July 18, 2015
Not much has been said about the stress and anxiety of correctional officers working our prisons. Regardless how you feel about prisons, there are strong concerns stirring among the rank and file of correctional officers, private and state, as signs of burnout and mistakes leads to creating a situation within a system that is already coping with turnover and staff retention.
Sadly, nothing is said by anyone in charge after the tragic death of Correctional Officer John Kemp, in Kingman Arizona. This officer was identified to be in the center of the recent riots as were many others but nothing was said or done to allow these officers some kind of relief from their drained fatigued conditions working long hours, day after day, being shorthanded and keeping a lid on a tense situation there in the Kingman prison complex.
Officers already feel drained from the job itself. Working 12 to 16 hours a day, sometimes five days a week is taxing and takes a toll on anyone exposed to these harsh conditions. Personnel shortages, sometimes by design to capture vacancy savings, is potentially dangerous to public safety and the wellness of those officers working under this stress.
Hampered with a 15 per cent vacancy rate, and adding another one third of the workforce being inexperienced, new on the job or not yet seasoned enough to work solo, this force is smaller than ever before and has resulted in serious breakdowns in operational and systematic delivery of mandated services causing tension in the inmate population.
Turnover is not a new issue at Kingman or other prisons inside Arizona. State prisons are running the same way with overtime filling slots vacant for months at a time. A smaller workforce results in less work getting done and less enforcement of basic security practices that impact the overall safety of the facility and employees working there. It is a natural correlation nobody wants to talk about.
These unbearable long hours takes the officers into another physical and mental level. Many are veterans already suffering for war or military related PTSD and are unusually impacted by such stress. Officer Kemp was one of those Iraq war veterans coping with PTSD and when the riots jumped off, he was instrumental in the way it was handled.
Unfortunately, the news that he was the “key “individual who allegedly dispersed the chemical agents that caused the Hualapai Unit riot was a trigger he was not prepared to cope with. Stressed from the war, the riot and the long hours he committed suicide at home. There are limited resources available for recovery and wellness programs on the job. The stigma for asking for help is strong and stereotypes them to be “weak”, not strong.
Kingman personnel should have been given access to some sort of Crisis Intervention debriefing after the riot. Not just a mere contact with the persons or single questions such as ‘are you alright’ but rather a deeper intervention process to assess and identify individuals with extreme stress signs or symptoms. This process was designed to save lives or self-destructive behaviors.
Kingman is responsible for housing state prisons and currently have fewer than the 380 officers allocated to be assigned there. In fact, the director, Charles L Ryan, nonchalantly smirked when he mentioned an extreme vacancy of 15 per cent saying there were 60 vacancies at the time of the riot. To the best of our knowledge, Kingman has never been fully staffed, a strategy would impact profit margins and stock expectations for the stockholders who neglect public safety over profits.
The Arizona Department of Corrections brags of offering overtime to officers to supplement their workforce with tired officers. Not visible behind the high walls and razor wire, the department is well below their allotted full time employee numbers. Nobody is saying anything for fear of retaliation. Everybody knows overtime is a band aid solution to a long term problem.
Officers are speaking out on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to speak for the agency or speak out at all on work conditions. Many have been disciplined for talking about it on social media and a gag order has been given in their briefings to stop talking about the riots and anything related to the job. This adds mores stress, more anxiety and tension to an already volatile environment.
Call-ins are problematic- this is called “whether leave “as they are taking the leave “whether” the department likes it or not. Their justification for calling is based on their denied leave when submitted and denied due to staff shortages already on shifts with large gaps of empty posts that are collapsed or shut down.
The agency director has repeatedly issued orders that call-ins will be subject to be written up for insubordination if they do not call in on their days off as required. It is this stress on them on top of everything else that is creating a severe epidemic of poor performance, morale and work related incidents such as DUI, anger outbursts, domestic violence and suicide.
Fear is real. They are worried about being hurt or hurting others. Their schedules are rigorous and demanding. Their abilities are deeply impacted and short cuts are necessary to meet the daily needs. Some are saying they are working and existing on an average of four to five hours of sleep causing sleep deprivation and other unhealthy conditions to their lives.