Sunday, June 24, 2012

Back to the trenches

I'm not sure if there are any followers left out there, but hopefully I'll pick some back up.

As you can all see, I've been on somewhat of a hiatus. It was not voluntary, but I'm back now. I was off duty for quite some time, as I was diagnosed with breast and thyroid cancer. With me being under the age of 30, this was quite a shock. After a couple of surgeries, chemo, and radiation therapy, I am back to work. I might be missing a few things I was born with, but I seem to be surviving without them. Who really needs a thyroid anyway? I've been cleared to return to full duty, and will have my first check up next month. I'm not terribly excited about all this, but after everything I have went through I figure upright and breathing is better than the alternative.

A lot has seemed to change at the jail. Many, many people have left, and we are severely short staffed. I wish I knew what the answer was, but I think it may be a combination of things. Lack of support from the administration, lack of training, hazardous working conditions - it could be a multitude of things. All I know is we are seven officers down and we are running at bare minimum every day. I'm pretty sure there is a safety issue somewhere in there, but what do I know? I'm just a grunt in the trenches. What could possibly be the problem with four or five officers running a shift and 60+ inmates? That averages out to about 12 inmates per officer; we could all take them, right? But as anyone who has every worked in government knows, nothing every changes til the body count rises. Luckily nobody has gotten hurt, and I pray that stays that way. Oh, and did I also mention we are all working crazy overtime right now? Because sleep deprivation is good for the soul.

I've had some good friends leave; some to other departments, some to other careers. When I've asked them why they are leaving, it's always the same answers - "I'm burnt out", "I'm tired of the bullshit". Some of these people have been doing this job for 15+ years, some less than five. It has evoked some strong thought processes for me. Burn out is so prevalent in my type of profession, whether it be patrol, jail, fire, EMS, even ER nursing. I am sure it differs for every person, but I would say a good rule of thumb is after two years of working in those types of industries, you are not the same person as when you started. Why would you be? We deal with some of the absolute worst population of society on their worst days. I'm not sure what the word is that I'm looking for.. it's not the Butterfly Effect, but something similar. The fire, EMS, and ER staff sees the aftermath of the violent horrendous crimes, the patrol guys are responsible for investigating it and knowing every dirty, gritty detail until it is all they think about when they lay in bed, and the jail guys have to deal with some of the worst monsters out there, and still treat them respectably and professionally. Or we watch the young girls with the bright futures get mixed up in drugs and prostituion, with a pimp who constantly beats on them, but they can't leave because they won't get their next fix and will go into withdrawl. The ER staff knows these girls are out there selling their bodies for whatever their drug of choice is, they know they are being assaulted on a weekly if not daily basis, but yet these girls lie and there is nothing that can be done. They are referred to community outreach or social service problems, but we all know they never follow up. The patrol guys are out on the streets watching all of this, but until a criminal complaint is filed there is very little they can do. They are arresting these girls so often for prostitution, or drug possession, that the jail staff knows them by first name when they walk through the door and ask them how their kids/pets/last court date was. It is an endless cycle. We watch this cycle, knowing full well there is going to come a day when one of these girls stop coming in because she was either killed or died from an overdose. And when that happens, we all pause for a moment, maybe say something like "Oh that's a shame, that's too bad", and then move on to the next thing that needs to be done. There always seems to be another girl to take her place.

Or how about the homeless population? This is the dirty little secret that most cities refuse to talk about or admit to. With my city being a suburb of a larger metropolitan city, we have no shelters. Zero, nada, zilch - not a single shelter within my city limits. Big City has a few, but how exactly are the homeless supposed to get across town and gain access to these services? Jump in their fancy SUVs and scoot on over? Or just jump on the city bus with all that extra pocket money they have? And if they do happen to get there, there is probably 250 guys vying for 20 or 30 bed spaces. And of those 20 or 30 bed spaces, they are only available to men who don't have any alcohol or drugs on board, and can prove they are actively looking for work. So the .00000001 percent of the population that fits that criteria might get a bed. I have talked to some of the regular homeless people who tell me their full time job is trying to get into a shelter for the night. Now that it is summer time, the necessity of it isn't so bad, but winter is a different story. The shelters around here kick everybody out by 8:00am, so the patrons can go look for work, and don't start allowing people in for the evening until 6:00 at night. The problem is, most of these men have to be in line by noon to even have a chance at getting a bed for the night. And when the bed slots are full by 6:30, they go and prepare for yet another night out on the streets. And for the large majority of these guys, another night on the streets means trying to pan handle a few bucks to get their drink on, finding a spot they feel safest in, and bunking in for the night. I don't have any statistic numbers, and I don't feel like looking them up, but in my own personal experience I would say a good 80-85% of the homeless population I deal with is men over 50 years old. A lot of them are veterans, but either can't or won't get help from the VA, because the VA requires them to be alcohol free but provides very, very little services to help them get that way. They are un-employable due to their alcoholism, lack of work history, lack of housing, and a lot of the times disabilities due to living on the streets. So where does it end? On top of the alcoholism, most have some form of mental health issues such as PTSD, schizophrenia, chronic depression, etc. So untreated mental health problems + alcohol + lack of resources = chronic homelessness with no sustainable fix. I heard the other day on the radio, I can't remember the channel, that mental health funding in the United States has experienced a 172% reduction in funding since 2009. 172% less money and resources in the last three years. And yet since 2009 there has been an approximate 300% increase in people seeking mental health help. Now I have never been good at math, my strong suit is words, but even I can tell there is something severely wrong with those numbers. More and more people need mental health treatment, and less and less is available.

I wish I could say I had the answers, but hell I don't even have a suggestion. With funding the way it is, we don't even have mental health personnel available for the jail. It is like pulling teeth to even get someone to come in and do an evaluation, and even when they do, we all know it is just about damn pointless. Unless the inmate is an extreme danger to themselves or others, mental health will do absolutely nothing about it. Unless someone is so mentally disabled they are not competent to understand the court process, they pretty much just leave these people on their own. There are so many people who need help but are falling through the cracks because there is only enough funding for the worst of the worst.

So what happens when there is someone who has mental health issues that affect their daily lives? The ones who aren't a danger to themselves or others, but their mental health problems dramatically impact the very basic core human needs? Lately it seems more and more are getting thrown into the criminal justice system. The schizophrenic living out on the street who can't get their meds, and really shouldn't be trusted to be responsible for themselves, is now getting thrown into jail on petty charges; trespass, loitering, or fail to appear warrants from previous tickets, because they either are scared of the police and the court system and don't show, or because they know they are going to get sentenced to certain things they cannot do. So now they end up in jail, a horrible environment for someone genuinely mentally ill, and the criminal justice system has now become the mental health system. I've had training on how to deal with people with mental health issues, but not the kind of training needed to actually help these people. My training is how to deal with people with mental illnesses on a short term, immediate situation, crisis type incident. I'm not trained nor qualified to help someone with chronic mental health problems. Sure, they get into jail and probably get sentenced to do some county time. While at the county they get started on psych meds, but by the time they reach therapeutic levels they are being released. So back on the street they go, back off the meds, and the problem just perpetuates. Once off the meds, the issues are back, and now it has created a secondary problem - the mentally ill don't recognize the police as those who can help them, they now see them as the people who may hurt them and take away their freedom. They are less cooperative with police, and the frequency of police contact and the severity of charges increase after time. Eventually they end up being charged with felonies, and are sentenced to Department of Corrections time. How is that helping anyone? How does that benefit the criminal justice and judicial system?

I could go on and on, but back to my original point - I get the burn out. I think I may be getting a little bit myself. We deal with this on a daily basis, day after day, year after year, and it only seems to be getting worse. On top of that, we get very little support from the upper administration, who seem to have forgotten what it is like to be in the trenches. Add to that the stress of working overtime, varying shifts to include graveyards, which adds to family stress, and all the eleventy thousand policies and procedures we are expected to memorize but seem to change daily, and it equals huge burn out. We deal with being called every name in the book, spit on, assaulted, all so the citizens can sleep safe at night knowing the bad guys are behind bars, and very rarely if ever get a thank you. Now I didn't go into this job for the accolades, and I'm not bitching about what I do. I just really don't think the general public understands all the added stressors, and the strain on our human compassion that we see every day. A person can only see so much violence, destruction, and heartache every day before it makes them jaded. Some people recognize it and move on before it gets too bad, while all too many stay with it, pushing everything down, maybe burying it in alcohol or other self destructive measures. And after 20 years of dealing with it daily you get a bitter, jaded, cynical ex jail officer, who wonders where the last 20 years went wrong.

I don't fault anyone for recognizing the signs and moving on. I also don't fault those who try to muster through it because they believe it is the right thing to do. I think the arrival at "burn out" is very personal and varies greatly from person to person. I think some recognize it easier than others, while some think that admitting it makes them look weak. I don't look down on anyone who has ever gotten to that point, because I get it. I may not get exactly what they are feeling, but I get what has lead them to that point.

I got into this job because I love the interaction with the different populations of the public, because I very strongly believe in our judicial system, a part of me likes the feeling of locking up the really bad guys, and because I like helping people navigate their way through the criminal justice system. I hope that there are others out there with me to keep soldiering on, because there will always be a need for good officers. I stay with the hope that things will eventually get better, we are just in a rough patch so to speak, and this too shall pass.

I know this was kind of heavy for a come back post. The funny stories will resume, as there is never a dull day at the jail. Thanks for letting me get this all off my chest.

1 comment:

  1. Sorry to hear about all your heaslth issues but glad you dealt/are dealing with them. I am a fairly new follower and look forward to reading more posts.