How small victories can turn into big wins in corrections
Corrections officers witness a lot of misery in our facilities; it is imperative we look for the good both inside our jails and in our communities
By Zohar Zaied
I knew a county jail inmate for no less than a decade. He stayed in custody more than he stayed out. I would see him in the community – getting his next fix, stealing at the local grocery stores, finding a bridge to sleep under. At some point, I threw him away in my mind. To me, this man was a failure to himself. He was a failure to his family.
This man was also failed by the justice system to some degree. Maybe we were too harsh, not offering enough opportunities to escape the endless cycle of incarceration. Maybe we were too kind, with welcoming arms, fresh bedding and a warm meal at the jail. I discarded him as headed for certain death at a young age and a life less lived.
One day he was gone. Another face I wouldn’t have to book again and again into the county jail. Maybe he was arrested in another county and started a new incarceration cycle on someone else’s dime. Maybe he died. The unfortunate response to news of any jail regular’s death is too often, “He’s time served.”
There were plenty more like him to fill the small void he left behind, new faces soon to become regulars. I forgot about him and the jail continued on as if he had never existed.
There’s a superstition in corrections that you don’t mention inmates who are out of custody. You shouldn’t say, “Hey, I wonder what Joe Inmate is up to, we haven’t seen him come in for months.” If you do, they’ll come in just days after you’ve conjured them up. In essence, these people are doubly discarded.
I saw the man about a year after I lost track of him. I was at a local store. I heard my last name called. Normally, this would be a coworker or an inmate. I turned to see the discard. He was wearing an apron and a big smile. He was working at the store.
The man came up to me, sheepishly at first. He wanted to extend an arm, but I saw him struggling with the unwritten rule that inmates and corrections staff shouldn’t have contact outside the jail. The rule comes from both sides. On the inmate side, you’re not supposed to be friendly with cops. On the corrections side, we feel protective of our private lives, especially when our families are with us.
I extended my arm and we shook hands.
I asked the man how he was doing. He told me he was so happy. He told me he was clean. He looked clean. He was thrilled to have a job and be part of a team. He was thrilled to have relevance.
I see him regularly now, and he always asks me how the jail is doing. I tell him it’s full beyond capacity and we don’t have any room for him. He assures me he won’t be visiting any time soon.
Statistically, this man stands a better chance of returning to jail than staying out. He functions well in the correctional setting, he even excels in it. He belongs to a social structure within the jail. The man can experience small successes while incarcerated and feel a sense of accomplishment from time to time, albeit a limited accomplishment that is downgraded by the stigma of being discarded by society.
Seek out good news
The corrections world is filled with disappointment, sad stories and repeated failures. Corrections deputies and officers witness the repository of our society’s misery refilled over and over in our facilities. It is imperative to our own well-being that we look for small wins inside the jail and in the community.
There is the habitual drunk whose birthday and social security number you’ve memorized because you’ve booked him in countless times. When he stays for a longer jail sentence, sobers up and gets his head clear, make contact with him. Tell him it’s good to see him doing well.
When the inmate who’s been on Administrative Segregation for half a year finally works her way down to General Population, tell that inmate it’s good to see she made it out.
When you see the kitchen worker working hard to get the place cleaned up, point him out and tell everyone listening it would be great to have someone like that working on the county roads. Make sure he hears you.
Corrections staff should actively seek out and identify good news coming from inmates. In celebrating the good news, you encourage more of it. You celebrate good news because it provides a counterweight, sometimes very small, to all the bad news.
Welcoming someone back to the community
The probability someone will return to jail should not stop the celebration of a successful stint out of jail. Corrections staff often avoid any interaction with past inmates, with good reason. We want to protect our families and ourselves.
Think for a moment what a positive interaction between a released inmate and you at the grocery store can accomplish. I would argue that in most cases, a 30-second exchange with an ex-inmate creates a safer environment for your community and for your family. Most people want to fit into society in one way or another. Outcasts and discards are encouraged to act out against the community by the very definition of the titles the community gives them.
In my own experience and that of other corrections staff, this exact interaction has played out multiple times over the years. I walk down an aisle at the grocery store and run into Joe Smith, who is with his wife and his two kids. He sees me and smiles, “Hey Zaied! How’s it going?”
“Hi Joe, I’m good. You?” I can call him by his first name because we’re not in jail.
“Stayin’ out of trouble. I’ve been clean for three months.”
“Yeah, I’ve been staying out of trouble too,” because Joe needs to understand I know staying out of trouble is a human condition we all live with, not just inmates.
“Well, I won’t be seeing you in there anytime soon.” Joe doesn’t even want to say the word jail.
“Good, we’re all filled up.”
If Joe returns to the jail, his attitude toward me will most likely be respectful and cooperative. This helps create a safer environment in the jail. Joe’s kids and his wife see the interaction and maybe their attitude toward corrections staff is softened a little. This helps create a safer environment outside the jail. And if Joe returns to the jail, my attitude toward him is no less positive just because he has returned.
By building a rapport with inmates and engaging in positive interactions, correctional officers can help create a more balanced environment in the jail. We see people at their worst. Sometimes, we see people when they are much better, even if just for small moments. These are victories.
Paying attention to victories in any size helps corrections staff improve our own mental well-being. Seeking out good news fosters a more dynamic environment within a correctional facility, an environment where behavior is clearly more important than the simple fact that a person is incarcerated.
In the balance, a correctional facility will produce more cooperative inmates. The jail will be a safer place to work. It’s also possible more people returning to the community – as society welcomes them back to be productive members – will stay in the community.