Pierless Bridges

The Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Social Thought and the Ignatian Tradition

May 2020 Contemporary Experience with Tradition

Offering Spiritual Wellness to Correctional Officers

By George Williams, SJ

When people think of prison ministry, what usually comes to mind is prisoners. But there is a large group of people in need of ministry in our correctional system who are not prisoners; they are the correctional officers and staff who run the prisons.

Correctional officers (COs) and nonuniformed staff are responsible for keeping prisons safe and secure for inmates, staff and visitors, and for supervising the activities of the inmate population. In so doing, they are exposed to a pervasive and constant threat of danger and violence. Researchers have found that prison work stress is significantly correlated with physical and mental health problems, including depression, hypertension, substance abuse, burnout and an elevated risk of suicide.

While serving as a LoSchiavo fellow the fall semester at the Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Social Thought and the Ignatian Tradition, I developed a unique Ignatian Spiritual Retreat designed specifically for men and women who work as correctional officers in our state and federal prisons.

I have worked for the past 27 years as a jail and prison chaplain, and for the last 10 years, I have served as the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Prison. I have a PhD in criminology from Northeastern University, and I have taught prison ministry courses at both Boston College and the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara.

My experience working with both prisoners and staff motivated me to pursue doctoral 11 studies in criminology. My research interest is correctional staff spirituality and wellness. In my dissertation, I hypothesized that a healthy spirituality can help COs avoid burnout and remain emotionally resilient. The data I collected over the course of two years surveying hundreds of COs and conducting intensive interviews with many of them confirmed this thesis.

COs are often the most neglected members of the law enforcement community, yet their work provides a vital role in public safety. One of the greatest difficulties working with law enforcement professionals is getting them to admit their own vulnerability. Often their self-image is one of protecting the weak and vulnerable in society, a self-image that demands strength. Being distressed, feeling vulnerable or overwhelmed can feel like failure to these idealistic men and women.

Over the years I have found for the most part that COs are thoughtful, compassionate, service-oriented men and women who remain hopeful and committed to their work despite the harsh conditions of modern prisons.

I used my pastoral experience, my research, and my training in Ignatian spirituality to design a pilot retreat program specifically to help COs and prison and jail staff. The retreat is designed for small groups of COs, no more than eight per retreat. I am currently seeking a grant to cover the costs of these retreats. The traditional Friday to Sunday schedule of weekend retreats may not work for COs who work in shifts and often have days other than Saturday and Sunday off. I opted to limit the retreat to two days because it is difficult for shift workers to get three days off. In addition, many have families and childcare responsibilities, so their free time is very limited.

The two-day schedule is adaptable to any days of the week. Participants would arrive the first evening around dinnertime, the second day would be a full day with three sessions and plenty of quiet time built in to the schedule, with departure after dinner the second day.

The spiritual exercises are the inspiration for the retreat, but the focus is a gentle invitation to explore safely the participants’ spiritual lives using images and language familiar to those who work in corrections. Naming personal desires and goals as well as reviewing and practicing self-care are the essential goals of this retreat.

In my research, the strongest indicators of resilience and resistance to burnout were having a hopeful outlook and having good connections to others, both inside and outside of work.

This retreat will foster both hope and connections. The hope is that the fruits of these small retreats over time will bear fruit in healthier COs and more humane and safe prison environments.

The Lane Center seeks to bring the resources of Catholic intellectual tradition with the richness of Ignatian spirituality in the service of contemporary social concerns.

GEORGE WILLIAMS, SJ, PhD, entered the Society of Jesus in 1987. He is the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Prison. He has an MSW from Boston College, a master’s degree in divinity (M.Div.) from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, and a doctorate in criminology from Northeastern University. His research interests are correctional staff wellness and spirituality.