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To punish or not to punish: An officer's role

Are offenders sent to prison to be punished?

A few weeks back a friend and I were having a conversation about one of the officers that works for him. This particular officer has less than 5 years at the institution that she works at, and is experiencing some of the same growing pains that we all experience in our first few years of employment in corrections.

This particular officer works in a special needs unit for the state department of corrections, and she is having a difficult time understanding that even though she works for a department of corrections facility, that particular facility caters to a different sect of the population.

She went into the job thinking she was going to work for a prison, and is frustrated because she feels that the facility she works for is run more like a pre-school. She feels that there's just not enough "punishment." This officer is not in the minority in our business.

I addressed my thoughts on an officer's obligations to treatment in my very first article for CorrectionsOne, so I won’t go into that again. What I'd like to address with this particular article is the prevailing idea around the nation that prisons have become softer, kinder and gentler, and not nearly as punitive as they should be.

After all, offenders are sent to prison to be punished aren't they? That's where these officers are wrong. It’s Corrections 101 really. The offenders we are tasked with incarcerating are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. It is imperative that officers recognize this fact.


Saying what we're thinking

Like many of you, I get the updates from the CorrectionsOne Facebook page. I read the articles attached, and then I look at the comments of others that have done the same. There is the occasional voice of reason, but by and large, the comments are vitriolic, caustic and downright unprofessional. For instance, any time C1 posts an article about a sex offender you can count on lots of comments along the lines of "A bullet only costs...", or "Why is this POS still alive?"

Of course the answer to that question is simple. The offender is still alive either because they didn’t commit a crime that calls for capital punishment, or the state they reside in doesn’t utilize capital punishment. Of course, most of the folks that post such comments are well aware of this fact. They are not ignorant as to why. They are impassioned.

Officers are human. We each bring our own likes and dislikes, our own sense of right and wrong, of justice and injustice, with us. We have been charged with dealing with men and women who have committed unspeakable crimes. We are forced to interact with offenders who have victimized the weakest of our population. They have killed and raped with little or no remorse. They have hurt others simply because they could, or because their victims had something that they wanted.

We walk a beat populated entirely with men and women who have done something that society deems worthy of incarceration. As officers we are not excluded from “society.” We make up part of that society. Accordingly, we are not exempt from the feelings that often go hand-in-hand with knowing what those men and women are serving time for.

The job we have to do

The difference between us as officers and the rest of society is that we have a job to do. That job requires a great deal of sacrifice on our part. That job also requires a great deal of professionalism. It’s not unprofessional to disagree with what the offenders in your charge did. It’s unprofessional to decide that it is your job to ensure that they pay, in every way imaginable, for the crime they committed.

As an officer, you have not been tasked with dealing out punishment. You have been tasked with watching those offenders assigned to your facility. It is your job to keep them inside the walls. It is your job to make certain they do not victimize your brothers and sisters. It is your job to make sure they do not victimize one another. It is your job to make sure they follow the rules.

I understand wanting to express your outrage and disgust. I understand that strong sense of justice that pulses in the collective veins of the men and women who serve in corrections. Most of us entered this career field because we wanted to serve our communities. We accepted the positions we did because we wanted to be part of a system of justice that recognizes that men and women make mistakes, and given the opportunity can learn from those mistakes; a system of justice that also knows that some people simply need to be kept away from society for the sake of society.

We are passionate about our work and our missions. It is our inherent humanity that drew us to corrections, which made us want to be officers in the first place. It is that same humanity that finds its way onto the pages of Facebook, or the C1 website in the form of righteous indignation.

But we must always bear in mind though that we are not simply officers. We are corrections professionals. Professionalism requires that we put those feelings of righteous indignation aside. It requires that we be true to our mission. It is the human being in us that makes many of us say and think the things we do about our charges. Ultimately though, the professional in us must prevail in public forums as well as on the job.

If you agreed with what your offenders did, you wouldn't be on this side of the bars. I'm not asking you to agree with what they did. I'm not asking you to ignore what they did. I’m not even asking you not to have feelings or opinions about what they did.

We are a group of men and women committed to justice. Remember though that the American system of justice, though flawed and imperfect is a system where justice is tempered with wisdom. Be passionate. Be human. Be professional.

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