The patron saint of corrections officers, St. Adrian of Nicomedia, is said to have been a Roman officer astonished by the faith and courage of the Christians whose torture he was supervising. Legend has it that he declared himself a Christian and ordered his own name to be added to the list of those facing the death penalty, although he had not even been baptized.
In Acts 16, Sts. Paul and Silas converted their warden after being miraculously freed from their chains; they prevented him from killing himself in shame over their escape.
At the crucifixion, the two people who confessed Jesus as Lord were a fellow prisoner and the centurion assigned to guard them. From the very beginning, Christ came to deliver not only captives but their guards.
From the very beginning, Christ came to deliver not only captives but their guards.
And yet today, startlingly few Christian ministries exist to serve those who work in jails and prisons. Chaplains and other Christian volunteers come to visit inmates—following Jesus’ call in Matthew 25:36—but corrections officers are mostly left to handle their spiritual lives on their own. Trained to mistrust others, doing work that is poorly understood and only noticed when it is done wrong, working overtime in an environment of fear, stress and split-second moral decisions, officers show all the signs of people in crisis: high divorce rates, high rates of post-traumatic stress and depression, high rates of substance abuse; several studies have found that their suicide rate is among the highest of any job in the United States.
I spoke with several people who looked back on their corrections work as a time when they were able to make a positive difference. But most people I heard from echoed the assessment of Jeffrey Rude, a chaplain and trainer of corrections officers: “Our staff are hurting, and our staff are desperate.”
Hidden within our contemporary debates about the nature, expanse and injustices of incarceration in the United States are hundreds of thousands of people who took a job. They took the job because they needed work or because they wanted to protect their communities. They came out of the military or out of neighborhoods much like those of the inmates. Some had loved ones behind bars. Others came out of sheltered environments utterly foreign to what they were about to experience.
Hidden within our debates about the injustices of incarceration are hundreds of thousands of people who took a job.
Officers noted that their job was to watch over people who might be trying to kill them or threatening them or their family members with assault. They work in unpredictable environments, where even elderly or ill people may become violent. They have seen religion used to manipulate, shanks hidden in Bibles. They are often explicitly trained to view inmates with suspicion and even contempt, and yet some put themselves at risk to save inmates’ lives. Officers work grueling hours, sometimes in facilities without adequate heating in the winter or cooling in the summer—an issue of prisoners’ rights but also workers’ rights.
People used words like “thankless,” “unappreciated” or “guilty until proven innocent” to describe their role. Almost all of the officers and former officers I spoke with told stories, unprompted, of fellow officers who had committed suicide.
Many people knew corrections officers who had been raised Christian but no longer went to church. Long, inconvenient hours made churchgoing hard; some former officers said they were anxious in crowds or they’d had painful experiences worshiping alongside inmates’ families. This can be considered fraternization, a security risk and therefore a risk to their jobs. Every single person I talked to mentioned that C.O.s learn to close themselves off from others.
What kind of ministry could offer people in these jobs hope, guidance and the transformation to be found in Christ?
Chaplains might seem like the obvious front line of Christian ministry in jails and prisons. But this is only true if you are an inmate. Richard Dolan is a retired fire chief who has worked in areas of the Florida prison system ranging from death row to the hospital wing. Looking back on 11 years working in prisons, he says, “I remember [chaplains] coming in and talking to all the inmates, and nobody ever came up to us to minister to us.”
Dale Recinella is trying to change that. Mr. Recinella, the author of When We Visit Jesus in Prison: A Resource Book for Catholic Prison Ministry, is a lay minister and chaplain to inmates on Florida’s death row and in solitary confinement. In 1998 he moved from Rome to a part of the country where “there are no registered Catholics except the inmates,” he says. You have got to have a sense of humor when you are answering questions ranging from, “Explain what Catholics believe about the death penalty,” to, “Is it true that the ashes on Ash Wednesday come from human sacrifices?”
Chaplains might seem like the obvious front line of Christian ministry in prisons. But this is only true if you are an inmate.
Mr. Recinella notes: “The officers have this very difficult line that they have to walk, and this also applies to the staff. They are subject to what are called non-fraternization rules. It is not just appearing too friendly with the inmates. Appearing too friendly with the volunteers is also something that can get them fired. Because every person that walks into that prison who is not a state employee is considered a security risk.”
One of the best things volunteers can do, Mr. Recinella suggests, is to get out of the way. Do not make officers’ jobs harder than they already are. He says: “I’ve seen people yelling at officers for things they had nothing to do [with]; it was decided by the legislature. They’re getting chewed out by people who are in there as guests about things they have no control over, like why is there no air conditioning? Why do we have to sign in and out of the wing?... Nobody inside the fence wants to hear your opinion of the state’s rules.” Leave that to the state’s Catholic Conference, he says, with a huge laugh.
Pat Douglas, S.J., is the regional vocations director for the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus. He worked in juvenile corrections before becoming a Jesuit brother and working as a chaplain at the juvenile facility on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He is self-deprecating and quick to laugh, with a slight Nebraska accent.
One of the best things volunteers can do is to get out of the way. Do not make officers’ jobs harder than they already are.
“On the reservation, that was probably the most positive and most professional, most caring corrections staff I had ever seen,” he says. He says he loved seeing “how much the kids thrived in that environment. It was not uncommon for a kid to go up two grade levels in five or six months.”
And yet even in that environment, traumas pile up. Shortly after he started his chaplaincy on the reservation, an officer committed suicide, and Brother Douglas was called in to minister to the man’s co-workers, alongside Lakota elders. Officers would ask him to pray for them or for sick family members. “They wouldn’t do it in front of other guards,” he says. “They would do it with me privately.”
LeAnn Skeen, an English teacher at an alternative school in Oklahoma, describes the prison where she worked: “I understand that hell is unimaginable. But if hell could be imagined, it was like that.”
Corrections work might have seemed like a good fit for Ms. Skeen, initially. Her father worked as a police officer for most of her childhood and worked briefly in corrections.
“He didn’t like inmates,” Ms. Skeen notes quietly. “That sounds strange, to say it that way. He didn’t think that they had any value as human beings.”
When she entered corrections, she found “there were some good people who worked there.... The people on the bottom, who just go in there as C.O.s, most of them go in there with good intentions. But they’re disillusioned pretty quickly.” She believes the training they received shaped the prison’s atmosphere. “They were teaching us submission techniques,” she says, “and they would say things like, ‘Now if you accidentally break an arm or accidentally kill somebody, don’t worry about it. Because inmates are replaceable.’”
“He didn’t like inmates. That sounds strange, to say it that way. He didn’t think that they had any value as human beings.”
While Ms. Skeen was working in a prison, her husband was serving time in one after drinking in violation of his probation. She saw the manipulation inmates could apply to C.O.s and the attempts to humiliate her: “They were all exhibitionists. They loved to expose their penises.” But she could never forget their humanity, and she began an ongoing spiritual journey. “I have changed a lot,” she says. “And working in the prison and seeing the inhumanity—that was a huge catalyst for this change that’s taken place since then.”
She says she was raised in a church where prisoners were souls to be saved but in a way that objectified them—a “self-righteous” approach. She does not attend church now, and she is wrestling with what it means to be a Christian. When I asked what her ideal ministry for corrections officers might look like, she thought of the place she stayed when she first moved to Oklahoma City: St. James Gospel of Life Dwelling, which describes itself as “a Catholic ecclesial family of consecrated and laypersons.” The GOLD house mostly serves the elderly but occasionally takes in people struggling with substance abuse—or people like Ms. Skeen, who simply needed a place to stay. At the GOLD house, she saw lives structured and sustained by prayer. The religious sisters there provided a refuge and served residents without judgment. She wonders if there could be a place like Gospel of Life Dwelling for officers.
For now, Ms. Skeen hopes to return to prison—as a teacher.
Cary Johnson is the 2017 Michigan Corrections Organization Officer of the Year and a trustee with M.C.O., the state’s corrections union. She has worked in a men’s prison for 23 years. Ms. Johnson spoke to me on speakerphone with the union’s communications director, Anita Lloyd, there in the room. She offered a stark example of what officers face: “We had a prisoner suicide. He cut his wrists, and then he hung himself. The officers that performed C.P.R. for an hour on the prisoner were left to finish their shift. The prisoners that were in the area were offered mental health services—and [the officers were] never [offered that] once. They can’t cry. They can’t express any type of guilt that the prisoner didn’t survive.”
“We are programmed to think that some of these things are part of the job we signed up for, and we should just accept them.”
Ms. Johnson, who was raised Catholic, says good ministry should probably happen outside the facility, where officers would find it slightly easier to open up. Ms. Johnson notes, “With religion comes weakness, right?” She knew she would not be comfortable discussing spirituality and becoming “teary-eyed” at work. But she has few opportunities to open up elsewhere.
“I do not talk to my spouse about what happens at work, and I don’t think he really wants to know because some things are just crude,” she says. “As far as confession, I haven’t been in a very long time. We are programmed to think that some of these things are part of the job we signed up for, and we should just accept them and leave work at work, home at home.”
“What would it look like if we had a chaplain who was focused completely on employees?” Ms. Johnson asked. “An institutional chaplain that’s completely directed toward the employees—hey, can you fix that [up]? Because I would love that.”
Ms. Johnson does receive a daily prayer email from Corrections Staff Fellowship. This is a national group whose chapters hold regular meetings to support and encourage Christian officers. There are several of these fellowships, some national and some region specific, run by and for officers. I spoke with Paul Lee, executive director of the Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers, which ministers to the law enforcement community. The F.C.P.O. offers Bible studies, support groups and activities for officers and their families.
Mr. Lee, a captain retired from the Chattanooga Police Department, is a genial man whose accent reflects 61 years spent in his Tennessee hometown. At times, he described law enforcement in near-apocalyptic terms: “A lot of cops and corrections officers [are] dealing with evil. And especially those guys in the prisons, in the jails. They’re in there crammed with some of the most evil this world’s got to offer.”
“God can work anywhere. And nobody has access to more people than corrections or law enforcement.”
Yet Lee’s faith also offers him a more complex view of his former job: “The world will tell you that this group or that group is not important; they’re thugs, they’re bad guys, they’re unsalvageable, they’re less. But God’s word says they’re precious. God’s word tells me how to treat the poor, the indigent.”
Before he became a Christian, he says, he felt “dirty,” as if he wasn’t good enough to love God. Now he knows, he says, that “God can work anywhere. And nobody has access to more people than corrections or law enforcement. There’s nobody that has access to the lost like we do.”
But what happens when officers are themselves among the lost?
Caterina Spinaris, who grew up in the Greek community of Alexandria, Egypt, finds those people. She founded Desert Waters Correctional Outreach in Florence, Colo., which offers training, books and workshops on “corrections fatigue” and resilience. The program is not tied to a faith tradition, though spiritual matters like forgiveness and gratitude are addressed.
Ms. Spinaris has no corrections experience, but she clearly feels for officers. “There are staff who keep it together and help their co-workers,” she says. “They are a light in a dark place.” In her description, corrections officers can become like the people in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen,” who get a shard of glass from an evil mirror stuck in their eyes and can no longer see the joy and beauty in life. If their work performance suffers, superiors will likely blame a bad work ethic; if their family life suffers, family members might not realize how much of the problem is work-related stress.
According to Ms. Spinaris, officers often suffer from “moral injury.” “Moral injury is a term that the military came up with,” she explains, “where you either see or do something that bothers your conscience, and you don’t do anything about it, and you try to hide it, stuff it, forget it, drink it away, whatever. It eats at them.”
“There are staff who keep it together and help their co-workers. They are a light in a dark place.”
She notes that when Desert Waters did a study to estimate the prevalence of post-traumatic stress symptoms in corrections staff, the emotions most strongly correlated with meeting P.T.S.D. criteria were not fear or anger but guilt and shame. One man in her program started telling his story with gallows humor: “I can talk about it now—because the statute of limitations has expired.” But he went on to express deep shame and regret. “For every story told, there are several in the room who are quiet,” Ms. Spinaris says. “But they know. They [may] have been in those shoes.”
“The solution ultimately is the spiritual solution of talking about it with somebody” who understands, Ms. Spinaris says. “In the Christian tradition [this involves] confession, repentance, maybe restitution to try to make it right. And grieving. Seeking and receiving forgiveness. And in some cases extending forgiveness.”
Jeffrey Rude is a trainer with Desert Waters and a case manager for the Washington State Department of Corrections. He has been training corrections staff for the state for 19 of the 22 years he has spent in service with the department.
For the past two years he has had a new role: chaplain. He is serving officers—but almost underground. Mr. Rude, who is a member of an evangelical free church, says: “The State of Washington does not recognize us, so we are ‘word of mouth’ only.” The department, he says, is worried about conflicts of interest. But Mr. Rude sees a need.
“Staff are desperate for wellness,” he says. “For help. Most of them—I’d say 75 to 80 percent of them—don’t recognize it. They don’t recognize the damage that’s been done to them just by living in the [prison] environment as long as they have.”
The inspiration for Desert Waters came when Ms. Spinaris moved from Denver to an area with several prisons. Although she had not looked for these clients, she began seeing corrections officers, former officers and officers’ children at her psychotherapy practice.
Ms. Spinaris did not think she was the right person to serve these clients. “I have no law enforcement experience,” she says. “I have no corrections experience. I’m a foreigner; I’m female.” But then she had a dream in which Jesus told her point blank: “If you don’t get into this, I’ll give it to someone else, and who knows what they’ll do with it. And you will have missed out on your life’s calling.”
Ms. Spinaris gave in. But she still asked, “Why is the Lord sending us to this sliver of the population?”
Her husband answered simply, “He heard their cries.”
Serving Corrections Officers
1. Know what you are talking about. Almost everyone I spoke with emphasized how much easier it is to open up with people who have law enforcement or corrections experience or who have, at least, spent a long time listening to people in those jobs. Constantly explaining the rules, jargon and emotional dynamics is alienating and exhausting.
2. Know what you do not know. I spoke with two women who worked at the same time in the same prison. One of them looks back on the prison as nightmarish, a place where people were trained to become angry and callous. The other remembers the prison fondly, as a place where she gave people respect and consistency when they needed it most. You do not have to judge one woman as more accurate than the other to know they will likely have different spiritual needs.
3. Offer practical help. Churches can do immense good by offering practical aid: child care for single moms working night shifts or double shifts at the local prison, for example. Dale Recinella says he connects officers with Catholic assistance programs: “Sometimes there’s a need for marital counseling, sometimes help with a kid who’s going the wrong way, sometimes it’s as basic as food and clothes and utilities.”
4. Corrections officers are not the system. Some of the people I interviewed for this article believe the prison system is, at its root, oppressive and unjust. Some believe prisons are a necessary defense against horrific violence. You may believe officers need an escape from an inhuman system or deserve support and honor for good and necessary work—but officers are not avatars of your beliefs.
5. Listen first. I was struck by how many people used language like “unheard” when describing officers. Most of these previous points will come naturally—if you listen.