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Corrections Fatigue: The Hidden Enemy in Army Corrections
By CH (CPT) C. Wade Shepard
Published: 01/29/2018

Depression d

Readiness and resiliency in the Army are critical to comprehensive Soldier care and mission success. Over the course of several decades, the Army has made great strides in combatting stigma and encouraging comprehensive health [1]. I remember stark walls during my first tenure as a young tanker in 1991; just a stroll down a given unit’s hallway these days, and we might discover a number of risk reduction and strategical wellness reminders — from preventative suicide awareness to proactive SHARP tips and tools.

And what about unit culture? Our environment? I can’t remember any command climate surveys in my first early 90’s tour. No Unit Risk Inventories with help from programs such as the Substance Use Disorder Clinic (SUDC). And no Global Assessment Tool (GAT) surveys or little command assessment instruments. Both individual and organizational comprehensive health is a top priority and rightly so. After decades at war, all-time high suicide rates and a multitude of problems have helped the Army realize we must focus on readiness and resiliency as a top priority [2]. As a result, these trying and tasking years spawned amazing partnerships and program developments to help us be more healthy, like Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness (CSF2), Master Resiliency Training (MRT), and Telehealth and Technology to name a few.

One important factor discovered through these years is that every unit is unique. Every organization and MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) has its own inherent strengths and limitations. Army Corrections Command is no different. Every unit and each facility bears particular dynamics that are more or less challenging to comprehensive health. Furthermore we share a common innate toxicity within the corrections profession.

My journey in the world of corrections began in July 2015. After 6 months as the unit chaplain for 330 or so Soldiers (with one CO deployed to Cuba), we had 15 in-patient cases for suicidal ideations. It wasn’t long before I was disturbed and puzzled about our overall health and wellness, or in Army speak — readiness and resiliency.

So I thought, “I wonder if others in similar environments struggle like we do with comprehensive fitness?” Thankfully it wasn’t long before I discovered we were not alone. Many have been perplexed about this unique professional setting and its effects for decades. The corrections environment has an infamous reputation for being toxic, dangerous, and even deadly for its personnel and their families [3]. Others had suffered. For example, I uncovered that corrections is a leading field for suicidality. More suicides happen each year to corrections officers than many other professions [4]. But why? If others have struggled in this environment for so many years, was there any causation research conducted? What about wellness programs? Any program evaluations for taking care of corrections specialists? Again, thankfully I learned we were not alone.

The first and most foundational article I read was published by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections entitled, “Occupational Stressors in Corrections Organizations: Types, Effects, and Solutions [5].” The writers helped explain that according to their research, there are three primary categories of toxic elements alive and well in any corrections environment: (1) organizational stressors, (2) operational stressors, and (3) traumatic stressors [6]. After a short amount of time, a cycle and potential downward spiral sets in for every corrections specialist and each person who works within a corrections organization [7]. This downward spiral is known as “Corrections Fatigue,” a term coined by Dr. Caterina Spinaris in the year 2000 [8]. Here is the latest technical definition of Corrections Fatigue:

Corrections Fatigue is the cumulative negative change over time of corrections professionals’ PERSONALITY, HEALTH and FUNCTIONING, and of the CORRECTIONS WORKFORCE CULTURE, as a result of insufficient and/or unhealthy individual and/or organizational coping strategies and/or wellness resources necessary for healthy adaptation to the demands of corrections work [9].

From a Helping Profession perspective (e.g., chaplains, clinical social workers, doctors, nurses, psychologists, etc.), corrections fatigue is akin to compassion fatigue or burnout within the commonality of occupational stressors [10]. According to CSF2 research, each of these stressors takes its toll on the Physical, Emotional, Social, Spiritual, and Family dimensions of the human being [11]. There is a constant drain in each of these tanks within a given person, sometimes at rapid rates.

I began to notice that corrections fatigue was occurring all around me. The downward spiral was even happening to me. It was as if the very air we breathed was poisonous. Why were these suicidal ideations taking place in alarming numbers? Why were our Unit Risk Inventory numbers skyrocketing survey after survey? Why were there so many unhealthy people? I believe I had the answer: corrections fatigue was breeding rampantly throughout individuals and penetrating the fiber of our organization like black mold in a southern swamp house attic — silent and deadly. I realized that I needed specialized training if at all possible. I needed to better understand both the phenomenon and how to reverse it.

As mentioned above, the Army has spent millions of dollars helping us be a healthier, effective force. If you ask me, it is worth every penny. And yes, this is an uphill roller coaster in some ways. We still have more work to do. In reality, this is a never-ending struggle. Those of us in the Helping Profession should consistently strive to utilize evidence-based, data-driven curriculum, materials, and programs to help us be more and more ready and resilient. Moreover, it is my assessment that these materials should be specific to each of our environments. While the Army’s programs such as MRT and CSF2 are amazing for being ready and resilient for every Soldier and family, if utilized in isolation, void of environmental considerations and absent of present corrections wellness research, I believe we are missing the boat. If you trust the data — that corrections environments are intrinsically poisonous — what else should be done for our distinctive toxic context?

On March 21-24, 2017, I had the pleasure of attending the “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment” T4T instructor’s course developed by Dr. Caterina Spinaris at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach in Florence, Colorado. Not only was I trained in an evidenced-based, data-driven program solely designed for the readiness and resiliency for those working in the corrections field, but I also had the pleasure to develop relationships with corrections professionals from Nebraska, Minnesota, South Dakota, and South Africa. As I learned more and more how to aid in reversing the toxicity of corrections fatigue as an individual and as an organization, I also listened to professionals whose testimony after testimony revealed we are not alone in Army Corrections.

Army Corrections is a part of a greater community of corrections that struggles with similar dynamics. We are also a part of a greater community that believes we can be consistently and persistently healthier. We can all be more ready and resilient. Awareness is the first step in moving from corrections fatigue to fulfillment.

It is my hope that other leaders and Helping Professionals within Army Corrections value the significance of the hidden enemy, corrections fatigue, and the need for specialized training in its development, process, and removal. The evidence suggests we are not alone in this need as well. If corrections professionals first collectively build this awareness of our hidden enemy, we can then collectively reduce risk and make our specific organizations safer and more positive with greater mission success. It follows that some organizations are better at acknowledging corrections fatigue than others.

It is my understanding that if you are in corrections, you are somewhere in this process. The air at any facility is toxic — some more, some less. This leaves two important lingering questions of awareness: (1) how healthy am I?, and (2) how healthy is my organization?

My conversations with corrections officers from civilian Department of Corrections revealed a prevalent common thread.

I became aware that their facilities did not have Chaplains or Embedded Behavioral Health (EBH) or other personnel on site solely dedicated to the holistic well-being of the administration and corrections officers [12]. Some facilities might have the additional benefit of these special staff. To my knowledge, it is rare. The military is privileged to utilize special staff among others for the research and development of specialized individual and organizational care.

Through my specialized training at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, I learned the next step after awareness also is both on the individual and the organization level: the implementation of effective self-care strategies and proactive organizational health development [13]. I assume the latter is more challenging for facilities who do not have dedicated staff for reversing the downward spiral of corrections fatigue as we do in the Army.

There are a number of unique changes that can be made to positively affect the health of an organization. These range from small and subtle though significant to more complex and time consuming. And these positive changes can be made at any level within a given correction specialist or staff’s circle of influence. With effective training in both corrections fatigue and its reversal process, Helping Professionals such as chaplains can aid in designing and implementing strategic programs for greater organizational readiness and resiliency. These programs should be shaped and molded according to the given culture and context. This became critical for our comprehensive health in the 508th Military Police Detention Battalion and Northwestern Joint Regional Correctional Facility (NWJRCF) at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.

Six months passed with 15 suicidal ideations. I did not understand corrections fatigue as I do now. However, I knew that environments effect behavior and healing as a result of my time as a chaplain clinician resident in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Madigan Army Medical Center (MAMC). I discovered low morale and high risk behavior by talking with Soldiers at every level. One of my primary jobs as I understood it was to strategically implement something within our training calendar and battle rhythm that helped counteract whatever was going on within our unit. I now understand that we were strategically combatting the hidden enemy of corrections fatigue.

If I could tell you of one major change within the fiber of our organization that positively impacted the comprehensive health of individuals and our organization, it would have to be “Resiliency Days.” There have been numerous positive changes from multiple levels in the past two years. I do believe that the most effective strategies for combating corrections fatigue happen throughout the ranks in Army corrections. “Resiliency Days” happen to be one change designed and influenced by dedicated Helping Professionals [14].

What all is entailed in an 8-10 hour 508th MP BN (D) Resiliency Day? To summarize, Resiliency Days are strategic resiliency events that combine research, development, implementation, and reassessing from three primary areas: (1) Positive Psychology, CSF2, and MRT, (2) Positive Psychology and Hope Theory, and (3) Corrections Fatigue/Fulfillment [15].

The event happens off-installation. Usually the Resiliency Day occurs in a platoon’s (PLT) green cycle training once every 12-15 weeks. If the PLT or section is not a 31E PLT (Corrections Specialist MOS) that works shift in the facility, the event is scheduled based on the given unit calendar. It involves a physical challenge bolstering the ideas of teamwork and unity, usually a moderate hike (3-7 miles with 1000 ft. elevation gain is common). There are several key points of training selected by collaboration between the unit chaplain, PLT leadership team, and CSF2 Performance Expert or MRT trained Non-commissioned Officer (NCO). A MRT module is chosen by analyzing the needs of the PLT. Hope Theory (Goal + Pathways + Agency) training is also conducted utilizing instruments formed largely by the seminal work of C.R. Snyder (Hope Scale + Hope Worksheet + Hope Scale) [16]. Every aspect of training is driven by instructors who have studied pedagogy on some level. They understand that adults learn in different ways so they attempt to instruct through experiential learning methods that reach aural, kinesthetic, interactive, print, tactile, and visual learners. The end result is a crafted day of group participation that empowers health and well-being in both the present and the future.

Resiliency Days are now as normal as bi-weekly Training meetings. There are as regular as Physical training (PT). There are an expected part of the battle rhythm within our organization. Resiliency Days might be considered means of necessary oxygen in an environment where poisonous gases prevail. I believe they are an integral part of combating the hidden enemy of corrections fatigue. Make no mistake, they are not the only solution for reversing the downward spiral of corrections fatigue at the 508th MP BN (D). And they will not work at every facility, within all organizations. They are one effective means to mitigating risk; our decreased numbers of suicidal activity as well as our Unit Risk Inventories and Command Climate Surveys reflect it. They are one primary means of helping this Army Corrections unit be more ready and resilient.

Corrections fatigue is a real phenomenon that exists in any corrections organization as demonstrated in evidence-based research. These data-driven studies reflect it is also alive and well in Army Corrections facilities and units. The good news is, with specialized training and focus, individual and organizational changes can combat this hidden enemy. Together we can reverse this vicious cycle and rise to be more ready and resilient corrections professionals. Part of the solution is awareness. Another key is specialized education such as routine “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment” training within an organization. The next step is implementation of systemic points of change like Resiliency Days in the 508th MP BN (D) and routine monitoring. Together we can persistently transform our facilities and environments, Corrections Officers, staff, and families.

[1] Army G1. (2010). Health Promotion Risk Reduction Suicide Prevention Report. Retrieved from http://www.armyg1.army.mil/hr/suicide/docs/Commanders%20Tool%20Kit/HPRRSP_Report_2010_v00.pdf

[2] Zoroya, G., USAToday. (2016, April 1). US Military Suicides Remain High for Seventh Year. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2016/04/01/us-military-suicides-remain-stubbornly-high/82518278/

[3] Pittaro, M., In Public Safety (2015, January 5). Suicide Among Corrections Officers: It’s Time for an Open Discussion. Retrieved from http://inpublicsafety.com/2015/01/suicide-among-corrections-officers-its-time-for-an-open-discussion/

[4] Brower, J. U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Diagnostic Center. (2013, July). Correctional Officer Wellness and Safety Literature Review. Retrieved from https://www.ojpdiagnosticcenter.org/sites/default/files/spotlight/download/NDC_CorrectionalOfficerWellnessSafety_LitReview.pdf

[5] Denhof, M., Spinaris, C., and Morton, G. (2014, July). Occupational Stressors in Corrections Organizations: Types, Effects and Solutions. Retrieved from https://s3.amazonaws.com/static.nicic.gov/Library/028299.pd

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Spinaris, C. (2016, July). Corrections Fatigue and Corrections Fulfillment — In a Nutshell. Retrieved from http://www.corrections.com/news/article/43840-corrections-fatigue-corrections-fulfillment-in-a-nutshell

[9] Ibid.

[10] Van Mol, M., Kompanje, E., Benoit, D., Bakker, J., Nijkamp, M. (2015, August 31). The Prevalence of Compassion Fatigue and Burnout among Healthcare Professionals in Intensive Care Units: A Systematic Review. Retrieved from http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0136955

[11] Department of the Army. (2014, June 19). Army Regulation 350-53 Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness

[12] Denhof, Spinaris, and Morton (2014, July). Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are widely recognized as the primary means of professional support for corrections staff. It is my understanding that some state programs are more efficient and proactive than others due to funding and a variety of other factors.

[13] Desert Waters Correctional Outreach. (2017). From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment. Retrieved from http://desertwaters.com/?page_id=749

[14] Denhof, M., Spinaris, C., and Morton, G. (2014, July). Occupational Stressors. The writers suggest several key examples of resources that counteract corrections fatigue; resilience-promoting trainings are listed.

[15] The process of designing, implementing, and evaluating a Resiliency Day is a combined process adapted from the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP), After Action Reviews (AAR), and the Six-Stage Solution model, (1) Inform, (2) Assess, (3) Evaluate, (4) Plan, (5) Implement, (6) Reassess presented by Denhof, Spinaris, and Morton (Ibid).

[16] Snyder, C.R. Journal of Counseling & Development. (1995, January/February). Conceptualizing, Measuring, and Nurturing Hope. Snyder defines “Hope” as “the process of thinking about one’s goals, along with the motivation to move toward (agency) and the ways to achieve (pathways) those goals.”

This article as been reprinted with permission from the January 2018 Issue of Correctional Oasis, a monthly e-publication of "Desert Waters Correctional Outreach".

Chaplain (CPT) C. Wade Shepard is a U.S. Army Chaplain currently assigned to the 508th Military Police Battalion (Detentions) at the Northwestern Joint Regional Correctional Facility (NWJRCF), Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM), WA for his third year. He is ordained and endorsed by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Indianapolis, Indiana.


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