Mourners gathered in Delaware this month to pay respects to Lt. Steven Floyd, a veteran correctional officer who died during a violent uprising and hostage standoff at the state's largest prison. The tragic ordeal, which some analysts believe was a long time coming, stemmed from inmates’ allegations of inhumane treatment and administrative indifference. Floyd’s selfless heroism during the takeover likely prevented further casualties, prompting the Delaware Department of Corrections to posthumously award him its highest honor, the Medal of Valor.
In light of the incident, many in the corrections community are calling for action on the chronic staff shortages plaguing American prisons. In Delaware, as in many other states, employees work torturous hours simply to keep facilities running at minimum staffing levels, a dangerously unsustainable arrangement that fatigues officers and fuels complacency. Yet attracting and retaining new recruits is harder than ever with limited budgets, high turnover rates, and a stubborn cultural stigma combining to make corrections a career of last resort for desperate job seekers. Worse, these staffing woes often trickle down to inmates in the form of meal delays, restricted movement, and canceled programs—all of which agitate an already volatile population.
Unfortunately, prisons are unlikely to see a fresh influx of motivated corrections professionals until salaries are brought in line with what other members of law enforcement earn for similarly dangerous and socially valuable work. In the meantime, perhaps Floyd's death will help us appreciate how mass incarceration often isn’t much better for correctional officers than it is for inmates. A bloated prison system may offer job security, but it also reduces what should be a dignified public service to a dead-end job with relatively little to commend it, even to those who are motivated by a sense of its high calling. After all, once “corrections” becomes a euphemism for human warehousing, correctional officers are consigned to function as little more than glorified material handlers.
Corrections officers are God's agents of good for people on both sides of the razor wire.
I think we can (and must) do better. Corrections may not be a glamorous vocation, but it is a noble one. If we truly want to honor Lt. Floyd and others like him, we’ll invest in these public servants for who they are—God's agents of good for people on both sides of the razor wire. As instruments of divine providence, our correctional officers are ambassadors of God’s wrath and stewards of his discipline. When they approach their jobs with fatigue and apathy, they become accomplices to injustice who multiply rather than contain the consequences of sin in a fallen world. On the other hand, when officers discharge their duties with compassionate professionalism, motivated by an internal sense of importance and a healthy respect for their authority, they become agents of reform in the hands of a longsuffering God who neither lets the guilty go unpunished nor delights in the destruction of the wicked.
I met some corrections officers like that during my own incarceration. They were the ones who most consistently treated us with dignity and displayed genuine interest in our welfare. Their presence had a seasoning effect on the bitterness of prison life because they kept the peace in an otherwise chaotic world, duly facilitating but never amplifying the punishment we’d been dealt. In a word, they made us feel human, and so we behaved less like animals. I’m convinced that our penitentiaries would better serve God’s redemptive agenda if they were staffed by more officers who took that kind of pride in their work.
Perhaps if our prisons majored less on retribution and more on rehabilitation, people would aspire to work in corrections as a rewarding career in itself, and over time we wouldn’t need to employ as many officers in the first place. Monumental changes begin with highly motivated people, so let’s invest accordingly. My prayer is that the Delaware tragedy inspires us to take better care of our prison workers—so they can take better care of our prisoners.