AFSCME Council 18

National Correctional Officers Week An Opportunity for New Mexico to Reckon with Harsh Realities

by Mark Flournoy, Local 3422 President, Casey Padilla, AFSCME Council 18 President, Rob Trombley, AFSCME 18 Public Safety Coordinator, Connie Derr, Council 18 Executive Director

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed Proclamation 5187 creating "National Correctional Officers' Week." AFSCME New Mexico takes this first full week in May to honor the demanding work and sacrifices of correctional officers and correctional personnel nationwide.

In 1996, Congress changed the name of the week to National Correctional Officers and Employees Week. The names of 585 correctional officers are engraved on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington D.C.. These courageous heroes are forever remembered, and their light continues to shine through their memory, and through the selfless men and women who continue to serve each day.

AFSCME New Mexico would like to commend and thank the men and women who dedicate their careers and put their lives on the line everyday to help rehabilitate incarcerated youth and adults.
While citizens are quick to support the high profile needs of law enforcement and the courts, this week offers an opportunity to draw attention to the very serious and ongoing need to fund and support corrections officers who deal with society’s most challenging population day in and day out.

As New Mexico continues to suffer under staggering poverty levels, and finds itself in the midst of the mental health services breakdown, the general public needs to understand that incarceration is where the rubber meets the road. New Mexico corrections officers are increasingly dealing with inmates who have mental illness and assaults on officers are on the rise.

Read AFSCME investigative report: Lack of Mental Health Treatment is New Burden for Correctional Officers

Across the state, we’re seeing incidence of inmates falsely accusing corrections and detentions officers of assault skyrocket. Most inmates are there to rehabilitate. But to be honest, many who are inside to serve long sentences have decided they have nothing better to do than imagine the officers as the enemy, and dream up ways to target them.

Under current New Mexico Department of Corrections policy, there exists no consequences for inmates making false accusations against officers.

AFSCME encourages our fellow citizens and legislators to take time this week and recognize the crisis that exists within New Mexico’s correctional system.

New Mexico sorely needs a plan of action to address dangerous vacancy levels within the ranks at facilities across the state, whether in city, county or any of the state facilities. We as a state must allocate the necessary resources to run safe, staffed, and secure facilities. At the end of a shift, the families of the men and women in this critical profession should know that they will be coming home, without injury.

Alarmingly, due to an uncompetitive salary structure and neglected facility maintenance issues, New Mexico is failing to retain or attract the next generation of correctional officers into the career. The impact in New Mexico and across the country is that dedicated officers are regularly working massive levels of overtime, which is unsafe for the public, and harmful to the officers themselves.

PTSD is a common disorder which results from the day to day job experiences of corrections officers, details of which are generally too obscene for the public to confront. PTSD should never be left undiagnosed or untreated. Elected leaders have opportunities to act and improve the well being and mental health services available to public safety officers who have dedicated their careers to this high-stakes profession.

Recently, a great deal of media attention has been given to the issue of separation, or solitary confinement, and the impact its prolonged use has on an incarcerated individual’s mental well-being. Nobody better understands the difficulties which mentally challenged, disturbed, or unstable individuals face when they are incarcerated than the corrections and detention officers who are expected to care for them when they’re held in one of our state’s facilities.

AFSCME Officers appreciate the intention to create a healthier corrections system by limiting the use of separation and isolation of inmates. The tool is currently used to separate violent inmates and keeps the the larger inmate population, officers, and the public safe. As calls from elected leaders and the public grow louder to end frequent use of isolation protocols, the time is right to address the underlying causes that result in use of inmate isolation.

New Mexico must place a higher priority and invest more resources to address mental well-being within the corrections system. With a more robust system allowing corrections facility staff to identify and treat the wide spectrum of mental disorders, (ranging from simple anger management, to schizophrenia and psychosis) corrections officers, the public, and families of inmates will realize the desired reduction in use of prisoner isolation.

Corrections isn’t something the public enjoys thinking about. It’s a rough world inside. But at a time when systemic neglect is causing serious health and safety risks, National Correctional Officers and Employees Week reminds us that catching and convicting a bandit or perpetrator is only the beginning of a long journey to rehabilitation.

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