The Kansas Department of Corrections is rolling out a newly developed staff wellness program aimed at addressing corrections fatigue, a result of the intrinsic challenges and stress of working in prisons or as a parole officer. The plan will ensure that staff are not only well-trained, but are also mentally and emotionally prepared for their jobs. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson has this report…
Katie Herzberg is a parole officer at the Wichita parole and re-entry office.
The parole office is a labyrinth of bare beige walls. The lobby is decorated with bulletin boards of resources and stacks of papers listing employment opportunities and offender treatment programs. She’s meeting with a client who revealed that he had dealt with law enforcement over the weekend, a fact he should have immediately reported to Herzberg.
“So, tell me what happened. You had law enforcement contact?” Herzberg says.
“Oh ya,” her client replies. “Okay. Here ma'm, it's about right after I got out of church Sunday. A friend of mine was over there with a girl named Shelly, she’s a homeless person.”
“Let’s not use names, because that doesn’t matter,” Herzberg says.
“Okay. He was with this girl…” he continues.
This interaction involves one of dozens of clients Herzberg has in her caseload.
In a typical day, she works with criminals and offenders and helps them budget their money, find a job or a place to live, enroll in school and stay within the bounds of their parole. And that all hopefully happens between 8 and 5.
Dawn Sheplar is a mental health parole officer at the same office. Two years into her career, one of the men she was supervising sent her a disturbing letter from prison.
“The first letter that I received basically said that he was going to kill me upon his release from prison. At the time I took it personal and it affected me greatly,” she explain. “It caused depression. It caused stress. It caused fear. It caused panic. It caused anxiety. It caused so many different symptoms that it was difficult for me to do my job.”
Sheplar’s client, who was in his mid-20s, sent a similar letter to a judge. After being convicted of making a criminal threat against both Sheplar and the judge, the man sent her another more explicit letter.
“He stated that he wanted to not only kill me, but he was going cut my arms and legs off, beat me with my arms and legs, rape me, and then kill me. And signed it, ‘sincerely’ with his name,” Sheplar says.
Neither Sheplar’s story nor the emotions she experienced as a result of the letters are uncommon for people who work within corrections. They’re the people who deal with criminals after an arrest. Research shows that the traumatic incidents they are exposed to can have mental, emotional and physical consequences. It’s been found that their daily job duties can lead to rates of PTSD comparable to military combat veterans.
Meredith Butler is director of community corrections for four Kansas counties near Fort Riley. She recognized that her employees and coworkers were struggling and saw yearly turnover rates as high as 25 percent, so she decided to seek help. Butler says situations like Herzberg’s conversation with her client and Sheplar’s letters are just part of the job.
“There's just so much more to it than ‘Here's probation. Here's the standard conditions. Everybody follows that same set of standard conditions. Here’s parole here's the expectations. Here’s facility here’s the rules follow them.’ We’re working with a population that they don’t follow rules well,” she explains.
That’s where the term corrections fatigue comes in. The umbrella term describes the accumulation of the hazards of working in corrections. Butler says one example is the amount of time that an officer spends with individuals who may have done horrible things to other people.
“And you're constantly exposed to police reports that talk about the struggles that humans have gone through, or the crimes that have been committed towards children, or different sex offenses, or just some of the horrible that happen to people in general,” she continues. “And those individuals are supervised by those officers.”
Skeptical media and unsupportive members of the community can also influence corrections fatigue.
“The public really wants us to be able to put punishment into place because punishment is what makes everybody feel good, like we've been doing something. We’re attacking the problem because we’re punishing them,” she says.
Butler explains that simply sending someone to prison has been proven to not be an effective way to fight crime. She says the real solution is intervention and rehabilitation especially since 97 percent of people that are in prison come out and are back within the community interacting with society.
“So, here we are trying to preach ‘this is the best way, this is what the research shows,’ but a lot of our voters, our taxpayers, our neighbors, our friends and our families ask us frequently, ‘Why are you giving these people so many chances?’ Well, the short answer is…because they're going to be here in our community. We might as well help get them to make that positive change,” she says.
In her job as director of community corrections, Butler says she has often seen probation and parole officers become discouraged when an offender takes a step in the wrong direction.
“You know if you've been working very closely with an offender and you were finally starting to see some type of change in that behavior, but then that offender slips up and goes and commits another crime a lot of times you take that personally,” Butler says. “You take that personal responsibility even though you’re not the one that committed that crime.”
She says corrections fatigue affects people mentally leading to poor decision-making and physical exhaustion. It can make officers doubting their ability to do their job and sometimes a change in spiritual beliefs. Another common manifestation of corrections fatigue is withdrawing from society.
“Like after work they don't want to be around anybody else. Not friends. Not family. Not anybody. Because they’re just so tired of the let down and disappointment and just mentally exhausted from the work that’s being done,” she explains.
Parole Officer Dawn Sheplar says, that from her 22 years of experience working in corrections, she can confidently say every single person in the field had experienced the deleterious effects of working in these conditions. She’s one of the few who have stayed with it, and the work is still not easy for her.
“It takes a special person to do this type of job and if you can’t be empathetic, if you can’t be stern, if you can’t keep yourself from becoming emotionally attached, then this is not the job for someone to take,” Sheplar says.
Thanks to a national grant, the Kansas Department of Corrections (KDOC) will receive technical assistance from Desert Waters, a Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to the well being of corrections professionals. Later this fall, Desert Waters will provide instructor training to educate 12 members of the KDOC staff from across the state on dealing with corrections fatigue.
The goal is that the trained officers will then disperse to their individual agencies to support and train others within their communities.
Originally aired during Morning Edition on 08/28/2014