The man I prefer to be learns the whole story before he lashes out in anger

By Mark Stephens,
Contributing Writer

When I became a correctional supervisor, I swore I would do everything in my power to support the officers under my command. 

Within three months, I broke that oath. 

Officer John was a 19 years old,spoke softly, and was considered by his peers to be somewhat slow-minded. He was a decent officer, but his awkward manner and chronic tardiness left me with little patience for him. 

One day, about 45 minutes into his shift, Officer John arrived for work.

Generally speaking, correctional supervisors are a hard-nosed, no-nonsense kind of people; when you spend every day around people who would be happy to kill you, you have to be. So there’s little patience for letting your fellow officers down, and a supervisor can’t afford to go soft. 

I called Officer John into the office, berated him for not showing up on time, and hit him with our prison-standard line of, “If you can’t get your ass here on time, I’m sure Burger King needs a patty flipper.” 

Officer John stared down at his shoes, responded, “Yes, sir” and “I’m sorry, sir,” but otherwise had nothing to say. I sent him on his way, proud that I had laid down the law to show I wouldn’t tolerate his lack of commitment to his job. 

A few days later, I learned that Officer John was tardy so often because he walked or hitchhiked 5 miles to work every day, that he lived with his parents and siblings, and that he gave nearly every dollar he made to help his family. My immediate reaction was to be angry: Why hadn’t he told me about any of this before? Why did I have to learn it from another officer?

What I should have done

Then I thought 5 years back, about the first time I sat in my lieutenant’s office as he lashed out at me over my mistakes. I had flashbacks of how intimidated a rookie can be by a hardened superior; had I been John, I would not have spoken up to me, either. If I had taken the time to speak with Officer John instead of yelling at him, I could have helped him find a carpool or even offered to pick him up on my way into work, the way a good leader would. The way someone who swears to support the officers under his command would.

Instead, I judged him on his presumed laziness; what I didn’t know was that John was working harder to get here every day than maybe anyone else in that prison. 

I was ashamed. The agency had policies in place to prevent such judgment of inmates. Officers were not allowed to know offenders’ crimes, but as a supervisor, I was trusted with that information, and was always careful not to judge inmates based on what they had done. Yet here I was harshly judging a member of my team, not extending him the courtesy I would give to convicted felons.

My reaction made John feel like a failure, but the real failure that day was me. It was certainly within my power to have a conversation with the man and learn about his situation. And I didn’t.

But also in my power is learning from my mistakes. 

And that’s something, at least, I did.

Mark Stephens is a former Correctional Supervisor and father of two from Texas.

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