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Helping Hidden Heroes

Inside jails and prisons, correctional officers are suffering—they need volunteer chaplains.
Helping Hidden Heroes
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“I’ve been praying for 25 years that us officers would have a chaplain. Now—finally— we do.”

– a Corrections Officer in Chicago

For decades, faith organizations have sent volunteers into jails and prisons, providing spiritual guidance to inmates. Yet, few of our nation’s 7,147 jails, prisons, juvenile facilities and immigration detention facilities offer any similar support to their correctional officers (COs).

Heroic work, hidden behind walls. Correctional Officers maintain order, protecting inmates, visitors, volunteers, attorneys, nurses and fellow officers. Yet, unlike street police, COs are typically underappreciated or invisible to the public— who lack awareness of the challenges these officers face.

Correctional officers are suffering. Their average life expectancy is only 59 years [1], far less than the national average of 77 years. Their suicide rate is 37% higher than all other professions combined. COs have 10 times more PTSD than the general population, a divorce rate 20% higher than the national average, and 50% more heart disease than any other occupation. COs have a high incidence of depression. Some – to numb the pain – become addicted to alcohol.

Why so much suicide, sickness and early death? Correctional staff die early, burnt out by long hours, depressing environments, injury and stress. Moral injury is common, from inmate disrespect. Some experience physical attacks by the incarcerated. Officers may have feces and urine thrown on them and be spat upon or threats made to them and their families. Staff stay on high alert, even when off-duty.

When inmates fight, COs break it up, often at personal cost of severe injury with pain and limitations that last for years. Overnight shifts and sudden mandates require they work 12 or 16 hours straight, interfering with health-giving sleep. Weekend and evening shifts keep them from church and family events:

“For years, I worked nights. Now, my adult kids say I never cared about them, because I wasn’t at their events,” a CO shared. “I worked to provide for them — and it hurt me to miss their events too, but now they don’t want to be around me, because I was ‘indifferent.’”

A Solution. These hidden, unsung heroes need a listening heart – a chaplain. Churches can connect with the facility to see about offering chaplaincy with staff. Maybe one of the current ministry volunteers to jail and prison residents, since they already access the facility, would like to minister to staff. Chaplains need to be faithful to minister weekly (even once a week for a few hours can have an impact) and maintain strict confidentiality.

A member of The Moody Church’s jail ministry team who had been doing a weekly program to inmates for a few years, asked the volunteer coordinator if she might come in and support officers once a week. The jail approved her as a chaplain — with the proviso that it be exclusively for staff; the chaplain could no longer also meet with inmates. Why? For the safety of their family and personal lives, corrections staff strive to keep their personal lives private from inmates.

The jail – open for more than 100 years — had never provided dedicated spiritual support for staff until 2018, which happened simply because this volunteer asked. Now, three volunteer chaplains - from various churches – come on different days and shifts, roving, greeting on-duty staff and listening to them. Exchanges may be just a few moments or minutes — other times longer. Each had been serving inmates, so their transition to a chaplain role happened smoothly. One chaplain’s church gave officers books providing practical ways that corrections staff can deal with the trauma and demands of their profession. A second church gave each officer a notepad and pen, and refreshments at a special event honoring staff. The third chaplain is developing a newsletter for staff with encouraging articles. Each chaplain comes in on days and times that fit in with their life — sometimes just a couple of hours once a week.

Your Opportunity. Recruit those in your church who are retired law enforcement or correctional staff, or a jail/prison volunteer to consider being a chaplain to corrections staff at your local correctional facility. Contact the jail or prison to offer this service. Corrections staff and their families live in your community and it is a great way to serve them by showing and sharing the love of Christ.

For details on how a volunteer chaplain program to correctional staff works in Chicago, contact Chaplains@moodychurch.org.

[1] National Criminal Justice Reference Service

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