are deferred impacting the entire environment in delivery of services, food, movement, showers and other critical appointments in medical and mental health services.
o This is a major stressor. Duties and tasks to be completed are based on time-lines.
· Prisoners experience the impact of alleged draconian custodial guidelines imposed with a cultural ideology of control and safety that often raises the level of punishment intentionally or unintentionally.
o The perception is validated when other prisoners act out in such a manner, officers respond with force that is often deem inappropriate by the other inmates.
o Zero tolerance policies encourage punishment rather than treatment.
o Excessive force is the number one complaint inside a SMU.
o Approach determines response and the margin of error is life or death.
· Prisoners alleged torture as a result of being housed in these SHU units or maximum custody.
o This is based on their perception of the very restrictive nature of their housing, programs, movement, activities and privileges.
o The officer must deal with such reactions to torturous by ensuring some balance between reality and prisoner frustrations.
o It also creates high levels of defiance and disorder that must be addressed immediately.
· Prisoners feel that due to their isolation status they should be closely monitored and very closely regulated to be treated fair and consistent with the other prisoners.
o Officers are often short-staffed and on tight deadlines to deliver mandated programs and services.
o This creates a compression of time and personal interaction needed to effectively communicate and handle business at the cell front on a regular basis.
o This compression of time also impacts disciplinary practices and can be ignored or passed over to the next shift or supervisor causing more inconsistencies or confusion.
· Prisoners allege material deprivation, the lack of activity and other forms of sensory stimulation, and, especially, the absence of normal or meaningful social contact that prisoners experience in these type of settings.
o Officers often engage in brief conversations but are taught not to touch or handle prisoners other than restraints.
o Lengthy conversations are prohibited and infringe on other services.
o Manipulation is a factor to reduce social contacts and other types of interactions.
· Prisoners allege that long-term exposure to these powerful and painful stressors is not neutral or benign and does carry a significant risk of harm.
o The same can be said for officers exposed to these environmental stressors and the linked blowback situations in dealing with them effectively.
o Other factors of significant harm are communicable diseases, infections etc. that can affect the officer or their families.
This exercise of maintaining control is highly taxing and causes chronic fatigue, stress, anxiety and other related psychological impacts not yet revealed through evidence based studies. This in turn makes these officers susceptible to create a culture of harm that raises their probability of taking matters in their own hands and inflict mistreatment, ranging from deviated practice per policy up to outright brutality. The probability is based on the existing ideology and culture present.
Culture not only offers solutions to these listed allegations or conditions but lend a helping hand in creating the diverse and contaminating environment that is pervasive and perverse in nature. This is the impact of the ecological statement of cruelty based on cultural practices aside from policies and procedures established.
No culture should design the encouragement of punishment. No culture should embrace a prison system that uses force, oppression and other behavioral modification tools to change a prisoner’s behavior or conduct. Yet this culture is created as the oppositional force of the culture of prisoners. They are reacting to prisoners in essentially the same ways.
Instead of focusing on institutional control and perceived threats and remain on a foundation of following policies and procedures, their ideology gives tacit approval to vary their means to punish or correct behaviors which may result in brutal force or death.
This culture’s permissiveness is not monitored closely enough to assure compliance of the mission set by the agency thus creating a mission creep that is harmful to all who live and work there. The culture allows these employees to become more autonomous in their actions despite the fact they may be disproportionate to alternatives available.
Seeing the prisoners inflict pain and suffering on themselves or others brings about a culture that tolerates violence and essentially sets the temp for the retaliatory process imposed. Employees seek to fight pain with pain and force with more force. There is no neutrality in such incidents and the control spirals quickly out of control.
There is only an “us versus them” adversarial role to be fulfilled. Peer pressure demands you participate in such roles to resolve the matter any way necessary no matter how cruel it may be. There is no room for second guessing of loyalties, dedication and teamwork duties.
What is not captured here is the rationale or ideology that justifies such actions taken elevating and escalating the nature of solitary confinement to another level. Whether there is a lack or intentions to inflict cruel and unusual punishment via force such as chemical agents, dogs, electronic stun guns or Tasers and pepper ball guns, is where the ideology justifies the means to use force according to the culture rather than the continuum of force and policies in place.
I suggest this is because of the constant tension and conflict between prisoner and officer it is reasonable to grasp the concept they are adversaries in roles designed. There is a secondary psychological process at work. The mere environment of isolation and being out of sight out of produces a dynamic of control mind in many different ways, which is obsessive and produces interpersonal tension that actually serves as a precursor to set the stage for more conflict and elevated problems.
Prison administrators need to concede this culture of harm exists and that it has negative effects on prisoners as well as employees or officers working under such stress. Some of these administrators are denying the real physical and psychological costs to their employees working in such a place. They are ignoring the fact how well their officers work impacts how well the prisoners are supervised and managed. When it is all said and done, the two are directly related to the control expectation.
To allow this condition to exist brings unwarranted painful and provocative suffering to staff as well as the prisoners and needs to be evaluated immediately so there is sufficient evidence available to reconstruct the cultures within such places called the SMU or maximum security. The lack of a comprehensive assessment of the risks for staff assigned to a SMU or supermax confinement can continue to overlook these issues, and no approach to reforming or meaningfully modifying these units is likely to succeed without taking them into account.
Correctional officers have a very stressful and high demanding job. They are expected by law and moral obligations to do their jobs the best they can and deliver what the employer they work for is a judicious performance of their assigned duties and responsibilities. There are diminutive misunderstandings in this occupation what the role is and how it fits into any organization. Their role is defined.
Anyone who puts on the uniform and badge knows this role is the ultimate expectation when they hire on. So how well are these officers able to perform their duties in order to meet their distinct employer’s expectations? To what degree do they satisfy them or the public? When do they fail in this challenge of managing and supervising the most difficult offenders, convicted felons of every law on the books?
Let us look at their expectation first. Detrimental reliance is a term commonly used to make another person or group of persons perform under a contract or statement of understanding. The contract is the controlled statement of understanding when hired and the officer agrees to perform these duties under his or her oath under law and moral expectations.
First off, no employee is forced to perform this job. They hire on voluntarily and learn about their expectations and role during orientation and training. There are clear guidelines of the role to be performed as well as the necessary tools to get them done. Thus the word “make” implies their duty call and perform the job as intended.
This is commonly referred to as conditions of employment which entails various policies and procedures, human resource rules, operational and logistical goals and objectives and the overall mission statements. There are other elements of this concept but basically the spheres of control lies on the employer.
One would agree, in a perfect world, the officer would have no problem delivering the conditions of employment if all elements of this spheres of control and responsibilities are balanced, intact and available to the officers. Hence there is a tacit promise made by the agency to provide such conditions to facilitate the successful delivery of services rendered or promised. Every employee expects this from their bosses.
However, corrections officers don’t work in a perfect world. Every day they are assaulted, short staffed, fatigued, and exposed to some of the most toxic human behaviors of this part of the detention or prison world. Prisons are taxing budgets and cuts are common making this world more and more volatile for the officers and the jails and prisons they work in.
There are factors that require adjustments and none are coming any time soon. They are in fact, working in a flawed and poisoned environment filled with biohazards and contaminated elements which are distributed by closed air delivery systems incubating exposures to cancer causing / respiratory risks while enduring the assignment of working with limited equipment in good working order or availability. The list is long and the officers endure such adversity voluntarily.
This is basically the world they work in which includes random or sporadic situations of poor communications, first and mid-level supervisory staff or inadequate management practices. When the agency fails to keep the promise made at a point conditions of employment are so deteriorated they cause failure, whose fault is it when the officers fall short of their performance expectations and goals?
If the officer relies on these promises which were reasonable and foreseeable in an industry such as this whose responsibility is it when these officers don’t meet the agency’s mission statement or operational goals? We know that the usual manner of examining failures are handled from the top to the bottom and the blame or point of failure is usually found at the bottom. This is how the prison culture works.
The fact is, agency leaders have a legal and moral responsibility to provide officers hired under these conditions of employment the necessary tools, training and supervision to do the job according to their own expectations. Anything less is a broken promise. They need to be held to the same level of responsibility and control as the officers. This is not happening and demoralizing staff.
This reflexive and perpetual reliance on this promise to keep the public safe, to protect staff from unnecessary harms and to provide a safe and secure work environment is a reasonable and mandatory condition of their promise to deliver the agency’s mission statement. It should be honored and kept intact so the officers are given the tools and support they need to do their jobs.
Taking all factors into consideration, the corrections officer may suffer harm or find severe life-threatening inadequacies in their duty to deliver their end of the promise to do the job according to hiring conditions implied or written when hired. There should be nothing more binding that the mutual promise between employer and employee to keep that promise.
There is nothing more important than the officers’ reliance on the agency’s spirit of cooperation, understanding, provision and implementation to assure the promise they made to the public, to the communities and to their employees are kept.
It is reasonable for officers to take whole responsibility for doing their assigned jobs with the known the stipulation their employers take the same level of responsibility to provide them with the administrative support, operational and logistic commitment and the clear and concise communication to ensure the job as described gets done.