Breaking the “I’m good” code of silence

When there is peer and organizational pressure to cover up personal distress and emotional turmoil, correctional officer wellness suffers


Reprinted with permission from the January 2020 issue of the Correctional Oasis, a publication of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach.

By Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC

When we hear the term “code of silence” most of us think of peer pressure to not report policy violations or any other type of professional misconduct committed by co-workers in a law enforcement setting.

The “I’m good” code of silence is an epidemic in corrections. (Photo/CorrectionsOne)
The “I’m good” code of silence is an epidemic in corrections. (Photo/CorrectionsOne)

This article is about another kind of code of silence, the “I’m good” code of silence one that, sadly, may be of epidemic proportions in corrections.

The “I’m good” code of silence is about peer and organizational pressure to cover up one’s own personal distress and emotional turmoil, especially when these are due to the impact of the job. This code of silence is just as damaging as any practice of a code of silence about professional misconduct, and, regarding its effects on correctional officer well-being, it can be deadly.

I still remember one correctional officer telling me that when he joined a corrections agency, other custody staff would not talk to him. But after he dealt with an inmate murder without showing any emotion, he was warmly embraced by veteran staff and welcomed into the fold. He told me that the obvious message he got was that he should not show that he was bothered by anything gruesome he witnessed at work. This correctional officer went on to work for 14 years in corrections. During the course of his career, he developed a dependence on alcohol and tobacco products, and a propensity to play violent computer games after work for five or more hours, practically daily.  

Why does the “I’m good” code of silence even exist?

Being emotionally impacted by the job is viewed by the workforce culture as evidence of a person being “weak,” not worthy of respect, undependable in a crisis, and ultimately unfit for the job. Consequently, the peer pressure to conform to this standard of “I’m good” is powerful. 

When an attitude of “us against them” prevails in corrections work environments (regarding the division between staff and offenders), that enmity dictates that staff not show to offenders that they (the offenders) have succeeded in “getting to” the staff in any way. In order not to let them think they’ve won, the staff do whatever they can to look strong, invincible, impenetrable – no matter what they’ve been through.

It should be pointed out that an attitude of resilience and hardiness may very well be necessary during and shortly after an incident. Staff need to remain in charge of the situation and respond quickly, effectively and professionally, showing that they remain unruffled, unyielding, strong and in control. And this stance conveys to offenders that staff are not cowering in fear and that their spirits are high, not broken. For example, an assaulted staff member may opt to tour the unit after their assault before leaving for a medical check or after returning from such a check. And if staff say that they are ready to come back to work relatively quickly after an incident, that may, in fact, be the case.

However, at some point, and sooner rather than later, staff will need to process through the event. This can be done by using emotional support provided through peers or loves ones, or by seeking professional help that employs trauma resolution techniques, such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) or Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

In workforce cultures where the “I’m good” code of silence reigns, the prevalent expectation among corrections staff (especially custody staff) is that, when asked how they are doing following a critical incident, their answer will be: “I’m good!” “I signed up for this. I trained for this.” “It was just an inmate.” “I don’t need to talk to peer support or a chaplain. I’m just fine.” Or, after they have been assaulted, “I don’t need to go to the hospital.” “I want to come back to work tomorrow.” That is, after experiencing an extremely stressful event, staff may expect (and also they may be expected by their peers and by their supervisors) to “get back on the horse” immediately, or to not even fall off the horse in the first place, and to go back to discharging their duties like nothing significant happened.

Women staff, especially custody staff, can fall into the same trap, as they seek professional acceptance and belonging. In a way, women staff experience even more pressure than men to not show emotional distress on the job. Women staff have to overcome some male staff’s bias against them for working in a custody role. They also have to overcome concerns male staff may have that women may be too emotional and too empathetic, and consequently too fragile to do custody work. That is why women custody staff may have to “prove themselves” twice as much as men staff in order to be accepted as “one of the guys.” 

On the surface, saying “I’m good” after a traumatic exposure looks like true resilience, true grit, toughness, strength to cope with adversity effectively and to “bounce back.”

However, the staff’s claim of no adverse consequences of traumatic events may not be true resilience at all. In fact, some research has named this type of behavior “negative resilience,” or false grit. [1]

Negative resilience has been defined as the resemblance, the appearance, the impression of resilience after traumatic exposure when in reality those exposed are coping poorly. Negative resilience is fake, a cardboard cut-out, an imitation – not the real thing. Negative resilience is based on machismo.

The word machismo derives from the word macho, which in Spanish means male. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, machismo is defined as a strong sense of masculine pride, an exaggerated masculinity.

Negative resilience has been attributed to “disenfranchised distress.” [1] “Disenfranchised” means that the distress is present, but it is suppressed, not allowed to be expressed. This is due to fear of rejection or ridicule by one’s peers because of the unwritten “rules” of the organizational culture about how staff are to respond after trauma. The distress may also be suppressed, hidden, due to fear of losing one’s job if declared unfit for duty.

Because of the peer pressure of the “I’m good” code of silence, corrections staff learn to keep their innermost life concealed even from their closest friends and family members. It is as if one is wearing a laughing face mask, but, behind the mask, they are weeping. I can’t begin to count the times I’ve heard it said after a corrections employee died by suicide, “We had no idea s/he was hurting! There were absolutely NO signs of distress!”

So, because of practicing the “I’m good” code of silence, affected individuals can appear unscathed following traumatic incidents. And due to the fact that a corrections career offers a “steady diet” of traumatic exposure and cumulative traumatic effects, at some point, they can no longer keep up the front of “I’m fine,” and they “crash.” This process has been called the “twin peaks effect,” with the first peak in traumatic symptoms occurring soon after a traumatic stressor, but subsiding quickly, leading the person and those around them to conclude that they have recovered. [1] The second peak of traumatic symptoms occurs at a much later time, and involves the onset of full-blown PTSD and/or other conditions, such as major depressive disorder. The period between the two peaks is the stretch where negative resilience is masking the affected individual’s mounting distress. A study of French police officers reported that their “crash” occurred on average 16 years after a significant traumatic incident, and was measured by the officers’ suicide rates. [1]

The Damage It Causes

The “I’m good” code of silence strips staff of their freedom to acknowledge to themselves and to others any lasting emotional wounding due to the job, or to accept that they are unable to work through traumatic experiences on their own. So practicing the “I’m good” code of silence rewards affected staff with the short-term gain of earning their peers’ respect, and experiencing pride and self-satisfaction that they are tough. However, these happen in exchange for long-term pain, lack of healing of the distress endured, lack of relief.

In order to be able to keep pretending that they are invincible and unaffected by the job, staff have to resort to some twisting and distorting of their inner world. This can be done by engaging in the psychological defenses of denial and dissociation, both of which involve avoidance of reality. [1] And avoidance of reality is not conducive to survival.

Denial involves staff rejecting any suggestions that they have been negatively affected to any significant degree by anything horrific they may have experienced. They deny feeling or having felt fear, helplessness, despair, guilt or shame.

Dissociation involves staff disconnecting themselves from their true emotions and thoughts about a disturbing event – blocking them out of their awareness. I’ve heard numerous staff talk about how well they cope by shutting events out of their awareness, “compartmentalizing” them. This activity of putting memories of unpleasant events (and the associated emotions) in “compartments” amounts to engaging in dissociation. It’s like we have a crawlspace under our house where we toss anything unpleasant or unwanted, and then leave, locking the door behind us. After a while, we don’t even know or remember what we’ve stuffed in that crawlspace.

Dissociation is facilitated by being able to alter one’s mood on demand or by changing what one is focusing on. This may be one reason why behaviors such as substance abuse, overeating, compulsive gambling or compulsive sexual activity may be so rampant among corrections personnel. So the “I’m good” code of silence takes its toll by promoting addictive behaviors that eventually ruin physical, mental and spiritual health.

Our overall self-care suffers also because we cannot tend to pain when we deny its existence or when we’re not even aware of it. Quite simply, when the presence of pain is not acknowledged, healing and resolution cannot take place. Meanwhile, the inner pressure continues to build as more and more incidents accumulate during the staff’s corrections career, and the emotional burden keeps increasing. And one day the crawlspace simply overflows. The bucket spills over. The bottom falls out. The bridge collapses. And, as mentioned earlier, when the crash happens, it can be deadly.

Another consequence of engaging in denial and/or dissociation is that our ability to connect emotionally with others suffers because our capacity for empathy and compassion for others diminishes.

If we cannot have compassion for ourselves regarding our suffering, we also have difficulty experiencing empathy and compassion for others. We cannot be understanding or supportive of them, and we may be unable to offer words or gestures of comfort.  We may also have difficulty with intimate conversations and exchanges. Our loved ones may experience us as distant, cold, calloused, indifferent, uncaring, “hard.” Our most important relationships pay the price.

Why the “I’m Good” Code of Silence Must Go

Given how destructive the “I’m good” code of silence is for individual staff and the entire workplace culture, one goal of corrections organizations must be that it is systematically dismantled and broken.

Yes, you need to “keep it together,” to continue to function during critical incidents at work, while you are on duty doing your job of managing offenders or staff. However, there comes a time when reality must be reckoned with and acknowledged. At some point, we need to tell ourselves the truth. The truth sets us free, but first, it makes us squirm. The truth causes us to feel our pain, not as a sign of weakness, but so that we can face it, own it, process it and even grow from it. We need to become aware of how trauma affects us, how our core beliefs about ourselves, the world and life changed because of it – and what we can need to do about it all. Healing after trauma and quality of life requires us to embrace the truth.

How to Break the “I’m Good” Code of Silence

Some of my communications with corrections personnel from across the country and overseas fill me with joy and hope that the “I’m good” code of silence is indeed being gradually dismantled in several workforce cultures.

Breaking the “I’m good” code of silence requires the following ingredients, at a minimum: trailblazing honesty and courage, education, the provision of suitable resources, modeling openness by leaders, supportive supervisory styles, and policies about the management of staff exposed to traumatic situations. Even the use of mandatory overtime needs to be examined in this context, as the longer staff are at work, the more likely they are to encounter traumatic situations. Working overtime also means that staff have less time away from work to unwind and to process what they’ve experienced at work. And they have less time to spend with loved ones, less time to enjoy and maintain their social support system, and less time to engage in positive activities – all of which we know can lessen the impact on trauma.

The best approach for dismantling the “I’m good” code of silence may be to start by educating staff on the effects of psychological trauma on employees and on their families. Staff need to also be educated about the nature of true resilience, true grit and true pride that is based on facing their inner turmoil and pain and walking through them using effective coping tools. This type of education is to be delivered proactively to all staff, as a form of emergency preparedness, repeatedly, and preferably annually.

And to support those who, in spite of our best efforts will be affected anyway, agencies must provide mental health and other wellness resources (such as corrections-knowledgeable EAP and other community-based mental health providers, law enforcement chaplains, peer support, or community-based programs), and other resources.

Education and the provision of resources must be accompanied by the breaking of the “I’m good” code of silence through the transparent sharing of leaders (leaders with or without the rank). Such sharing involves leaders telling their stories about how they were impacted by trauma, the negative consequences trauma had on their lives, and their courageous journey through struggles to a place of openness and true resilience.

Normalizing the experience of emotional struggles, and accepting the fact that we do have limitations regarding what we can endure help us continue to pry loose the stranglehold that the “I’m good” code of silence has on corrections staff.

The undeniable fact is that exposure to trauma, especially when it happens intensely and repeatedly, can have a multitude of adverse effects on those so exposed.

I’m thankful to say that in the United States more correctional agencies are providing a variety of wellness resources for their staff, acknowledging the damage occupational stressors confer on staff’s physical and psychological health.

In one state agency that offered Desert Waters’ course “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment™” (CF2F) to all staff as mandatory training for two years in a row, a lieutenant told me that he noticed that now, after these two years, supervisors routinely ask their staff how they are doing after traumatic incidents, and they do so repeatedly, not just once. (The day-long CF2F course describes the effects of trauma and other high-stress events on corrections staff, and offers basic tools for dealing with these negative effects on individual staff and on the workplace culture.)

In closing, here’s one correctional officer’s experience, in his own words, as he journeys from false grit to true resilience:

Staff learn to apply a thin layer of “machismo” as a result of each incident they experience. It’s like a Band-Aid. But this type of Band-Aid doesn’t protect the wound from infection or aid in the healing process. Instead, it covers and seals in your emotions and your feelings; otherwise, you’re weak, a punk, or a sissy. Because we all know, “Maximum security staff are the real gladiators, and we run these inmates.” After a while and numerous incidents, you have so many Band-Aids on you that inmates can’t penetrate them and get to you or your “old” heart. The only problem is the Band-Aids don’t come off after work. They stay on. So you live your life and miss all the beauty and the real experiences because you are a heartless, emotionally numb, and desensitized ass. You see an awful car accident with injuries, big deal. You have a friend that gets hurt really bad, big deal. A family member dies in his fifties and you truly love the man, big deal. An inmate gets stabbed 47 times, big deal. You get mad because your kid wrecks his bike and cries because he skinned up his knees, big deal. Tell him to man-up and quit being a baby and walk away. Then, if you are blessed, your friends and family or maybe a co-worker persuade you to go to a counselor and they begin the long process of removing your Band-Aids. Then slowly over time, you realize, “S*# t! I hollered at my kid because he wrecked his bike and hurt his knees. He is only 6. I should have picked him up and carried him inside. Babied him a bit and took care of him. Let him know I am here for him and can take care of him.” But that’s not the gladiator way! I have to be tough because I have several years in corrections and 500+ Band-Aids of armor to show what a tough guy I am. How frustrating! I can’t wait for the rewarding part when I can look in the mirror and feel like a normal human being.

Reference

1. Friedman M, Higson-Smith C. Building Psychological Resilience: Learning from the South African Police Service. In Paton D, Violanti JM, Smith LM, (Eds.), Promoting Capabilities to Manage Posttraumatic Stress: Perspectives on Resilience. Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL, 2003.


About the author

Caterina Spinaris, Ph.D., LPC, is the founding director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, Inc., a 2003 Colorado-based 501(c)(3) corporation. Desert Waters helps correctional agencies counter Corrections Fatigue in their staff by cultivating a healthier workplace climate and a more engaged workforce through targeted skill-based training and research. For the past 19 years, Caterina has been designing evidence-informed educational wellness materials for corrections agencies.  She has also designed the Corrections Fatigue Assessment. Her research interests in the corrections arena include post-traumatic stress disorder, resilience, and Corrections Fatigue—a term she coined in 2000, and which describes the cumulative negative effects of operational, organizational, and traumatic stressors associated with corrections work. Caterina authored the books “Staying Well: Strategies for Corrections Staff,” and “More on Staying Well: More Strategies for Corrections Staff,” In 2014, Caterina received the Harry Tinsley Award from the Colorado Criminal Justice Association for outstanding achievement in the field of criminal justice. Her course “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment™” received the Commercial Product award of excellence by the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel in 2016.

Recommended for you

Join the discussion

Copyright © 2020 correctionsone.com. All rights reserved.