Tests to My Empathy

Editor’s Note: content warning for suicide


Questioning the limits of one’s own empathy is not the easiest thing on earth to do. A while back I read a couple articles in a magazine which I was surprised to learn is free to prisoners, the National Institute of Justice Journal. This was issue 278 and the articles in question were “The Importance of a Holistic Safety Health and Wellness Research Program” and “Identifying At-Risk Officers: Can It Be Done in Corrections?”

In these two articles both tackle the same issue, that is, how can the criminal justice system protect staff from the mental fatigue and stress of working in a correctional setting, and how does one identify and help staff that are not coping and are beginning to pose a risk to themselves and others. In both these articles incarcerated peoples are largely sidelined in the discussion; they center correctional environments being damaging to staff.

So there I was, six months ago or so, reading these articles and my first thought was “They do realize staff are only here for 8 hours, or 16 if someone decides to pull a double, right? I live here.” And then I set it aside and didn’t think about it all that much until today.

I should have dug a little deeper on the last part of the thought.

“I live here.”

That means more than just “I’m exposed to this toxic environment 24/7.”

It means I live here, and as a resident I have particular opinions of the staff that come and go.

It means I LIVE here, and should understand that this environment is so toxic it contaminates everyone that passes through.

It means I live HERE, and I need to be present to the suffering of everyone around me. Regardless of which side of the fence they happen to be on, still my neighbor.

But I didn’t think about it all that much. That is until today when I learned that three staff members here at the Monroe Correctional Complex have committed suicide in the past six months.

I don’t know who they were. I don’t know what their jobs were. I don’t know if they had friends or family. I don’t know if they were mean, or just came for the paycheck, or were genuinely good people trying to get by.

What I do know is they were alive for Christmas, and that sometime between Christmas and Memorial Day they had each taken their own life.

I’ve been suicidal. I know, intimately KNOW what that feels like. It is a state of suffering so profound it eclipses even my ability to describe. And this doesn’t even touch on the fallout. Their friends, family, coworkers. The suffering doesn’t end with death, it’s just redistributed as loss.

I reread those articles, challenging my six-months-ago self. What is the limit of my own empathy? Is that limit in line with the standards to which I wish to hold myself?
It wasn’t six months ago. I’m going to assume it’s still not there today. However, I am that much closer to reconciling those two things. This is the work.


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