By Lt. Tom Lopez, AA/PIO
California Institution for Men

The California Institution for Men Peer Support staff, in conjunction with the Office of Employee Wellness, showcased the benefits of the Department’s Peer Support Program (PSP) to both staff and family members at the first inaugural Staff Support Day on Oct. 4. The Staff Support Day was a day where family members were given a firsthand look at what goes on in an institutional setting. Approximately 100 staff from all disciplines attended with their chosen support member.

The day began with checking the family members in for accountability and to go over safety policies including the no hostage policy; immediately it was heartfelt by family members on the type of environment their loved ones work in every day and the associated stressors of the job.

After a short greeting by Warden Dean Borders, CEO Louie Escobell, the CIM Peer Support team, members of the Office of Employee Wellness and the CIM Employee Association the day began with a tour of the reception center housing units. As family members entered the facility through the pedestrian sally port, the slamming of the gate made a few look back and some grabbed their significant others hand. Family members were able to walk inside a cell and see how staff manages a housing unit. The family members asked several questions on programs, such as jobs, education, recreation which were answered by housing unit staff.

Following the housing units, the group was escorted to the main exercise yard where T4T instructors conducted a reality based alarm response. The response showcased a mock fight on the yard and how staff responds from various locations to meet at an assembly area to become an organized unit to quell a disturbance. We explained to the family members that staff are not alone as help is nearby. There were several questions about equipment and tactics that were fielded by the instructors.

After the yard demonstration we moved to a class room and gave an extensive overview on peer support to both family and staff. The CIM Peer Support team, along with the Office of Employee Wellness and Law Enforcement Chaplains, spoke of the stresses of correctional work and how health and family can attribute to overall emotional wellness. Videos were shown on loss of life in the Law Enforcement profession causing some members to hold hands as they became emotional. All entities of Peer Support, Office of Employee Wellness and Chaplains were not only comforting, but adamant when speaking to the group by exclaiming “you are not alone, we are here for you.”

They expressed to the staff, and their family members alike, to seek support if they ever need it and to support each other. They even met with certain family members at the conclusion of their presentation. We had family members in the audience who have been married to staff for 20 years and have never set foot in a prison. The hope is, with these new tools they will understand the stress of the job and help one another cope with these stressors through communication.

At the conclusion of the Peer Support presentation the Crisis Response Team completed a demonstration of an active shooter/hostage negotiation scenario, which family members witnessed the caliber and skill sets of this elite team. Family members asked CRT questions about their team positions and training.

After a day filled with emotion, we lightened the day by a tour of South Dorm which still has the original “open bar” design from when it was built in 1941 and was featured in the movie, “Unchainedin 1955. While there, they witnessed a demonstration by the inmate trainers of the Leash on Life service dog program. The trainers explained the process of taking a sheltered dog and training it to become a service dog for those in the community.

The day ended with a tour of the Outpatient Housing Unit (OHU), where the medical staff provides a barrage of services, such as, Physical Therapy, Audiology, Optometry, Mental Health, Orthotics, Dental and Respiratory Therapy to name a few.

The PSP was established to ensure staff involved in work related critical incidents are provided with intervention and available resources to cope with the immediate effects of a traumatic incident. The PSP provides trained peers who will listen, answer questions, offer resources and help an employee deal with his/her situation in a confidential environment. We felt it was important to provide an opportunity to the families to see, hear, and experience what their loved ones experience when they come to work each day. We also wanted family members to hear what the PSP offered and how it may help beyond the worksite.

Warden Borders summed it up this way, “Today is about education, that is why we called it ‘Support Day’ and not ‘Family Day.’ It is about sparking conversations between staff and the person they lean on for support. It is a day of understanding; understanding why we come home and flip through the channels but watch nothing, sit with our backs to the wall when we go out to eat, and why we jump when we hear a buzzer at sporting events. I believe the biggest part of today is to let the staff and their loved ones know they are not alone when dealing with the challenges of working in prison. We need to support the entire nucleus of our staff which includes their families.”