Respect the Risk


By Brian Dawe

On July 29, more than a dozen union officials from around the nation and representatives from labor organizations in Norway, Australia and New Zealand joined together for the inaugural meeting of the One Voice United International Working Group on Correctional Staff Wellness and Safety (IWG).

The IWG’s mission:

  • Establish an international network of corrections professionals to seek and share best practices that deal with the issue of staff mental health.
  • Participate in self-designed or group-originating action projects over the next 12 months, large or small, to impact staff wellness.
  • Evaluate the success and effectiveness of the various action projects undertaken by the groups within the IWG and design a universal strategy and tactics to deal with staff mental health and wellness moving forward.

Several in attendance discussed programs currently available to their members. Ed Sullivan, president of the New Jersey Superior Officers Association, spoke highly of New Jersey’s “Blue-to-Blue” program. Two programs from outside the U.S. also caught our attention: the “StandTALR” program (Talk, Ask, Listen, Refer) and the “Respect the Risk” program, both originating in Australia and now being adopted in New Zealand.

Although all offer some great examples of programs that can help staff navigate the psychological challenges we face, Respect the Risk in particular stuck in my mind. Although originally designed as part of a public relations campaign against privatization in Australia, Respect the Risk has grown to have many applications. Here is what I mean.

To our fellow citizens: Respect the Risk that officers take every time they go behind those walls. We are your neighbors, your friends, and we safeguard your communities. We are not the monsters Hollywood portrays. Respect the physical and psychological risk we take. We all knew the physical dangers when we signed up — but no one ever told us that the biggest danger we face lies among the silent killers that stalk us and take hundreds of us every year.

To our brothers and sisters on the streets: Respect the Risk we take. You catch them, we keep them. The stress and suicide rates of our police officers are unacceptable. We ask you to consider that our suicide has nearly doubled when we seek your support on legislation, funding and other initiatives to address correctional PTSI.

To our elected officials: Respect the Risk we take as a result of ill-conceived legislation that ties our hands or makes our jobs even more difficult. Respect the Risk by inviting our opinions and years of experience into debates on issues that will directly impact us, our safety and the jobs we do, before you pass legislation. Respect the Risk we take by touring our facilities, not with cameras to politically grandstand, but to take a legitimate tour into the bowels of the facilities where we work.

To our administrations and managers: Respect the Risk we take by listening to the men and women who must carry out your policies and decisions. Respect the Risk by recognizing our dedication to duty and observation skills by including us in conversations leading up to policy changes or considerations. Respect the Risk by admitting that more than 200 years of experience has shown that the paramilitary style of administration does not work. Very few inmates are “rehabilitated,” and very few staff complete a career and retire out of corrections. Respect the Risk by promoting a transformational versus a paramilitary leadership dynamic in our correctional systems. Respect the Risk to staff mental health by supporting wellness programs, quality-of-life policies and staff confidentiality. Respect the Risk to our physical health by supporting mandatory staffing requirements and stopping overtime mandates that stretch us beyond our capability to respond appropriately either physically or mentally. Respect the Risk by seeking funding for increased de-escalation training for staff and wellness programs that will benefit all who are touched by the correctional system.

To the reform movement: Respect the Risk we take by using your political might not to defund but rather to fund staffing ratios that allow for programs and rehabilitation to have a chance and to increase safety for all. Respect the Risk by supporting funding for separate housing for those who are mentally impaired and to train staff to meet that need.

To those with incarcerated loved ones: Respect the Risk we take every day to protect those you care about in our custody. We are the first, last and only responders in our detention facilities, and we respond to all emergencies. Respect the Risk we take when responding without hesitation; it may be your loved one’s life that we save while risking our own.

To each other: Respect the Risk by always maintaining your professionalism. Do not put others at risk of losing their jobs to protect yours. Do not endanger them by failing to perform your duties professionally. Respect the Risk by being a leader for new officers, a mentor, an example. Show them the way. Respect the Risk by listening when others need to talk, but not by feeding the rumor mill. Respect the Risk to your family by not shutting them out, by learning how to include them, to talk to them without exposing them. Most importantly, Respect the Risk to yourself. Understand the mental as well as the physical dangers. Remember that it’s a badge — it’s not armor. If you need help, get help, and please take the precautions needed for a safe and sane career.