Introducing the Power of Mindfulness to Correctional Officers in Oregon Prisons

Navy blue inmate uniforms fill the prison hallway during lunchtime, contrasting the pale yellow walls. With just a few words, Dave Wilson parts the sea of blue into two single file lines, then leads a trio of outsiders, two student journalists and the communications manager for the Department of Corrections (DOC), through the breach. The hundreds of male inmates each face directly ahead, interrupted only by the occasional black uniform of a Correctional Officer (CO).

As a journalist, I pictured myself traveling to unique places and chasing stories of all shapes and sizes. I never envisioned going to an interview while adhering to a strict dress code that prohibited visitors from wearing blue of any shade, with a dozen pieces of loose paper (metal bindings and spiral notebooks are prohibited) and no cell phone. Nor did I foresee myself in prison, sitting across the table from a man who has spent over 12 years working as a Correctional Officer, and is now approaching 11 years as a manager of COs. I never pictured this man, whom I had watched maneuver hundreds of inmates, would have tears forming behind his stern, steady gaze.

Wilson is the Assistant Superintendent of General Services at the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, Oregon. Wilson’s duties include overseeing the institution’s food services, recreation, and correction rehabilitation section, while acting as a liaison of all programs, religious services and volunteers.

Trauma is a norm in a profession like his. Racial tensions run high within prison walls. Gangs are formed and inmates eat their lunches sitting in groups that mirror their skin tone. It is the job of a CO to recognize segregation throughout the institution—in the lunchroom, in the lines, in the groups of inmates walking outside—and end fights before they even begin. It is not uncommon for cell-extractions, groups of COs forcibly removing an uncooperative inmate from their cell, to occur. In an attempt to combat this trauma in COs, the institution tried a new approach: mindfulness.

The world that you have in prison is not the world that you have when you go home. And so, you need to be nimble enough to do the prison world—where you don’t feel, you don’t talk, you don’t trust—and then go home to your wife, children, husband, partner, where you must feel, talk and trust.

In 2012, Portland State University conducted a study on the behaviors of Oregon Correctional Officers for the Department of Corrections. Nearly one out of every three COs was found to have PTSD-like symptoms from working in the field. The COs also reported getting an average of less than six hours of sleep every night, which was associated with increased likelihood of family conflict.

Another study, conducted by the Oregon Health and Science University, reported COs as having high levels of blood pressure and cholesterol. According to the Issue Brief released by the DOC, research showed that the commonality of PTSD and sleep-deprivation led COs to turn to alcohol and tobacco products, and their poor health rates increased number of workdays missed due to illness. In a job like Wilson’s, officers suffer in many aspects of their lives, both in and

out of uniform. These aspects not only affect their interactions with their colleagues and inmates, but also with their families.

“If you haven't done this job, it’s hard to relate,” Wilson says.

Wilson began coping with his stress by educating himself on the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness is the active practice of being aware of one’s thoughts and the way they impact themselves and their surroundings.

“Mindfulness has helped me reflect on where I need to improve as a leader, as a manager, as a person,” Wilson says.

While mindfulness helped Wilson personally, it was not until Kelly Raths stepped into the picture that mindfulness became a part of the DOC. Raths is the Administrator in the Offender Management and Rehabilitation Unit for the department. Prior to working in administration, Raths worked alongside COs every day as the Chaplain at the Oregon Penitentiary. With studies now available to statistically relay the harsh impacts of a CO’s job, it became evident that changes needed to be made.

“The world that you have in prison is not the world that you have when you go home,” Raths says. “And so you need to be nimble enough to do the prison world—where you don't feel, you don't talk, you don't trust—and then go home to your wife, children, husband, partner, where you must feel, talk and trust.”

She brainstormed with her team as to what they could provide to the COs that addressed these issues. They decided the best option was to start practicing mindfulness.

Four years ago, the Staff Wellness and Resiliency Training Program emerged within the DOC. This program consists of a 10-week course on mindfulness.

“We did not want to come in and say, ‘you people are pretty broken,” Raths says.

Instead, the program introduced a new approach to coping with the challenges of life as a CO. The course equips COs with mental tools to do two things: help them improve security while on the job and differentiate life in the office from their personal lives. COs meet in groups of eight for two hours every week for the rest of the class. These groups, called communities of practice, discuss life both on and off shift, and learn different aspects of mindfulness to practice and master. Communities of practice are facilitated by experts on mindfulness, such as Teddy Gardner. Gardner is an Executive Coach and Health Educator. Gardner is also the Program Director for Mindful Medicine.

As Gardner’s expertise lies with mindfulness in the health field, she had no experience with the DOC prior to working as a mentor for the program.

“It was a culture I knew nothing about, and now I have so much respect for them” Gardner says.

Although Gardner was wary at first, she accepted the position and now meets with her community of practice weekly. She provides the tools needed to harness the power of mindfulness, such as relaxation and breathing exercises, body-mind synchronizing skills and

de-escalation techniques. While she is technically there to help the COs, Gardener says she often learns from them.

“They are smart, they are compassionate, they are some really really good people, and in a wonderful way, they really have each other’s backs,” Gardner says. “They care about each other.”

Since the program was established, over 400 staff members have taken the course. While the staff considers this a success, they are not stopping. The next goal is to internalize the program by training leaders within the department to become experts in mindfulness, and then lead their own communities of practice.

Although mindfulness has been around for hundreds of years, its popularity in Western culture is relatively new. Raths and Gardner both confirmed that this program is improving the overall health of COs.

“We’ve had officers tell us that their blood pressure has been reduced, that they have had an easier time losing weight, that they are sleeping better,” Gardner says.

She has also been told that it is easier for COs to communicate with one another after taking the 10-week class.

There was no trace of tears in Wilson’s eyes he discussed the future goals of the program. “The potential of what it could be is reflected in the individual stories,” Wilson says. “For me, the end result is a healthier, happier workforce.”