‘Don’t look back, you’re not going that way’

Corrections Report

Since 1994, when I first met Tommy Little and Jay Glass from State Corrections Local 105, I have had a great relationship with the NJSPBA. I’ve attended dozens of conventions, rallies, protests, hearings and ceremonies in New Jersey. I’ve given testimony, provided research, conducted a study on jail consolidation and written 50 articles for NJ Cops Magazine. My relationship with your organization, from Mike Madonna to Pat Colligan, runs long and deep.

On May 31, I will have completed 40 years in corrections. Time necessitates a shift in focus. Although this will be my last article for NJ Cops, I have no immediate plans to retire. Joining with Andy Potter and the One Voice United team has provided me with a unique opportunity and a vehicle to hopefully make a difference in several areas. Staff mental health, minimum staffing ratios, national training recommendations, inserting our voices into the discussions over reform and sharing best practices are central to our mission.

I look forward to continuing to work with the NJSPBA on the many projects that we have underway, including the Medal of Honor Awards and the Wellness Conference in D.C. in May; our Leadership Assembly; the International Wellness Working Group; and our Bridging the Gap program, which several New Jersey officers are involved in. Bridging the Gap brings college students into a conversation with COs, providing them with a rare glimpse of what life behind the walls is like for us. All too often, only one side of the story gets heard. The next generation of policy- and decision-makers needs to see the whole picture, and we must tell them.

That is my direction going forward: getting our stories told and our voices heard. I do not want the 40 years I have spent in this profession to be for naught. We all want our careers to have meaning, to have purpose, but too often, we are beaten down to the point where just making it to another paycheck is good enough. It can’t be good enough, with 156 suicides a year, 40,000 assaults, a 34 percent PTSD rate and an average age at death of 61 — we can’t be silent, none of us.

In the past five years, I’ve written over 50,000 words on these pages. You’re probably getting pretty bored with my take on corrections. I realized after I hit my 65th birthday that my rantings were starting to sound a lot like some old crank in the neighborhood yelling “Get off my lawn.” It’s time for a younger voice, a fresher look at the profession, a new set of eyes with which to see and experiences to share. It’s time for me to embrace my new role as the old vet who on occasion may find a few words of wisdom worth imparting. I still know how to bang the table and will always fight for my profession, but now is the time in my life when I must take a more reasoned approach — who can we partner with and make things happen rather than who can we point the finger at because they haven’t?

I’ve tried the hardline approaches: the protests, the grievances, lawsuits, labor cases, arbitrations, media assaults. I’ve picketed my employers’ homes and politicians’ fundraisers, even a charity softball game when we were raising hell over a contract issue. In New Jersey, we had a giant inflatable rat at the Middlesex County protests and caskets in the pouring rain at the one in Union, to name just two of many! I’ve stood with you at rallies in Trenton and at awards ceremonies in Atlantic City, and I wouldn’t trade a moment of any of it.

However, I’m not going to spend my last 900 words in these pages on nostalgia. I’d rather look to the future. As a great philosopher once said, “Don’t look back, you’re not going that way.” So what direction are we going? We are going forward; there is no other choice. Yet we are so reluctant to change that our caution often stymies our chances for advancement, our ability to move forward. We get caught in a system that rewards conformity rather than one in pursuit of solutions. A system where new ideas are often met with ridicule and suspicion, where the “dinosaurs” protect their peers and defend the old “us vs. them” historic battle lines seemingly at all costs and without rhyme or reason. Why is that? Why are we so afraid of change? Because traditionally in corrections, change is something that happens to us. It’s not usually something we instigate or want, and it’s often perceived negatively. In most instances, we weren’t involved in the decisions that brought about the change; consequently, from the very onset, we’re cynical of the motivations behind it.

We all know that reform is in the air. We need to be a part of those discussions and get the reforms we need. One Voice United will be focusing on several issues. My priority will be on the mental health problems our profession faces. I ask for your continued support. Unlike ACOIN, with One Voice United there is nothing to join, no dues to pay. We ask for sponsors for specific events or programs. If you like our Wellness Initiative, Bridging the Gap or the Medal of Honor, then we hope you will support it. That’s all we ask. Be safe, be well and thank you. Onward!