Business Columns & Blogs

Nancy Napier: How to unplug from work...when you work at a jail?

For nursing supervisor Ashley Woodcook, it was the Robert Manwill case.

On 24 July 2009, 8-year old Robert Manwill’s mother reported him missing. For two weeks, community members checked news websites every few hours for updates. Some 2300 volunteers joined local and national law enforcement officers searching for the child, whose mother and boyfriend made pleas for information. Manwill was found dead in a canal on 3 August. He had been tortured and beaten by the boyfriend while his mother “actively and repeatedly” participated in the abuse.

Woodcook is in her early thirties, small boned and delicate. She doesn’t look like she could handle herself with a hefty inmate but I’ve learned not to assume. Five years in nursing and three yeas as a supervisor, she classifies her reactions as being “pre-kids and post-kids.”

After a difficult pregnancy and birth of her son in 2014, she realized her reaction to some cases, like Manwill's, had changed. Normally, she says “I don’t judge inmates.” So "pre-kids," when she dealt with inmates who were pregnant or who had harmed their children, she used to be just plain angry and bit her tongue. Now, though, after having her own child, her reaction to a case like Robert Manwill's has led her to feel a more visceral “punch in the stomach.” But she still bites her tongue, even harder.

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I’ve been writing about people who work in the Ada County jail’s health service unit. The 33 full time medical and social work staff members, along with 159 deputies, care for and protect inmates, all day, every day. I wanted to know how they unplug, leave their work mindsets and return to their lives outside the jail. So I asked.

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When Deputy Corey Brooks was a young deputy on night shift, an inmate became ill and was taken to the mental health unit area where Brooks was on duty. At midnight, the inmate became “antsy” and after the medical staff checked him, they called an ambulance. The inmate died in the ten-minute ride to the hospital.

Brooks felt responsible.

“The inmate was someone else’s child. I kept asking what else I could have done?”

He “walked and talked" with another deputy, and examined each minute and action of the time when the inmate was in the medical unit. The department reviewed the actions that Brooks and others took and affirmed that the staff did all they could. But it still took four days before Brooks was ready to return.

* * *

Lee Penchansky, psychiatric social worker, has a bushy grey streaked beard, glasses and a kind face. He’s also a musician when he’s not working in the jail. He smiles and laughs even though he deals daily with people that would make many of us cringe. At the jail for five years, he’s also worked in maximum security at the prison and an adolescent residential treatment facility.

“I like working in crisis interventions,” he says.

For Penchansky, not all murders are the same. Some that may sound gruesome to outsiders may not be the ones that bother him the most. Instead, he’s hit hardest when the crime destroys lives through an action that might have been averted if there had been help and services available at the right time and place.

When Penchansky talks about those types of murders, he shakes his head.

“Senseless waste. Lives that are gone through actions that perhaps could have been prevented. We care about people, we’re striving to improve lives and treat chronically ill people that may not have help on the outside.”

Could that help have made a difference? Too often, he’ll never know.

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How do people who face gut-wrenching jail cases shift their mindsets to soccer practice and cooking dinner? Unplugging from work plagues everyone but what other organizations have classes for employees on how not to beat your spouse when you go home or how to avoid killing yourself?

Yet, jail employees are not unlike the rest of us. Some people ease out of the day by debriefing with someone who’ll understand—a spouse or work colleague. Others exercise. Many say, "it's just part of the job." Still others simply turn it off as soon as they get into their cars to leave. One deputy conscientiously has non-law enforcement friends so she won’t be tempted to “talk work.” As many say, “it takes too much energy to explain the place to people who don’t work here.”

Employees use humor, sometimes black, and often about the odd things that happen. There’s the man with no dentures who asks for Fixodent. Or the one who insisted he was blind, demanded a cane and yet poked people with it and helped other inmates with the jail’s Skype-like communications system.

But the place changes people. Deputy Ginny Schmidt, a nearly 20-year veteran at the jail, sports aqua fingernails, with a white petal daisy on her left ring fingernail. She’s become more philosophical over the years.

“I’ve known some of the parents of these inmates. I’ve also learned that I can’t fix them but maybe I can say one thing that might help. You never know which comment might make a difference.”

Health care providers and jail deputies vary in their reactions to the cases they deal with and must sort out how they'll manage their emotions. And then, they get up and go back to work and deal with another.