Corrections officers confront violence, trauma
ALPENA — As a school resource officer, Alpena County Jail Administrator Christina Bednarski talked to kids who dreamed of becoming a doctor, a veterinarian, or a firefighter.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard a kid say, ‘I want to be a corrections officer when I grow up,'” Bednarski said.
During National Correctional Officers Week, celebrated each year at the beginning of May, Bednarski reflected the role of the corrections officers at the Alpena County Jail.
A corrections officer for two years before shifting to road patrol and the school resource officer position, Bednarski recently became the administrator for the jail where, she said, corrections officers are daily confronted by the trauma of others while trying to stick it out in a high-turnover job.
Those who last are there because they care, Bednarski said.
Between a sometimes-negative perception of law enforcement by the public and inmates none too happy to be there, the work environment of an corrections officer can be a bleak one, Bednarski said.
The pay isn’t great, either, and turnover is notoriously high in jails locally and across the country. Corrections officers experience high stress levels, burnout, and other mental health-related consequences of the job, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Like booking photos that reveal the physical deterioration between an offender’s first methamphetamine charge and their 10th, photos of corrections officers before and after their years on the job would tell an eloquent story, Bednarski thinks.
For some inmates, jail feels like the end of the line, and their despair weighs heavy in the atmosphere, making positivity difficult to maintain. Multiple members of the jail staff have lifesaving awards for stopping suicide attempts in the cells, Bednarski said.
Since she worked the jail beat four years ago, crimes have become more violent and drugs have become more addictive, based on the charges that put inmates in the jail, she said.
The officers feel that difference physically. She’s wrestled both drunks and people high on meth, Bednarski said, and, “Holy cow. Meth makes you pretty strong.”
Nobody comes to jail for doing something nice, and, as Alpena evolves and its crimes become more violent, corrections officers see the worst of that evolution, Bednarski said.
They knew the job would be tough when they signed up for it, corrections officers hear often, but they don’t apply for the position because they want to put violent people in restraints, the jail administrator said.
“Nobody comes to work wanting to tase somebody,” Bednarski said. “Everybody goes, ‘I hope today just goes smoothly.'”
Before he moved to Alpena six months ago, Corrections Officer Ryan Wilson was on staff at a state prison in Ohio.
There, he was the only corrections officer in charge of a dorm of 190 inmates not kept in individual cells — a far cry from the two or three officers in charge of 40-some inmates behind closed doors at the Alpena County Jail.
At the prison, though, inmates were separated by risk factors. In Alpena, a jail cell may hold anyone, including the very violent, Wilson said.
Officers can’t hold grudges, not when they may have to interact for months with someone who has hurled insults or fists at them, Wilson said.
Previously a stay-at-home mom, Shelby Dewar joined the jail staff in March.
She’s always been intrigued by what makes people make the choices that land them in jail, she said.
The public perceives corrections officers as tough — and they can be, Dewar said.
But officers are also there to help the people in their care — “to be someone on their side, to say, ‘This is a rough time you’re going through, and you need to make a change and help yourself,'” Dewar said.
Some inmates confide in the officers, describing abuse, sexual assault, and other past trauma and their attempts to cope using the drugs or alcohol that feuled other crime. The officers can’t help but have empathy for such stories, the jail administrator said.
“We’re all human,” Bednarski said. “That’s what it boils down to. Whether you’re wearing orange or wearing a uniform.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jriddleX.