Fifty years have passed since a guard has been killed at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Seventy-year-old correctional officer John Claussen, stabbed to death in the prison’s print shop, is one of the few corrections officers listed on the state’s memorial for law enforcement officials killed in the line of duty.
The murder of a corrections officer is rare. The risks of the job were underscored by the recent death of a young female officer in the juvenile facility in Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska.
The daily risks are real. The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services recently compiled data listing 11 serious attacks on staff since 2009 and another 234 categorized as non-serious.
Recently the Department’s Director, Michael Kenney, agreed to talk with Bill Kelly of NET News about the hazards faced by the officers guarding the state’s ten facilities used to house adult and juvenile offenders around the state. Kenny took the job last September after serving as warden of six facilities over 34 years with DOC.
Kelly asked Kenney if having Nebraska’s state-operated prisons and correctional facilities over-capacity increased the potential for incidents involving corrections officers.
KELLY: How often does the Nebraska prison system see an assault on a corrections officer?
KENNY: Fortunately, it’s fairly rare. Occasionally really serious assaults where people are attacked with a makeshift weapon or they’re beaten with fists. There are other forms of assault. Being spat upon. Having human waste thrown upon you. Those are also ways in which inmates assault staff. I think it happens relatively infrequently, but the potential is always there and we safeguard against that.
KELLY: It can be dangerous work.
KENNEY: It can be very dangerous work. In any jail or prison there’s always the static pressure that the people incarcerated there probably don’t want to be there. And so there’s the propensity for escape.
Escape means that there would be an effort to overcome, overwhelm either the mechanical limitations or the human limitations holding people back, the containment factor. And a lot of those containment factors are people. People with key rings, people that have access to running electric doors and things like that. Part of the danger for employees is that they may be a key component in that escape attempt. So yeah, there’s a danger working in corrections.
KELLY: While you’ve never actually been a corrections officer per se, you’ve been around them for much of your career. What types of things do you hear them say about the potential for that risk?
KENNY: I know one of the fears is that they will be compromised somehow, that inmates would gang up in a situation and assault them. I don’t think it remains a daily anxiety for the people that work here. We train there is a difference between healthy awareness of the inherent danger of your surroundings and living in fear for eight hours a day while you’re on shift. I think if someone comes to work every day and they’re wringing their hands and worried about their safety, they probably won’t stay in this position for very long.
KELLY: Tell me about the training that addresses those anxieties.
KENNY: All correctional officers that come to work for us enter into a five-week full-time training session at our staff training academy. We cover lots of things from personnel rules, regulations, policies, how to deal with inmates. Everyone who has contact with inmates learns what we call Level Three Self-Defense. How to deflect and avoid and counteract an assault to your person.
The potential is always there and we safeguard against that."--Michael Kenney, Corrections Director
Inmates are not a happy group sometimes. They’re unhappy because they’re in prison and they may get a “Dear John” letter. They may get a disappointing decision from the Parole Board. There are a number of things that could cause an inmate to one day be stable and cooperative and the next day, without us knowing what it was, something might trigger some sort of volatile reaction. We train to detect that.
We do suicide prevention. We train people how to look for the signs of depression or suicide and listen to what they’re saying. We want a safe institution for everyone. Not just the employees, but everyone.
KELLY: Does a correctional officer’s attitude, how they carry themselves, (is that) part of protecting their own personal safety?
KENNEY: Yes. It is. Inmates, for whatever crime they’ve committed, are still human beings. There are ways one human being can interact with another human being that tends to agitate or exacerbate a bad attitude. That’s true if an employee or correctional officer is prone to as we say, throwing his or her weight around, overuse of authority, always speaking in harsh demanding tones, saying anything belittling or demeaning to an inmate, which by the way is contrary to our work rules and we do not permit that to happen. But if that does happen those things all tend to have a negative impact on how that inmate would respond to that employee.
We train employees to be emotionally level, measured in their response. We teach them to deescalate situations like that. We teach them to listen empathetically to the inmate. It’s really an informal form of counseling.
We teach the techniques for them to listen to the inmate and if all possible, to resolve their concern at the lowest possible level even in an informal dialog.
While it’s not always successful, that’s what we train to do and we believe that doing that creates a safer environment.
KELLY: It would seem there also has to be a balance. A corrections officer cannot be a friend and they can’t bend rules.
KENNEY: Absolutely. We teach a complete professional distancing and some of the problems that we have if an employee doesn’t fully embrace this professional distancing, that can be problematic.
I’ve seen employees who compromise our rules of enforcement because they favor an inmate. An inmate has attempted to manipulate the employee by establishing a relationship or a friendship. Some inmates are masterful at fostering that kind of friendship. How that turns out for the employee is generally very badly because then the employee can get talked into cutting corners or turning their head and looking the other way when things go on and that’s a real danger for our staff. It contributes to the dangerous environment instead of firm, fair, and consistent, which is what we teach at our academy and we remind employees every year.
KELLY: What happens when there is an assault of a corrections officer?
KENNEY: Well, officers carry radios. They can hit an alarm. We have special responders that come to the scene. The response time is usually very good and people rush to the scene. When an officer is assaulted, we go-we by staff responding to that, we separate people. We get everybody safe. We get everybody examined by medical. We—I don’t want to go into the great details of our—I don’t want to go too far into our security procedures, but there is a great deal of counseling and discussion. We are very concerned about the employee that does become assaulted. We’re attentive to that. We have programs that they go through, interviews that they go through. They get time off.
We always review the incident to say, what caused this to happen? What can we learn from this incident? We do a complete analysis of that situation to find out what happened? What did we miss that allowed this assault to take place?
If we need to fix or repair some part of our procedure, we do that. Generally it’s a human factor that goes into those assaults. Sometimes it might be an unlocked door, but the unlocked door is the result of somebody not locking it.
I’m not saying our policies and procedures are perfect, but they are created to make the environment safe for both the staff and the inmates and what we find a lot of times in an assault case is that something went awry, some policy wasn’t followed, some procedure didn’t happen like it should and that allowed for the event to take place.
KELLY: I imagine every corrections officer has been asked by a neighbor or a family member, is this job scary? Aren’t you scared doing this job? What do you think they should say?
KENNEY: Well, I hope they say no. I hope they say that this job, if done properly, is safer than construction. It’s safer than farming. It’s safer than a number of vocations that are out there. That could be proven statistically. That is not to say, that it can’t be a dangerous job. What I’m advocating and what I believe I can show is that the relative safety in being a correctional officer is directly proportional to that officer’s communication, their adherence to establish policies and procedures, their willingness to be attentive and careful and thoughtful about the people in the situation around them, their situational awareness. All of those contribute and mitigate any danger that could come to them.
So it is possible to do everything right and still have a bad incident at work. But that’s generally not the case. The staff who come to work and are rested and attentive and follow our policies and procedures carefully inevitably have a very successful shift and they work in the—they walk out safe at the end of the day. And that’s exactly what we want.