The Next Greatest Generation
Throughout three consecutive, brutal Mid-western winters, I enthusiastically dove into my family’s history and became the clan’s resident expert on all things genealogy. Having traced my ancestors from Europe to the colonies, into and through the Ohio River Valley, to the great forests of the upper Midwest, and the wheat fields of Kansas, I uncovered unspeakable tragedy, cruelty, hardship, loss, and incomprehensible perseverance. Beginning with my 5th great grandmother, Helena Auten-Goltry, who aided American Patriots when George Washington’s army camped on her farm in New Jersey during the American Revolution, someone from every generation of my family—on one side or the other—has served in, or in support of, the US military, including my children—Jayme, an Army nurse, and Tanner, a Navy corpsman.
Like many other American families, our members were among the first (the Vikings and the Pilgrims) to cross the oceans to this new land, the first to break the sod of the Great Plains behind a horse-drawn plow, and the first to assimilate to their newfound homeland while hanging onto the proud heritage of the traditions of the “Old Country”. Our ancestors, having survived both plagues and famine, fled persecution for their religious beliefs, carved out homesteads, unched a worldwide industrial revolution, helped save Europe from obliteration—twice, and enabled America to become the leader of the free world. Our constitution, framed by men who were at once both brilliant and deeply flawed, and its protected individual freedoms would be modeled by democracies the world over.
Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen come from every community, every state, every ethnic group, every race, and every language. As diverse as the great melting pot of America, so diverse are the courageous individuals who have served in the United States military, protecting our sovereignty as a nation, and the ideals of freedom and democracy that we hold dear. And when we are exceptionally lucky as jail leaders, military veterans find their way to our new staff orientations. It’s a hand-in-glove fit finding a home after the service in a structured environment that, like the military, considers itself a family. Military veterans have been trained to lead, do a job assigned, show up, look sharp, follow orders, and navigate crisis, and trauma—exactly like we require all our corrections staff to do, day in and day out.
Tom Brokaw famously called the World War II generation the “Greatest Generation”. I’m inclined, as may be many of you, to agree. They did, after all, with bullets and rivets and victory gardens and landings on Normandy, defeat fascism, create the American middle class, and usher in economic prosperity that pulled the world out of the Great Depression. As the very last of those men and women pass away, they leave a big shadow and large footsteps for us to fill while we continue in this noble experiment that is democracy. Following the nations pause in September to celebrate our veterans and remember their sacrifice, it’s the perfect time to evaluate what measures are in place for the citizen soldiers among us, to support their transitions from war zone to housing unit officers and be a resource for them and their families as they start, or continue, their careers in corrections.
Our industry is just beginning to look at staff wellness—both physical and mental—just now looking at the cumulative effects of primary and secondary trauma on correctional officers, mental health professionals, health care experts, and the many others who work in our nation’s prisons and jails. As we embark upon this endeavor to support our staff in being well, I think it’s incumbent upon us to consider how we provide for the needs of our staff and officers before, during, and after trauma happens. Gone are the days when we can afford to just ask our officers to write the report after witnessing an in-custody death, a suicide or attempted suicide, an assault—and expect that our obligation to our staff ends there. Staff must be trained in critical incident response, and how to manage the emotional and mental fallout that can follow. We must equip our team members to recognize warning signs in themselves and each other so that we can intervene before we lose another officer to another career, or worse.
I recently asked a large group of attendees at a jail training event to picture the last in-custody death their facility had experienced. I then asked them to raise their hands if the officer who was the first to find the body was still with their organization. No one raised their hand. If I were asked that same question, I wouldn’t be able to raise my hand, either. There is more we can do, we must do, to improve staff resiliency and help protect them from the effects of primary and secondary trauma. It’s going to be about more than just staff morale—we are going to have to combat the stigma of mental health treatment as readily as we provide staff incentives to fend off hypertension and type-2 diabetes. I’m excited to be a part of the leadership team for the American Jail Association as we shift our focus to supporting you and your agency while you build and equip a correctional force of professional staff prepared to face head-on the challenges of providing secure care and confinement to the jailed population of today.
I think the argument can be made that the generation staffing our facilities today should be called the next “greatest generation”. Despite never-before-seen shortages in staffing our facilities, overcoming, and still battling, a global pandemic, and being crushed by soaring costs to feed, clothe and transport their families, our staff keeps turning out, shift after shift. As the leaders and tenured staff in our facilities, these new officers will be as great as we support them in becoming, and as healthy. As an industry, to keep them, we are going to have to equip them—with the tools they need to maintain safety and security, as well as physical well-being and peace of spirit. Training initiatives and staff incentives must consider the whole officer, the family behind him or her, and the strength of the team that has their backs in the housing units. As an industry, most of us have spent our careers being asked to “do more with less”. There has been no better time in the history of Corrections to prove our mettle and step up to the task of equipping the newest generation of officers and staff. Thank you for your service to your jurisdiction, our profession, and the nation.
DIANA KNAPP, MS, CJM, CCE
Jackson County Department