Tips for keeping your CO family safe in public

When your spouse is a CO, going out in public changes. Here are some tips on how to keep your family safe from the inevitable inmate run-in.


It was an ordinary day.

We stopped at a gas station in town while running errands last week. I said to my husband:

“Hey baby, you pump gas, I'll run in and get some snacks for the kiddos.”

And then I saw him. Looking up from the pumps, there was a man walking toward the door wearing a blue t-shirt and jeans, light brown hair, and giving me a death stare like no other. I got goose bumps and stood frozen in time. Then it dawned on me; he wasn't staring at me. He was staring at my husband.

I leaned over and whispered to my husband:

“Do you recognize that guy?”

“No.”

“I think he recognized you. I'm not going in, I think you should.”

For the next five minutes while sitting in the car with the kids, every possible scenario ran through my head. I held the phone in my hand, ready to call 9-1-1 if needed. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when my husband walked out, Gatorade and chocolate-covered peanuts in hand.

It was in that moment I realized he wasn't crazy or paranoid. We'd had so many conversations about being safe at home or while out in public with the kids. We no longer live in a big anonymous city – fast forward five years and now we're in a very small town where everybody knows everybody or they're related, and the prison is on the outskirts of town.

I used to roll my eyes when he suggested I carry pepper spray to walk the dog at night. We still argue about owning a weapon for personal safety. Lock my front door? People here still barely lock their cars at night. But the reality is that he wears a recognizable uniform. He can take the uniform off but it’s still there, highlighting us as a CO family and that changes everything.

If you are new to the family of corrections, you might think being vigilant is only something that your spouse has to do while he or she is at work. Chances are your CO gets threats from inmates on a regular basis; threats that include their families. The truth is that targeted assaults on COs or their family members do occur. Unfortunately, there are no readily available statistics on how frequently they happen.

In both states that we've been a CO family, I have heard stories of off-duty COs or family members being assaulted because of their line of work. Despite this new reality we live in as CO spouses, it is still possible to be safe and maintain your sense of peace.

When we're out in public together we've come up with some strategies to keep our family safe.

First, I know that if someone says “hi” to him and he doesn't introduce us there is a reason why. I don't ask questions; I don't get mad. Another CO told me that he stands in front of his wife and kids if he's talking to a former inmate.

Second, be aware that what you wear or say can identify you as a corrections family.  You can teach your kids not to talk about what your spouse does for work.

Someone overhearing “mommy's a CO” could make you a target. Even little things like bumper stickers can give former inmates too much information about your family; what school your kids go to, how many people are in your family, or even places you go often. (Did you see the FB meme?)

Some COs won't wear their uniforms in public going to and from work. But what about doing laundry and hanging your uniform in the yard? We are very conscious in the small town we live in about pictures of our kids being put in the local paper where our last name would be instantly recognizable to an inmate reading it while lying in his bunk.

When I'm out by myself, I look at people differently than I used to. Of course, I won't recognize anyone that's been in prison, but that doesn't mean I'll be caught off-guard. Our spouses have been trained to be observant and have been trained in tactical “situational awareness.” For us these skills can come in handy as well.

Situational awareness is simply “paying attention to what is going on around you.” For me, that means looking at patterns of behavior and seeing if someone is acting out of character. I used to be the kind of person who watched my feet while I walked, but now my eyes are up and scanning. If you're interested in more specifics on how to learn situational awareness, I recommend this article; it’s both humorous and very informative. But most of all, if something doesn't feel right, it's okay to leave even if you can't say exactly why.

It's also very important to learn to recognize if you or your spouse has taken vigilance too far. Two common symptoms of PTSD include:

- chronic anxiety: Feeling on guard and hyper vigilant, difficulty relaxing and “unwinding,” and

- feeling unsafe: Intense feelings of fear or impending doom even when no danger is present; feeling as though it is impossible to ever feel safe again.

If you have trouble discerning whether your feeling of being unsafe is out of control, please seek professional help. There are amazing people out there who can help you regain your sense of safety.

We each have different needs when it comes to safety and feeling secure. Feeling safe at home can be especially difficult when your spouse is a CO. This is a very complex issue that I will be writing more in depth about next month.

Just remember that you deserve to feel safe whether at home or out in public and it is something that all of us in this CO family struggle with. We each have to make our own choices and although I may not have the answers you're looking for, I'm here to let you know that you are not alone.

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