Editor’s note: This article discusses both the dangers and rewarding aspects of working in a correctional facility. It contains information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US Department of Justice and experienced professionals in the county.
MCPHERSON COUNTY — Cpl. Melissa Schamp feels safe at her job. This isn’t too strange for many workplaces; however, she covers the day shift in the men’s housing unit at the McPherson County jail.
“I like coming to work. I feel safe here,” Schamp said. “We have great coworkers and I trust my life with them because I know they’ll be there if I need them.”
Schamp explained that another part of why she doesn’t worry is because she talks through things first, before assuming.
“How the inmates act toward you reflects how you’re treating them,” Schamp explained. “I talk with them like a person, until they act like an inmate, then I’ll treat them more sternly, but I’ll treat them like a person until then. They’re just trying to do their time usually, I understand that, so you have to think about the situation they’re in before you jump to action too quickly.”
Schamp started working at the jail 10 years ago after hearing stories from her step-father and grandfather’s jobs at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility.
“It sounded so exciting to hear about the challenges they had every day,” Schamp explained. “I like taking care of people, and I was a [certified nurses’ aid] before I came here, but I wanted to do more. I feel like I can actually help these guys. I have a big heart and I want to help them get back out and on their feet, but that doesn’t always happen though.”
Schamp sticks to her desk in the men’s housing unit through most of the day, so if an inmate calls up to ask a question or something goes wrong, she’s there to help.
“You never know what they day is going to bring because it depends on how people are feeling,” Schamp said. “I’m not just a jailer. There’s so much more than just turning a key and checking up on people. You have to be a counselor, a nurse, a teacher when you teach them the rules — there’s so many hats you wear every day. But when you listen to their problems, it can make things easier.”
Schamp and many other corrections officers nation-wide focus on de-escalation tactics. Any weapons present in a correctional facility could be compromised, and pepper spray can affect more people than the intended target. Instead, officers have their words, explained Cpt. Arlo Blevins, McPherson County Jail administrator.
“De-escalation is one of the best tools you’ll have in your toolbox because we walk in here with our two hands and our words, and you want to use your words first. Sure we have Taser training, but that’s about it,” Blevins said. “My staff are really good about talking first, using calming tones.”
Of course, implementing these tactics isn’t always easy.
Growing numbers of jail inmates have some form of mental health problems that hinder jail procedures.
The US Department of Justice reports that more than half of jail inmates reported symptoms that met the criteria for mania. About 30 percent of jail inmates reported symptoms of major depression and an estimated 24 percent of jail inmates reported symptoms that met the criteria for a psychotic disorder.
Part of the issue is that individuals with mental health problems have a much higher likelihood of dependence on drugs or alcohol, which could quickly land them in jail. Among inmates who had a mental health problem, local jail inmates had the highest rate of dependence or abuse of alcohol or drugs at 76 percent, followed by State prisoners at 74 percent, and Federal prisoners at 64 percent, according to the US Department of Justice.
These numbers can create more work for Transport Officer Wade Dysinger. He spends most of his work hours transporting inmates from another jail, court or to serve a sentence in prison, but more and more trips are drop off inmates at a state hospital.
“Right now there’s only two state hospitals, in Larned and Osawatomie, so a lot falls back on us in the jail,” Dysinger said. “We have a holding cell where we can watch suicidal individuals, but you never know what’s going through someone’s mind. You can’t turn them loose on the street, so it’s challenge and a shame that there’s not enough funding for those state hospitals who know what to do.”
Officers at the McPherson County jail can contact the crisis team from Prairie View, but resources can still be a challenge.
“You got to remember that we have to live with inmates when they’re on the streets,” Blevins said. “Our job is to keep some not so great elements of society away until they’re allowed to leave so we don’t want to make them worse. We’re trying to give them something to get them started in a good direction.”
Blevins explained that a main way to start on the right foot is making sure his team is prepared for anything. Officers at the McPherson County jail know the risks of the job and take care of each other to prevent them.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that correctional officers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations simply because injuries and contamination can happen quickly in interactions with inmates.
“We’ve gone through situations together so we understand each other and feel like equals more than others,” Blevins explained. “It’s a family. It doesn’t matter how much one officer hates another, but if there’s a fight, they’re all there to protect each other.”
These occurrences quickly develop a cautious mindset, which many can’t shake after hours.
Sgt. Butch Bailey of the McPherson County jail explained that going on family outings can be difficult.
“You learn to be more aware of your surroundings, or you know who comes in behind you at a restaurant and you sit with your back to a wall so you can see exits,” Bailey said. “It’s not being scared, but just being aware. Working this type of job will heighten your sense of awareness because you have to be aware. You’re not just looking around but you’re worried about protecting your family. It brings stress on the family, just because we deal with people at the worst time in their lives.”
However, many of these crises are over in a few seconds, thanks to officers who are quick to talk through issues.
“You have to stay calm, relaxed and do your job because you’ll go home at the end of the day,” Dysinger said. “I always wanted to be in law enforcement, so i thought it would be stepping stone to the road, but I don’t want to go to the road anymore because working at the jail is worth it. You can’t beat it. Its a career for me and I hope to work here until the day I die.”
Contact Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @DerksenSentinel.