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Do We Make a Difference?
Updated On: Mar 01, 2013

Do We Make a Difference?

Published: American Jails Magazine January/February 2013 Issue

Lenny O’Keefe, CJM, CJO, CCT

and Kraig Emery, CJO

The last thing most correctional officers want is to have a former inmate approach them on the street or in a restaurant.  After all, we are not friends with former inmates, and too often these individuals end up back in our facilities.  But the reality is that former inmates, particularly those who live in small towns, are members of our community, and most of us do meet them unexpectedly in a public setting.

When giving a tour of our facility, or speaking in a public forum, we generally begin with this fact: “In the State of New Hampshire, approximately 96 percent of people currently incarcerated will someday return to our communities.”  Although it is the responsibility of the correctional facility to provide opportunities for change, it is not our job to change the inmates.  Our job is to offer them the tools for change and to model the behavior that society has dictated as the norm.  Change must come from within the inmate.  This said, each of us must ask ourselves: “If I were a business that profited from my successes, as most normal businesses do, am I making a profit, am I breaking even or am I headed for bankruptcy?  Do I make a difference?”  As an offender after offender returns to jail, or the next generation is booked for the first time, these questions arise in our minds… as they should.

No Longer “Guards”

Working in our agency’s training department for the past several years, Lt. O’Keefe has had the privilege of hiring more than 90 current staff members.  At every oral board, every interviewee has said that they are entering this field to help people.  This statement is a strong testament that most people become correctional officers make a difference.  We have evolved from guards into professionals and people who are proud of their profession.

We all know short stories of correctional institutions and guards who …. with a heavy hand are not merely rumors.  Although abuses occur, we hear about them much less frequently today even though some brutal forms of punishment remain in Third-World countries.

Early ideas on punishment and inmate management have evolved.  In the past, corporal punishment and capital punishment were considered useful deterrents to criminal behavior.  In the past, societies incarcerated offenders in places such as dungeons, the galley of war ships, and primitive jails.  Not until 1777, when prison reformer John Howard penned an essay titled “The State of Prisons,” did the treatment of prisoners became more humane.  Although not immediately adopted, his ideas developed into the concepts we use today, including inmate management, security, staffing, medical care, and inspections by outside sources.

Although John Howard was not alone in his idea of prison reformation, his essay was one of the turning points.  Since then, the warehousing of inmates has decreased and attempts to assist offenders with corrective and reformatory strategies have increased.  In recent years, the direct supervision concept has proven to be an effective form of offender management.  Although history shows that philosophies relating to inmate supervision and reentry are driven by new technologies, advances in understanding the human mind – and yes, the almighty dollar – they are driven by correctional personnel who possess integrity and behave honorably every day.

Perception vs. Reality

Despite this evolution, more often than not the public unfortunately has no understanding of how a jail functions.  For that matter, neither do most correctional officers when they are first hired.  Before entering the corrections profession, most applicants’ images of prisoners and correctional facilities come from movies such as Escape from Alcatraz and The Shawshank Redemption, where too often the audience is left rooting for the prisoner.  These negative images are implanted in applicants before they even fill out an employment application.  Once inside the walls, however, new recruits quickly realize the difference between perception and reality.  During the basic training phase, the words professional and correctional officer are used in the same sentence over and over, establishing a new reality.

At the New Hampshire Association of Counties Correctional Academy, Lt. O’Keefe begins his instruction of new recruits by asking for their response to this question: “When little children see you in your uniform on the street, do they ask if you are a police officer?”  Sadly, most recruits respond, “Yes.”  The most common excuse is, “It would take too much time to explain who we really are.”  New recruits also say that people do not understand the job of a corrections officer, and if they reveal that they work in a jail, people are intimidated.

When you stop and think about it, however, it is easy to see why the average citizen has only negative stereotypes in mind when inmates and jails are mentioned.  As noted previously, more often than not the public has no idea what goes on in jail.  After all, did we before we began working in a correctional facility?

An Opinionated Public

When friends and relatives learn that an individual is a correctional officer, some immediately want to express their opinions on the current corrections system.  Examples of their opinions, which mirror many in society, are: “Why not lock them up and throw away the key?” and “You know, some sheriffs and jail administrators have it right: inmates should all wear pink underwear and work on chain gangs.”

Very rarely do such negative opinions generate a positive atmosphere, especially by those in the corrections profession itself.  Although public perception may generally agree with these opinionated sheriffs and jail administrators, such individuals often have a negative rather than a positive impact.  For example, these vocal administrators are often involved in lawsuits for civil rights violations.  They are sending the image of the corrections profession back to the Stone Age.

In New Hampshire, the debate of privilege versus punishment increased when the public learned that State inmates would be able to obtain MP3 players to listen to music and access e-mail.  Many of our friends could not fathom giving this privilege to inmates.

Does most of the public feel that the goal of correctional facilities is to appease inmates and hand out MP3 players?  Sadly, they do; and these are the same people who watch jail reality shows on television where they are only shown the local drunk who performs for the camera; the kid who experiments with modern chemistry and has no understanding of the repercussions; the person with severe mental health issues who reacts violently to a situation; or the guy who is angry at the world and vents his frustrations during booking.

It is unfortunate these television programs do not place cameras in the GED classes, the parenting group, anger management therapy, or the other programs that prepare inmates for reentry into the community.

Why give MP3 players to someone who was convicted of robbing a number of homes in the local neighborhood.  Why not just lock him up and throw away the key?  Better yet, why not bring back stocks to town square? Instead, these are the questions that should be asked instead:

  • How do we return these offenders to their communities?
  • Do we want community members who are kept in cages and never an opportunity to better themselves?
  • Do we want these citizens to learn a trade and become functioning members of our community?

Making a Difference

Recidivism statistics do not necessarily reveal the complete story.  For example, we all know the young man who is out of school, unemployed, comes from a broken home, and has a family history of criminal activity.  He commits a crime and is remanded to jail.  While incarcerated, he mingles with individuals who have similar background and camaraderie builds.  He says he cannot wait until his release.  But when life turns bad, he is compelled to return to what he knows to be stable – jail, the only structure and “home” he has experienced.

As correctional officers, we rarely see the success stories. We do, however, see people who return because of their life choices as opposed to the impact that jail or prison had on them.  This does not negate our responsibility; instead, it places the responsibility to truly change on the individual.

Meeting a Former Inmate – and his Son

One of the greatest +compliments – and ultimate signs of respect – correctional officers can receive is when an ex-offender meets you in public and introduces you to his or her family to you.  Our relatively small jail, 237 beds, is located in the same small community where most of our officers grew up, so the chance of meeting an ex-offender on the streets is pretty high.  The question is always raised: "What do I do when my family is also standing there?  Do I introduce them?”  In our case, our families know that when approached in public, they are to continue on their way.  There are times when we have called them back to introduce them to a fellow officer or a friend, but it eliminates the awkwardness of not introducing them to an ex-offender.

After 15 years in the profession, Lt. O’Keefe says he never met an ex-offender in public where the contact was negative.  Some ex-offenders walk by and simply wave, and at other times the officer receives just a nod of the head.  But most time they stop and tell him how well they are doing, thank him, and introduce their families.  Recently, Lt. O’Keefe was walking down the main street of our county’s largest city.  He heard someone shout his name from behind.  Turning, he saw a newly released inmate running toward him and pushing a baby carriage with a lady following him.  When he reached Lt. O’Keefe, he was out of breath and very excited.  Lt. O’Keefe did not know his name, but he remembered that the man had worked in the jail’s kitchen and was always respectful and polite.  Pointing excitedly at the baby carriage, the man introduced O’Keefe to his new son.  The man was so proud of his family.  He told Lt. O’Keefe that the baby’s name was Cameron.  He then introduced his son’s mother, who was also smiling.

Lt. O’Keefe introduced himself to both the child and Cameron’s mom.  After chatting for a couple of minutes, Lt. O’Keefe wished the three of them good luck and ended the conversation by telling the proud father that his young family needed him now more than ever, and that meant he’d better not end up in jail again.  As they parted ways, Lt. O’Keefe realized that correctional officers truly do make a difference.

Lt. Lenny O’Keefe, CJM, CJO, CCT, is the Training Coordinator at the Merrimack County Department of Corrections (DOC) in Boscawen, New Hampshire.  He has served in several capacities during his 15 year career and has been the recipient of several awards including Employee and Officer of the Year, as well as the agency’s highest honor, The Superintendent’s Award.  Lt. O’Keefe also services on the American Jail Association’s Correctional Trainer Certification Commission.  He can be reached at lokeefe@mcdoc.net.

Ofc. Kraig D. Emery, CJO, has served the Merrimack County DOC for six years.  He is a shift trainer, a classroom instructor, and crisis negotiator.  He also serves as the Assistant Commander of his agency’s Honor Guard team.  A recipient of numerous awards, including the Employee of the Year and various exceptional achievement awards.  Ofc. Emery can be reached at kraig.emery@aol.com.


 
 
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