Paul Leaders has been a New Jersey Department of Corrections Officer (NJDCO) for over ten years. As a NJDCO, Paul’s role and responsibility is to “ensure the custody, safety and care of criminal offenders confined in state correctional facilities” (www.state.nj.us/corrections). It is his duty to “ensure the safety and welfare of the staff and inmate population, assist in the rehabilitative efforts for those incarcerated individuals returning to the community and promote public support for the operation and objectives of the Department of Corrections” (www.state.nj.us/corrections).
At the age of 25, Paul began his career with the Department of Corrections. Before he became a full-fledge corrections office, he had to go through a screening process. The pre-employment screening is a four phase process that includes filling out an application, taking a video test, completing a computer background assessment, a general and intensive background check, a drug test, a written psych exam, a medical exam and a psych interview. If an interviewee gets through the screening successfully, next comes a 14 week training course at the academy and then an on the job test period (www.state.nj.us/corrections). The pre-employment screening is vigorous to discourage those who are not serious about making the Department of Corrections their career of choice.
Once Paul successfully completed his screening, his on the job test period began in a youth facility. His eyes were opened to the harsh realities of his position when he was attacked by a 15 year-old inmate. Although, he was not seriously hurt, his perspective changed. Paul realized that to do his job to the best of his ability and to protect himself and his co-workers, he had to treat all inmates as dangerous, no matter what their age. Throughout the years, the dangers associated with his career choice were clearly seen. NJDOC’s are often put in a variety of sticky situations.
The ratio of officers to inmates is 1 to 3 (www.njpp.org/rpt_moneyfornothing). Since they are out-numbered, a NJDOC’s goal is to stop potentially harmful situations before they happen. Paul learned many valuable techniques in his psychology classes during his 14-week training process. (www.state.nj.us/corrections). It is so much easier to prevent situations from happening than to try to de-escalate a situation once it has started.
Paul has found the most challenging aspect of being a NJDCO is the personal standard necessary. An NJDCO must have a higher set of standards when the bars clang shut. A daily part of the job includes being taunted, called out of your name, and possibly attacked. Through all this, a NJDCO cannot retaliate. It is not the correction officer’s place to get angry or respond in kind. They must turn away when an inmate is purposely trying to rile them. If an officer hurts an inmate or is caught abusing their authority, they will be fired. The duty of a NJDCO is to uphold the laws of the penal code and treat inmates with respect.
NJDCOs’ spend time at lease forty hours a week with inmates. Officers get to know the inmates extremely well and see facets of the human psyche many people are unaware of. “40% of NJDOC offenders were convicted of a violent offense such as homicide, sexual assault, aggravated or simple assault, robbery, kidnapping and other personal offenses (terrorist threats, coercion, larceny from a person, death by auto and negligent manslaughter)” (www.state.nj.us/corrections).
Dealing with inmates intimately is no walk in the park. Officer relationships with inmates have gone from one extreme to another. Some officers have been charged with bringing inmates contraband and others have been charged with assault on an inmate. The key to survival is finding the balance – living in the middle is an NJDCO officer’s way.
The department of corrections has a code of ethics that must be adhered to if an officer is to last on the job. It is necessary to hold in confidence all information gained on the job, no gifts or services can be accepted from inmates or family members and no personal or financial gain is to be made that is in conflict with duties or will impair objectivity or judgment (www.state.nj.us/corrections). To sum it up, be honest and do your job. Unfortunately, for some, that’s easier said than done.
The Department of Corrections has a Hearing Appeals Section and an Administrative Law/Civil Employment Litigation Section that handles employee discipline/grievances and resolves cases against employees (www.state.nj.us/corrections). Whenever a corrections officer is facing an ethical issue, representation is provided so that the officer’s rights are not violated.
Of course, there are specific laws correction officers must obey and if they knowingly exceed the extent of their power then they can face a judge and possibly go to jail. The added stress of the job decreases the correction officer’s life span to 59 years (www.jrank.org). Therefore, it is necessary to have your guard up continuously if you want to make wise choices, get through the workday with your personal honor intact and live longer than what some researchers have predicted.
The stress of the job has caused Paul to think thought about moving into a different area of law enforcement but this might require more training and schooling. As a corrections officer, his high school diploma was all he needed, along with being a US citizen, having a valid New Jersey driver’s license, speaking English well and being able to handle the job physically and psychologically. Although he took extra courses during training, he does not believe that will be enough for a transfer to a different department. Paul has not investigated the move and after an especially hard day with the inmates, he promises himself that he will.
Prolonged contact with inmates is the main difference between NJDCO positions and other law enforcement positions. Policemen and detectives, for example, investigate crimes and track criminals. They may have to face the individuals in court, but once they are locked up, their contact with the criminal is over. A NJDCO’s contact with the criminal begins after the other law enforcement officers’ contact has ended and that contact lasts as long as the inmates’ sentence.
For the first few years of his career, Paul found fulfillment on his job. He is serving his state, providing a needed assistance, protecting the residents of New Jersey and helping his fellow officers. Now, he can’t say that. The stress of not knowing what will happen from day to day is extremely hard and the last few years have been a struggle. The constant hassle of the job has become overwhelming and is causing a strain on his marriage of 2 years. The fact that he cannot express why he dissatisfied and he does not want to talk about the job increases to the couple’s frustration.
Add the fact that he cannot talk about confidential information and the situation gets dangerous. Communication between Paul and his wife has gone from bad to worse. Because they are planning to have children, Paul recently transferred from the youth facility to a minimum security prison. They are hoping this change will decrease his stress and ease the strain in their relationship. Paul believes the transfer will make a big difference in his attitude and stress level, increasing his job satisfaction.
In New Jersey, the Department of Corrections is made up of minimum, medium and maximum-security prisons. With 14 major institutions, including 8 male prisons, 3 youth facilities, 1 female prison, and one prison for sex offenders, there were plenty of facilities for Paul to choose from. Moving to a maximum-security prison would have meant an increase in pay but for Paul, added money would have brought added stress. This wasn’t the case when Paul’s career began but today, the salary for a corrections officer is $43,000. The max amount for a senior corrections officer is $65,000, achieved in nine step increments (www.state.nj.us/corrections).
There are over ten different promotions available to senior corrections officers, which include, Central Transportation, Correction Staff Training Academy, Critical Incident Negotiation Teams, Custody Recruitment Unit and SRP Boot Camp. These are just some of the positions available to Senior Correction Officers (www.state.nj.us/corrections). Although, all officers go through rigorous training that includes coursework, most officers who move into higher positions have additional schooling. If things go well in his new position, Paul believes that one day, he may be ready to interview for one of the promotional positions.
Paul believes the key to a successful career in the Department of Corrections is to walk on the job daily with a mindset of integrity and tactfulness mixed with firmness. Inmates are people, just like you, no matter what they’ve done. An officer cannot take their crimes lightly but an officer must, to the best of their ability, treat them with respect. Then, do your job, have a life outside of work, leave your job at the door and choose to be happy. That may be the key. Paul hopes it will be the key to his future happiness and the future happiness of his family.
2006. Retrieved April 3, 2007 from http://www.jrank.org.
Forsberg, Mary E. Money for Nothing? The Financial Cost of New Jersey’s Death Penalty. November 2005. Retrieved April 6, 2007 from http://www.njpp.org.
New Jersey Department of Corrections. 1996. Retrieved April 3, 2007 from http://www.state.nj.us/corrections.