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Remarks of Assistant Attorney General Amy L. Solomon at the Elevating Our Profession Corrections Conference and Medal of Honor Ceremony, Chicago, IL

Thank you, Andy [Potter]. I’m so pleased to join you here in Chicago at the close of this important conference. And it’s a great privilege to be able to honor these distinguished Medal of Honor recipients for their exceptional contributions to the corrections field, and to the safety of our communities.

I’ve spent most of my career working on corrections and reentry issues, and I can say that these honorees reflect the high personal and professional standards we have all come to expect from the field. We are so fortunate to have people of their caliber working in our corrections system, and it’s wonderful that One Voice is lifting up heroes in the corrections field in this National Medal of Honor ceremony.

I want to thank Andy, Brian [Dawe], and everyone at One Voice United for the opportunity to be here today, and for their incredible leadership on behalf of America’s corrections professionals. I have known Andy for a number of years now, and his knowledge, his experience, his insights, and his passion are enormous assets to the corrections field. You could not ask for a bigger champion of the critical work you all do.

I first met Andy in 2018 during a Prison Study trip to Germany and Norway. This was a profound experience for me personally, and I think for everyone who was a part of the trip. Andy and I brought very different perspectives to the group. I came to this work as a longtime advocate for improving reentry policies and opportunities. Andy, of course, brought his invaluable perspective as a veteran officer and union leader.

Yet what was remarkable – eye-opening, really – was the way he and I, and everyone on that trip, were able to find common ground and common cause. We all understood that we shared a goal, and that was our determination to create safer, more humane environments, both for the people who are incarcerated and for those who work in the system.

Another shared goal was ensuring that people with lived experience be at the table in the reform discussions. Again, I came to this focused on getting people who had been incarcerated to be able to add their input, ideas, and perspectives into the policy conversations. And Andy argued to ensure that correctional officers – that your voices – were at the table too.

We didn’t discuss this at the time, but we have in many conversations since – that this element is critical if we want to develop and sustain policies and protocols that will stick, and that will create safer communities for all.

So, I’m here today as an admirer of the leadership and mission of One Voice, and also as someone who appreciates just how important the corrections officer role is in creating safe environments on the inside and for setting the stage for successful reintegration in the community.

My appreciation for your work, and my desire to be part of it, goes back to the beginning of my career. Throughout college, I volunteered and interned with halfway houses and probation offices, and my first job out of college was at the Vermont Department of Corrections where I served as a Vista Volunteer, focusing on reentry.

I believed that the corrections system was a place where people who needed it could get treatment, training, and education so that they were better prepared to begin a new, more productive chapter of their lives when they got out.

One of the absolute highlights of my career was participating in a group called EXPOS during that year. It stood for Ex Prisoners on the Street, and it was essentially a group of returning citizens, of corrections officers, and community volunteers.

The group served as a support group for people returning home, but also as an outlet for community service. We did projects around the city of Burlington and across the state, and I can tell you it was a transformative experience for all involved.

I can’t tell you what it meant to people who had been incarcerated for so long to be working alongside correctional officers and to know that they – and the community members – were volunteers, were participating because they thought it was important, that the lives of the incarcerated were worth something. I also saw the pride and joy that everyone – all of us – felt by contributing in creative and direct ways to the community we were a part of.

And so early in my career, I saw how much a caring and skilled corrections professionals can change lives, can create not only safety in prisons and jails, probation and parole offices… but can provide optimism and hope in the people around them. I saw firsthand, and at a formative time in my career, that your roles were essential, and could be extremely rewarding.

But along with the rewards come some stark realities – and I will quickly acknowledge just how tough your work is. The job of the corrections officer is one of the most difficult and demanding jobs in public safety, and we know the corrections field is facing some serious challenges right now. One Voice, in particular, has drawn sharp attention to the hurdles so many of you are confronting.

Corrections officers are being burdened with more responsibilities and longer hours. High job vacancy rates are making it difficult to run safe and secure facilities, and that contributes heavily to the extended hours and responsibilities. I just heard a story from Minnesota reporting that the state’s Department of Corrections is down 211 officers, and they’re having to resort to periodic lockdowns due to the staffing shortages. And as you well know, what’s happening there is not unique.

In fact, a report published by the National Institute of Corrections last year found that the number of security personnel in state correctional agencies fell by 4,600 from 2020 to 2021 – and those agencies have yet to recover in the years since.

And Covid continues to cast a long shadow: Hundreds of correctional staff have died of Covid-related illness, with serious and far-reaching consequences for your profession across the country.

As you know too well, recruitment and retention is a major problem for the field. Burnout, declines in mental health and morale, and spikes in early retirement have become all too common in corrections.

One Voice’s Blue Ribbon Commission laid bare the scope of the problem. One of its most alarming findings was the stunningly high rates of PTSD and suicide among corrections officers. A great deal of attention has rightly been paid in recent years to the dangers faced by America’s police professionals, but as the Commission’s report said, the life expectancy of corrections officers is even lower than the life expectancy of law enforcement officers.

This is a stunning, sobering, and frankly unacceptable finding, and it should serve as a call to action for anyone who cares about the health and safety of our communities.

I don’t need to tell you – or maybe you do need to hear it: Corrections professionals play a unique and vital role in public safety, even though you do not always get the recognition, or the respect, that you deserve.

The integrity of our justice system depends on a healthy correctional workforce sufficiently equipped to meet its critical day-to-day responsibilities. And any effort to improve public safety, reduce recidivism, and ensure the well-being of corrections staff – and those who are incarcerated – depends on adequate and stable staffing and full support at every level.

At the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), we are very aware of the pressure and stress you are facing, and we are committed to helping you weather this crisis and come out stronger.

Last year, our Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) launched its Corrections Officer Safety and Wellness Initiative – or CorWellness, as we call it. This is an exciting partnership that aims to improve correctional officer and staff safety, wellness, resilience, and retention.

The Institute for Intergovernmental Research is leading this effort, and One Voice is playing a critical role. This effort represents our strong commitment to the health and wellness of correctional officers and staff. The idea is to provide targeted training and technical assistance designed to improve physical health and wellness, mental health and emotional well-being, and safety through situational awareness.

CorWellness is led by seasoned experts who help agencies identify gaps in their wellness policies, practices, and training. They’re available to work with prison and jail officials to help devise and test new policies and practices aimed at supporting safety, resilience, and retention.

They can also provide federally-supported corrections resources and information about wellness initiatives across the country. And all of this is offered free of charge. Ben Shelor from our Bureau of Justice Assistance is on hand with me and can help connect you to the Center if you’re interested.

The CorWellness team has already held several listening sessions to hear first-hand from correctional leaders and staff about the issues and concerns of the field:

  • They’ve heard about the chronic stress and fatigue many officers are experiencing as a result of mandatory overtime requirements.
  • They’ve heard about the challenges finding a healthy work-life balance and the stress that places on relationships and personal well-being.
  • Another issue is that staffing levels and a lack of funding often make it difficult for officers to attend training.
  • And while some agencies have robust peer-to-peer wellness programs in place, and others are moving in that direction, corrections officers often fear a lack of confidentiality or the stigma associated with asking for help.

You hardly need me to do a full run-down of these challenges. Many of you live them. But I do hope you hear that we recognize what you are facing, and we are determined to support you, because we understand what’s at stake.

We also know this is not a quick-fix scenario. Recruiting qualified people to reach appropriate staffing levels takes time, and improving retention rates is a long-term strategy that encompasses everything from higher pay to better professional development opportunities to fundamental issues around personal security.

Last summer, with OJP’s support, the Correctional Leaders Association (CLA) convened leaders from across the nation to discuss a path forward for addressing the acute staffing challenges in the corrections field. Andy and other leaders from One Voice participated in this convening, as did leaders and members from the advocacy community, national associations, and state and federal partners. One Voice’s role was critical in bringing the perspective of corrections staff to the forefront.

Together, these parties agreed that coordinated, collective action was desperately needed, and that we must continue to work together if we are to gain traction on this issue.

And I would humbly offer that there’s something even more basic for us to consider. To my mind, we should be looking to re-charge the corrections profession with a sense of mission centered on creating positive environments where the safety, dignity, and humanity of everyone – staff, residents, and visitors – are regarded as overriding principles. . . where lives can be changed for the better.

The transformative power of safe environments, of respectful climates, of conditions that are conducive to sound physical and mental health, cannot be overstated. Andy and I saw this in action on our trip to Germany, and now we’ve seen it take hold in many jurisdictions in this country.

You know this, because you are leading and participating in these imaginative efforts: Restoring Promise, AMEND, the Great Wardens Program, Little Scandinavia, the Prison Research and Innovation Initiative, the Wardens Exchange, Young Men Emerging, and I’m sure there are others.

These efforts are different from one another, but many contain common elements inspired by prison systems in Germany and Scandinavia. They’re partly about transforming space, but more about changing the dynamic between corrections staff and those who are incarcerated, creating community and a sense of purpose beyond custody and control, and shaping a culture that prizes the dignity of both staff and residents.

They relate to a big new discussion about what holistic safety looks like in corrections, and how it can improve culture and conditions for both staff and those incarcerated.

BJA is currently supporting new work in the area of Transforming Corrections Culture, and our National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is doing research in this space too. In fact, the Vera Institute of Justice recently wrapped up a significant NIJ-funded evaluation of the Restoring Promise initiative in South Carolina.

Restoring Promise connects young adults with older mentors who are serving lengthy, sometimes life, sentences. It also supports workshops focused on life skills, financial literacy, conflict mediation, and healthy connections to family, all in an effort to prepare young people for a successful transition when they leave prison. And crucially, corrections staff are engaged and invested in program outcomes.

Corrections officers volunteer to be a part of the unit, and in doing so, recognize that they’re joining a prison community in which norms and rules are decided and enforced collectively.

A three-year randomized control trial found that those who participated in Restoring Promise were less likely to be convicted of a violent infraction during their time in prison, and less likely to be placed in restrictive housing. Importantly, officers assigned to the unit where the program was being implemented reported lower stress and a greater quality of work-life balance.

I believe we are tapping into something very powerful here when initiatives result in staff reporting high morale, where they say they like their job, feel safe, and that it's a calm place to work. That is especially encouraging at a time when staff retention is one of your toughest challenges.

Another project I’m excited about is being funded by BJA and managed by the Keystone Restituere Justice Center in partnership with One Voice, CLA, JustLeadership USA, and a host of experts from across the nation. The goal is to develop and test a set of resources that stakeholders can use to make correctional facilities healthier and safer, including a playbook for improving working and living environments in corrections.

BJA, with partners at the Institute for Intergovernmental Research, is actually developing an online resource center for corrections stakeholders to improve cultures, climates, and spaces.

Together, we hope that these programs can help meet and mitigate many of the acute challenges facing the corrections field, and that we can move forward in creating safer and more humane environments for the people who work in America’s correctional facilities, and for those who visit and are confined there.

I am convinced that officer health and wellness, recruitment, and retention are all related to the overall climate and culture in prisons and jails. And I strongly believe that by vastly improving culture and conditions – transforming, reimagining safety in correctional settings – we can have a huge impact on both those who work in corrections and on the individuals who are incarcerated.

Working with dedicated corrections professionals has been among the highlights of my career. I’ve seen what’s possible when corrections officers are given the support they need and deserve, and I’ve watched as they’ve helped to transform lives.

The five outstanding officers we are honoring tonight embody the principles of service and professionalism we have come to expect from the field. They’ve displayed incredible leadership, commitment, and heroism, changing and saving lives, sometimes in dramatic fashion. But every corrections officer is in a position to impact – and yes, to save – a life.

You should never underestimate the difference you can make, or undersell your contributions to our communities and to the people of this country. Your work is vital, and you’ve got partners at the Department of Justice in your corner and working hard to help you succeed.

In closing, I’ll admit that I am a lot older and may be a little less starry eyed than when I started with the Vermont Department of Corrections some 30 plus years ago. But I still think that corrections can and should create a positive environment and be a place where people can get treatment, training, and education to help them pave the way for a better life – and where staff can feel engaged, optimistic, safe, productive, and hopeful about the mission of corrections.

I’m grateful for all that you do, and I’m proud to be your partner in this work. I wish tonight’s honorees a sincere congratulations, and I look forward to our continued collaboration.

Thank you.


Date Published: April 26, 2024