top of page
  • Writer's pictureCMPS Staff

Trauma-informed Care in Criminal Justice with Michelle Ryder-Grebel

Updated: Apr 17

Nashville, TN Women's Residential Recovery Court Program Executive Director, trainer and presenter, Michelle Ryder-Grebel, with 30 years experience working as a Trauma Informed Care trained professional within the Criminal Justice System, 25 years specializing in Substance Abuse Disorder Treatment, and 20 years in leadership and management positions, talks about her work with the American Correctional Association (ACA) Wellness Committee. The positive changes she has seen in public safety over the course of her career. The extreme challenges faced by corrections professionals and the need to move beyond the tough it out mindset. The culture shift toward taking staff wellness seriously over the last 4 to 5 years.

SUBSCRIBE to our weekly podcast - available on Podbean OR:






For more info on our training programs visit our Training page.


You can have LIFETIME ACCESS to the Global First Responder Resilience Summit with Audio Downloads & Transcripts, featuring world-class experts in Physical, Mental, Emotional & Spiritual Fitness, and Resilience. Click Here To Learn More!


Trauma-informed Care in Criminal Justice with Michelle Ryder-Grebel Transcript


Fleet Maull: 

Hi, welcome to another session here on day six of the Global First Responder Resilience Summit. My name is Fleet Maull. I'm your co-host for this session. I'm really happy to be here today with Michelle Ryder-Grebel. Welcome, Michelle. 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

Hi, Fleet! I'm really excited to be a part of this endeavor. I think this is a fabulous platform to get information out on resiliency and wellness and what we're experiencing in the criminal justice system right now. So, thank you. 


Fleet Maull: 

Well, I'm really happy to be here with you today. Michelle and I are fairly longtime colleagues. I know you from your work with the American Correctional Association Wellness Committee. We've been at the conference together before. I just appreciate the leadership that you've been providing in this field for a long time. 


I'm going to share a little bit about your work with our audience and then we'll get started with the conversation. Okay? 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

Sounds good. 


Fleet Maull: 

Okay. So, Michelle Ryder-Grebel currently works for the Nashville Recovery Court Support Foundation as executive director over the women's residential recovery court program. She is a trauma informed care trained professional and experienced trainer and presenter. 

She has over 30 years working with the criminal justice system, 25 years specializing in substance use disorder treatment, with 20 years in leadership and management positions. She currently serves on the American Correctional Association Staff Wellness and Health Committee, and helped develop the staff wellness policy for correctional institutions across the nation. 


Michelle has served as a staff wellness champion for CoreCivic, where she worked in various leadership positions for over 13 years. She has served on the Indiana Criminal Justice Association Board for many years, and has led and empowered others in building strong team cultures in the field. 


And so, you are from Indiana originally? 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

Yes, I am. That's where I was born and raised. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah. And a small world, we've been doing a lot of work in Indiana, in Indianapolis and connecting with long term first responder, Criminal Justice professional, Robert O'Miller there. It turns out that he knows you. 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

Yes. Yes. He's a wonderful man. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah. And he's actually one of our co-hosts for this Summit. 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

Great. 


Fleet Maull: 

Okay. So, let's get started. Let's start with your background. Three decades working in the criminal justice system holding many management leadership positions. How did you end up in the field and what has sustained you over these many years of service and leadership? 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

I actually went to school and got my bachelor's degree in criminal justice and criminology. My first inclination was to go into law enforcement, believe it or not. And so, when I graduated, I really took the first position that was offered to me for being a correctional institution for female juvenile offenders in Indianapolis, Indiana. 


I found myself as a young 22-year-old correctional professional officer at the time. I'm really starting to find a purpose. I'm working with these young girls recognizing the trauma that they had experienced in their lives, the things that led them there, their backgrounds. I just really felt like I established a niche. I found a purpose. I decided at that moment in time in that probably second year that I really wanted to work in corrections and to help people to serve people. It was a vulnerable population. They needed help. And so, that's really what landed me in corrections. 


I believe, as I progressed through different platforms and different types of criminal justice agencies, coming more into the administration realm that it's really is a tough environment to work in. It's not for everybody, for sure. But I think that there is a group of people who really have a purpose, mission-driven or purpose-driven mission with working with those that are incarcerated or in the criminal justice system. I think that really is what keeps people. 


What makes them happy is if they feel that they have that sense of purpose. What has led my mental strength, I guess, toughness to stay in this field, I think the one thing I can attribute that to is good mentorship that I've had in the past that's allowed me to grow, that's given me opportunities, but also having a family and friends support system and network. I think it's so important to have people inside and outside of your working environment to talk to and support because if you didn't have that, I think, a lot of good people would leave the field. Because it's really not about the money, it really is about your purpose. 


Fleet Maull: 

Well, and I think it's very universal that first responders begin their careers for the most part with that service orientation that you're talking about. Unfortunately, over the course of the career, sometimes that can wane with all the exposure to high stress and trauma. 

You pointed out the importance of our social networks within the profession in our job, wherever working as well as in our in our personal life, right. So, yeah. I think that's really kind of the theme of this conference or summit is, how can we help people sustain their careers and sustain that initial inspiration that really brings people into law enforcement and public safety and other first responder professions that desire to serve? 


Let's start with your background. You've had three decades working in the criminal justice field and in various management leadership positions. And so, what inspired you to get into this field? And then, how do you sustain yourself over a long career.


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

I actually went to school for criminal justice and criminology. My original intent was to get into law enforcement. When I graduated, I wanted to get some experience. I thought that I would take the first job that came around. The first job opportunity that I had I took, and that was at a correctional institution in Indianapolis that was specifically for female juveniles. It was kind of the last straw for them. It was an environment where they've tried everything for those girls. And so, their last chance was basically this institution. 

I worked with those girls for about two years. And during that time, I really felt like I had developed a niche. I found a sense of purpose. I found that I really enjoyed working with these young ladies and just found that this vulnerable population needed people that cared about them. I found a sense of purpose. I really wanted to serve people. And so, I decided that I was going to make a career out of it. I've been within the correctional institutions are just as evolved people for 30 years now. 


I believe, really, that probably because of my passion and purpose, has kept me there. But also, I think, a strong factor is my family and support systems/mechanism that I had that kept me balanced. I also believe I have a very strong mental health about me, and that's probably because I've always focused on my health and wellness. I always kept fit. I exercised a lot. I ate well. That really makes a difference. 


I believe I instill that in other people too because when I would see people, coworkers, and colleagues that we're experiencing some emotional problems or just weren't in the best of health, we have those conversations that I would try to inspire people to take a look at their self-care, because self-care was very important. 


Another factor too is the social connections with my colleagues outside and inside, and having a strong mentor have really been a factor in helping me get through those tough times. 


Fleet Maull: 

Wow, you're really talking about modeling of what this Summit is all about. I think it's all but universal that public safety professionals and first responders enter into the profession with that inspiration to serve and with that service orientation. 


Sometimes mid-career, because of the impact of high stress and trauma exposure, that can wane. You spoke about all that things that need to happen, right? The good physical and mental self-care and taking good care of yourself. And then, the importance of those social connections. That's a really important part of our overall resilience. 


So, you currently serve on the American Correctional Association Staff Wellness and Health Committee. You also help develop guideline for staff health and wellness for prisons in the US and correctional agencies in US. How did you end up getting involved in that work with the American Correctional Association and with that committee's work? I'm curious if over the years of your work, if you have actually began to see correctional culture and staff cultures change in the US. 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

I had been a member of the American Correctional Association for a very long time. Like, since the since the late 90s. I've done a lot of national presentations and just got involved with the people and connections there. 


There's just an opportunity that arose with a colleague who introduced me to the committee. I thought it was a wonderful opportunity because, personally for me, over the years working in a jail as an assistant Warden, as an administrator, and working as a correctional officer as well, just seeing colleagues facing suicide, traumatic experiences, lots of violence, seeing my coworkers gain a lot of weight, experiencing depression, relationship issues, seeing high rates of alcoholism, and really making some bad choices unfortunately. A lot of this really has to do and is connected with traumatic experiences and that culture within our prison systems. 

 

And so, I saw this as an opportunity to be a part of something great because what I was seeing is we were focusing so much on the residents, inmates, defenders, whatever you want to call them, but we weren't focusing on the health and wellness of our own people. We can't take care of our residents and those that are in our care if we don't take care of ourselves and take care of our employees. That really has to be first and foremost. Public safety, the safety of our residents. We also have to think of the safety for our staff. And so, I got involved about four years ago on that committee. We had a subcommittee on planning health expos and doing a lot of workshops on resiliency and wellness. And so, I've been an integral part of that, and developing the policy. 


In regards to if I have seen a culture shift, I really have. In the past four years, there has been a huge focus in the criminal justice system, especially infractions from my end looking at what can people do to retain our staff, looking at staff turnover. While they realize that it's really about your eight dimensions of wellness. What can we do? Making people happy, helping them adjust, stress management techniques, using mindfulness, making sure we're educating them on what is the eight dimensions of wellness and how can we incorporate this into our organizations. 


And so, I've really started to see that especially with the trauma informed care and looking at how we can help our staff. Unfortunately, this comes with high rates of suicide and things like that. So, a lot of our agencies are developing great employee assistance programs. They're changing their environments just in how the place looks when you walk in. How can we help them with wellness champions? Identifying people in their organizations that are going to take that lead to help develop their own policies and taking this seriously because it really has a huge impact on everything we do. 


Fleet Maull: 

Well, you've covered a lot there. You pointed to a lot of the health risks and potential negative outcomes faced by corrections professionals and other public safety professionals. And because of the exposure to being a high stress profession, and maybe not having the best stress management tools, and therefore being in a state of chronic stress for over many years, and then the trauma exposure that you mentioned. 


Primary trauma is where you're involved in an incident. You're attacked or you break up a fight, things like that where you're directly involved or directly witnessing something. Then also the secondary trauma, where you're hearing about those things which causes you to have the same neurochemical reaction in the brain that the people in the incident are having to a lesser degree but it's cumulative. And then, also working around people. Working around an inmate population, an incarcerated population, where they have a lot of trauma in their nervous system. We absorb that especially for less mindful or less awake or less present. We tend to kind of soak that up like a sponge. And then, it can lead to the things you were talking about obesity and not so healthy choices or poor judgement situations that leads to domestic and family and marital issues and all kinds of physical, emotional health issues and potentially negative social outcomes and so forth. 


You did mention some of the solutions. I'm curious. Your committee has discovered and recommended some of the more effective tools and strategies for helping corrections professionals mitigate those health risks, especially suicidality being the most tragic. But there's a lot of early deaths due to chronic stress related ailments as well. So, how to mitigate those health risks and become more resilient and work more resiliently?

You mentioned things like mindfulness. You mentioned the importance of having an employee assistance program, but I'm wondering if you could go into all that a little bit more in terms of what your committee identified. 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

There's probably going to be many things that I mentioned here. I think one of the most important factors that any agency and, you know, I think they're getting on board with this is understanding and training and bringing awareness about corrections fatigue. 

Helping with just simple things, training people, and your leadership about what are some of the things that a leader can do to help them during the day. Take a break, you know, a simple break. Take five minutes to breathe and practice those mindfulness things. To be able to have a place where they can decompress. 


An example that I'll provide to you that's working well in one of the state systems because I'm very close to the committee chair, Colette Peters, which I think you've probably interviewed her, that Oregon is doing some wonderful things as far as mitigating those risks by just reinventing their break rooms to make it a healthy place, a stimulating place where they can go and relax, and they can have some time to decompress. Making sure you're working with that wellness champion to bring about opportunities for exercise and looking at what are some ways that you can provide discounts on gyms and encourage that and making them able to have access to resource places for emotional management. 

One of the things that I believe that CoreCivic did really well incorporate emotional intelligence in their trainings for all supervisors and what that means. That makes a huge difference because a lot of the things that we do as correctional professionals and communicating with people, whether it be staff, or residents, offenders, is having that emotional intelligence and tuning into people's feelings and having compassion for people and being able to master that. It really makes a difference. 

 

We've done a lot of workshops over the past four years, which people attend on ways that you can manage stress. And again, incorporating that mindfulness and bringing it to the forefront with ACA and focusing on that every single conference that we're able to, and providing a resource place that they can go to where all the corrections professionals can have access to.


Fleet Maull: 

Right. Yeah, I know that the American Correctional Association is definitely committed to that, and we've been able to present our mindfulness-based wellness and resiliency model there. And also, you have a Health Expo there, where people can come in, actually in the middle of the conference and take a break and learn about wellness and learn about these kinds of strategies and so forth. 


Again, you mentioned a lot of important things there. And earlier, you mentioned the eight dimensions of wellness. And so, that's the Samhsa eight dimensions of wellness. That's a great place for any agency to start to look at that evidence-based approach to wellness from Samhsa from those guidelines. How about peer support? 


I think it's becoming fairly universal that correctional agencies as well as other first responder agencies develop some kind of peer support program. I'm wondering if your wellness committee has been involved with that, or maybe from your experience of CoreCivic. 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

As far as peer support, an official program with CoreCivic, we really didn't have that. But as far as some of the recommended practices, I think it's important. Especially when a person comes in, a new employee, you recognize that you can match them up with maybe a mentor or somebody else that could help them. I call them mentors. Same thing, kind of peer support. Having that person that they can talk to, and that they can just gain some insight that they're able to really connect with because again, it's like you're a new person coming in and you feel overwhelmed. And when you can get some other insight from people and some experience on what they've done, I think that's really important. 


It works the same way with our offenders and our residents. Working in a therapeutic community for a long time, having that peer support and mentor when residents come into a treatment program, it's the same thing with staff. It's like a big sister or a big brother helping you through and giving you guidance. It has a lot of rewards to that. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah, absolutely. I'm curious. During your time at CoreCivic, if you got involved, even at the institutional level in terms of how to actually establish a culture of resilience that supports staff resilience at that institution.


Because in the corrections field, people may not be that aware of this, but even in a state correctional system, each institution, it's kind of its own world. They can be very different. Your state might have 15-20 institutions and they can be really different. And even sometimes they'll bring a new management, a new Warden, a new superintendent, trying to change the culture, and it can be hard to change because they just kind of develop their own personalities and their own cultures, right. 


And so, I'm wondering if in CoreCivic, if there was some learning around how do you actually create that culture that sustains a real commitment to resilience for staff in a particular institution or a particular agency. 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

So, with that, everything truly has to come from the top. The engagement and the dedication and commitment is from everyone from top down. It starts with your policies. But you can write a policy, but you have to be consistent with it. People have to know and understand looking at a corporate environment versus the facility. You have to learn how can you navigate some of these things and work on both ways because there's going to be people in the facility that can't do some of the things the corporate world does. 


So, having a wellness champion is important. Identifying people in a corporate world or in a department of corrections that would be the central office, so to speak. Having that wellness champion and having a committee that's focused, that meets all the time, that establishes parameters, that works with the HR so that they're hand in hand, and that you're making sure things that you're doing are legal, and fair, and consistent, and all of those things. But we can link it up to compensation and rewards and benefits in your benefits package because that's so important. 


When you identify your wellness champions, get those people that want to be involved, that are excited and passionate. Not forcing somebody to do it because you just want them to do it. You should give people an opportunity to be involved in that. Whether it be a correctional officer or case manager. Having a committee on both ends talking to one another and establishing some programs or opportunities incentives that focus on those eight dimensions of wellness. You have to establish a budget for that and maybe realistic or whatever that might be. If you're trying to really get that cultural paradigm and instill it in your culture, it has to be lived and breathed. You have to be able to communicate that. Everyone has to have access to it. 


There should be posters and resources all over your walls. You should be talking about it. You should be having conferences and it should be incorporating into your pre-service. And your CEUs throughout the year, and keep reinforcing that. 


One of the things that came to the forefront during COVID, I think, that CoreCivic, we all did very well because COVID really brought about, well, you know, the need for wellness. There was a lot of corrections fatigue, zoom fatigue. People were working so much over time. How do you really switch what you're doing when you can't have that human connection? Because that's everything, right? Human connection. 


I think we did a really good job at the time. Every week we're putting out tools and things that can help people. We're giving people opportunities to have calls and workshops where we have activities to bring in that's going to help the staff just kind of be more mindful and to take some deep breaths and things like that. But I think the pandemic really brought about even more need for attention to resiliency and mindfulness. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the pandemic has been a huge wake up call for all of us across all dimensions of society. And certainly, it's had a huge impact in the world of corrections and public safety. 


You mentioned before the term corrections fatigue. I just wanted to open that up for our broader audience. So, that's a term that really means the same thing as empathy fatigue and burnout. It's been named out in the field of corrections. It results from the cumulative impact of insufficiently managed stress, which becomes chronic stress in both primary and secondary trauma exposure that is not treated or not processed, or not transformed in some way. And that leads to that quality burnout, that infection, sometimes it's all corrections fatigue. 


You also mentioned the importance of that top-down buy-in and the importance of leadership. And you mentioned so many different strategies at every level. It's just really valuable to hear somebody talking about it who's been there and knows what it really looks like to be really making a commitment within a particular agency or institution. 


So, I'd like to talk for a moment about the importance of leadership to not only be preaching and teaching wellness but modelling wellness. Sometimes we have leaders that are not doing the best self-care themselves, and don't look fit or not modelling fitness. Obviously, you're someone who's modelled that in your life. Can you talk about the importance of leaders, not only standing behind wellness and has commitment in terms of the budget, in terms of policies, but really modelling it themselves? 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

Yeah. Well, I have an example specifically. As a leader at CoreCivic, we had a vice president there. He really walked the walk. I say that because we would have some walking activities and competitions. We would get involved in competitions in the field. Whether it be a run or a step up. We call it a step-up program. 


So, any time that we would have those periodically throughout the year, he was on board. He was ready. He would be the team leader. He would start recruiting people and getting people excited about it, and making a competition of it. So, he really walked the walk as far as that physical component is concerned. But I think sometimes it's not always necessarily about physical fitness as leadership and modelling. I think one of the most important things that we can do as leaders in having a wellness culture is developing compassion and care, and also have the being consistent with it. 


I've seen some good leaders, and I've seen some bad leaders. As an institution or organization, if you're not holding people accountable, leaders that don't show and model compassion for others and respect for others, and you continue to promote people like that, you're developing mistrust, and that's not a good healthy culture to have. That's really a huge component of that emotional wellness. 


And so, I think, some agencies don't do a very good job of that. I think, as an agency, you reward those leaders who are doing the right thing and showing that compassion and surrounding that wellness and emotional intelligence. I think that's a huge factor. We should be rewarding and incentivizing people to do the right thing, not necessarily punishing them. 


For example, if you have a benefits package where you're charging people $50 extra because you're not smoking. Well, we've proven over and over that punishment doesn't work, right. So, why not provide more of a reward to those people who are doing the right thing, but not necessarily punishing him for an addiction that a person might have. So, that's just a few examples that I've seen that I know that as a person, as a staff person and a leader, that works. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah. Nothing undermines culture change, efforts of culture change, culture transformation than when leaders are not modeling the culture you're trying to create. A lot of programs of all times really often begin with line staff. And then, you hear from line staff. Well, why aren't the leaders doing this? They needed more than us, right? And then especially if they're not modeling that. 


You mentioned also the importance of champions. Champions can be at the line staff level, the middle manager level. They can be at all kinds of different levels. But again, their great efforts can be undermined by leaders who are not modeling it right. So, so important. 


You also you mentioned addiction. Addiction is various forms of self-medication. When we're stressed, when we have that ongoing exposure to high stress and trauma, we tend to self-medicate. We might do that with food. We may do it these days around digital devices and the internet. But we also may get involved in substance abuse, alcohol disorder, various kinds of addiction. 


A lot of your career is focused on addiction. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the relationship between trauma and addiction. 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

There is a high correlation. The research has proven that there's a direct link between trauma and substance abuse. Whether it be alcoholism, drug addiction. Unfortunately, you also see the reverse. I mean, the link is that if a lot of people who have substance abuse problems will end up having traumatic events. So, they go hand in hand. 


A person who has experienced traumatic events or have had long term trauma in their life like child abuse, sex abuse, domestic violence issues, being at war, going to war, and in corrections, having that long term exposure to negative events and seeing some horrific things possibly in their careers as a correctional officer for speaking about the corrections professionals. So, there's going to be very high rates, unfortunately, of substance abuse because we're using that as a coping mechanism.

 

Sometimes people can't sleep. They have nightmares. They have flashbacks. So, they're going to use just so that feeling will disappear. It helps them sleep. With correctional staff, they see some really bad stuff. They see staff get hurt. They've seen other inmates get hurt. There may have been murder, homicide, stabbings, things like that. That may not occur on a daily basis. But that constant hypersensitivity that they have where they're always dealing with negativity and negative people and the environment and how the environment in prison works can cause traumatic experiences. 


We've seen a lot of suicides because of trauma within our institutions. It makes a difference. We also have experienced the stigma. Whether it's perceived or real, and I think there's both, but the correctional professionals don't want to ask for help because they have a fear that if they do ask for help, that somehow their careers are going to be put on hold or they're not going to get promoted because there's that macho thing that goes on, right? So, we have to debunk that for them. We have to show them and help them and provide true resources for them to be able to talk to people, to be able to be counseled, to follow up. 


There's a lot of institutions that have critical incident response teams. They go down. They have a response. And so, you have a group of people, mental health providers, chaplains, that will help people, but we don't do a good job of follow up. We don't do a good job of being consistent. That person, okay, great, you've given them two or three days, but now what? They still have the trauma, right? It's still happening. So, we've got to do a better job, in my opinion, of looking at our policies surrounding that. 


Fleet Maull: 

Yeah. Well, you brought up a couple of things I want to follow up on. First, I know you specialize your career in trauma informed care. We're starting to hear about trauma informed care and corrections. I've often brought up to my colleagues in the field why you can't do trauma informed care corrections with the inmate population with a traumatized staff. I mean, traumatized staff can't do trauma informed care, right. We really need to turn that around. There's no one to blame here. It's somewhat the human condition. I mean, job one for any species is survival. So, we're set up biological for kind of having a predilection towards a fear and survival-based approach to life. But we're also conscious beings and we have other resources, and we could rise above that. We're also hardwired neurobiologically for altruism and compassion, thank goodness, right? So, it's really a question of our intention and what we're willing to proactively do. But because of that kind of basis of the human condition, what you often see in correctional environments is you have an inmate population who have a lot of trauma in their nervous system, many of them come from highly traumatic backgrounds, some of them know nothing but chaos and addiction, violence, their whole lives, which doesn't excuse their behaviors, but we know that's the background which many people who end up in the criminal justice system come from. So, they have all that in their nervous system. And then, I think a lot of people that end up working in corrections may have some similar backgrounds, their share of aversive childhood experiences, but then working in that environment, they start to absorb that. It can become a very polarized environment, right? Both sides are invested in seeing the other in not so positive light, let's say, right? And then, they're constantly retraumatizing each other, right? The staff and the prisons are both kind of constantly retraumatizing each other. That leads to terrible outcomes, right? So, it's really important the things we're talking about here to really turn that around. And if we're ever going to have what we might call trauma informed corrections, which could provide healing environments that really could transform people's lives so they can move beyond the criminal justice system and move back into being healthy value adding members of the community, we have to have staff that are not traumatized, and then have the skills to take good care of themselves and deal with their own exposures and be more savvy, more educated around trauma informed care. I'm just curious about your thoughts of how to break that cycle of traumatization that characterizes a lot of correctional environments. 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

I've had this conversation with many colleagues regarding the need to not only deal with the trauma, of course, with our residents, and that trauma informed care and response, but with the staff. It's really an approach where you have to change the whole culture. You can't start with the residents or the offenders until you start training your staff on how to communicate and talk to residents and to each other. 


So, understanding their own trauma is imperative. That has to be included in your training and your education. And then, start again. Putting it in your policies but it's all about that person-centered communication. Understanding that how I speak and communicate to people and recognizing that, you know, if I raise my voice, if I'm screaming, if I'm saying certain things to trigger other people, it goes back to emotional intelligence. 


Why is that so important to be part of everybody's training? That's going to bring about good outcomes that you're going to be training and working with each other and the residents are going to pick up on that. Or the offenders and people that you're working with. You first have to start with each other. And then, you start working on the programs for the residents. It's everything from how you answer the phone to when you walk in, how you make that person feel when you're talking gender specific programming too that goes hand in hand with trauma. 


How do you perhaps, search somebody and make them feel disrespected, how that all can trigger a traumatic response. And also, having the patience and understanding that, okay, maybe this person is in a flight or a fight status, so they're not necessarily being resistant to treatment or being resistant to what you're saying. That's what they're conditioned to do. Okay? Because that's how they, like you said, have survived for a long time.


So, the recognition and the training. Making sure that everyone is being trained on that and putting it in your policy. And you have to follow up. I mean, if you're going to commit to do the evidence-based practice and then have somebody come in and monitor that and do a program review to make sure you have that checklist that you're being consistent in all of those. 


Fleet Maull: 

Absolutely. Actually, we know how to do this right. We have all the science. We know how to do it right. It just takes commitment and political will. And then, consistency. And, you know, not only training, providing good emotional intelligence training, mindfulness-based training, resiliency training, all these kinds of things consistently, but then also creating community around it. So, it's not just the train and pray approach. But actually, we're there all the time continually reinforcing this. 


One of the wonderful things about what they're doing in Oregon, the work they're doing there where they're developing a model for corrections they called the Oregon Way, there's some influences from the Norway model and Scandinavia that's gotten a lot of attention for kind of a more enlightened approach to criminal justice and corrections. One of the things they're continually training and encouraging their staff to do is to see each other, recognize each other's humanity, but also in all their interactions with the offenders or the residents to really see their humanity and to treat them as human beings. 


I mean, the idea that somebody is going to be incarcerated for whatever period of time, and we're going to set up an environment where they're continually experiencing demeaning experiences and being treated, not like human beings, and then we think they're going to come out better is naive at best, right. And so, it's really encouraging the very courageous and innovative work they're doing there in Oregon. 


You also mentioned the stigma around seeking help and around mental health and mental illness. That's one of the primary purposes of this Summit is to really overcome that stigma, right. I think that is starting to happen, but we still have a long way to go. One of the things that may be helpful around that, is there are so many women coming into the public safety profession. I mean, I think, from what I've heard a lot of criminal justice programs around the country are more women than men in them in the universities and colleges. And there are many, many more women working in public safety. 


I'm wondering if you've probably seen that in your three decades. I'm wondering if you see that making a difference. I mean, I don't want to generalize too much but men and women are enculturated a little differently. We have a little different approach to things. Men when we're stressed, we tend to kind of defend and women tend to nurture, right? There's a lot of research around that. So, I'm wondering what you've seen and if you see that changing in the profession with more women coming into the profession. 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

I have. Again, I've been in the field for 30 years so it's been a progressive, slow approach, I think. But I've been in that paramilitary model kind of dictatorship. Had the situation and you know, it's punitive. The word was, 'you're a hugger.' Have you heard that term? Inmate hugger. I've been told that. So, I'm always like, "What does that mean?" 


But with the women, I have seen a lot of leadership in the past 10 years with women coming in. And there's, again, I don't like to say women are bad or better, men are better or worse. But there's more of a collaborative approach and a sensitivity, I truly believe, to compassion and care and respect. 


Since I've seen and worked with a lot of the women that I look up to, and you know, I've worked with some female leadership, and they have a really good insight and understanding about collaborative approaches and empowering other people. Instead of this punitive, it's how can we reward? How can we be more flexible? How can we help the staff? I think they're a little bit more embracing of new ideas and innovation in that kind of trauma informed world that we've kind of been exposed to. 


I think some of the pioneers for me working in treatment and developing curriculum that's brought into not only with the residents, but with the staff is people like Stephanie Covington, Barbara Blum, Maryland Dan Deaton, people who've developed gender specific programs that require staff to really start looking, and leaders looking at, "We've got to do something different. Right? This is what's working." If we're able to really focus on changing our environments and this trauma informed care and looking at communication for men and women and those things. You've kind of forced us to start. This is what works. We've got to get on board with that. 


I think Colette Peters, she's a wonderful leader. You mentioned the Oregon Way. I mean, I've seen her do some amazing things in Oregon. She's had that passion and that purpose, but she's been able to collaboratively really bring this change and transformation.


Fleet Maull: 

Well, you mentioned also gender specific care. I know women who are involved in the criminal justice system have a very different experience and often different backgrounds in terms of trauma. And then, you also have the GLBTQ population incarcerated. 

I'm wondering if you're seeing any movement towards sort of creating a safer, more inclusive environment? Because part of wellness also has to do with diversity, inclusion, and equity. I'm wondering if you're seeing that in corrections that we're least beginning the work of creating a safer environment for people of different racial backgrounds, for all genders, as well as for gay and lesbian and transgendered prisoners or resident, but also staff, whether we're doing that work around inclusion and equity to really create safe environments for everybody involved. If you're seeing any progress there. 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

Yeah, absolutely. Different environment. Not just in the correctional. The organization that I'm working for now, the recovering courts, it's an alternative, obviously, to incarceration. 

We're opening up this gender specific female program, and even in the recovery court communities, they've gotten on board with gender specific programming and what that means, and what kind of safe environment. Because safety is first, right. If you have safety for residents, you're going to have safety for staff. And that's important. But the gender specific and response and things, were looking at ensuring that we have the appropriate staff, that we're putting policies into place, that's trauma informed, that we're making sure that the training is happening and that they understand. 


We're looking at their culture and making sure that diversity, equity, and inclusiveness and humility and competency is there. I mean, that's an extremely important part of education for our treatment counsellors. Anyone that has been working in therapy has to include that in any treatment planning with their clients. So, that's always been at the forefront, but there's really been a significant focus in the past couple of years. 


Fleet Maull: 

Michelle, you've shared so much here. And obviously, your long career as a leader in this field, and the things you've modelled, and the things you're working for. If you have the opportunity to address a large group, maybe you're up at the podium at a conference, there's a large hall full of public safety leaders, both policymakers and operational leaders. What might be the essence of your message? What message would you really like to get across to leaders in the public safety field, about where we need to go? 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

I have a few comments on that. You actually mentioned this term earlier, and you talked about dignity. I don't know if you have read, or our audience may have read this white paper from the Vera Institute on reimagining prisons. 

 

It's a wonderful document. It really captures everything that we're talking about today. It's all about dignity. And there's three principles that I would want everyone to adhere to, understand, and kind of base their policies and their practices around. 

 

That's respecting the intrinsic worth of each human being. Just because you're incarcerated, doesn't mean that people don't need respect. Elevating and supporting knowledge, the human or personal relationships, that human connection we talked about. It's so important, even as a staff but also as residents to develop a connection. There's been this understanding or this bad thing surrounding the staff relationships within. There's always this, "Well, you've got boundaries. You can't get too close to them or they're going to call on you or whatever." Well, it's not about that. It's about just being basically respectful, acknowledging people who they are, that they are human first and helping them establish healthy relationships and modelling that. 


The third principle would be respecting a person's capacity to grow and to change. We have to instill a sense of hope for people. People may never get out. But if we're going to look at safety in a prison, and we're going to look at staff, and retaining staff, and looking at having them come to work healthy, happy, and being purpose driven, we have to do those things. We have to start with the environment. 


And if we would have a culture where we can help residents and grow staff grow, where they had an environment, where they have sunlight, where it's an educational learning, kind of environment versus necessarily a putative, where there's opportunities, to have reentry programs, to have education, to be able to just celebrate the good things that are happening, the way that they're dressed. 


If you can give them even change out the uniform to a different color allowing women to wear makeup, things like that are outside of the box that are more about human dignity. Then, we can change the culture for our staff. They'll be happier because nobody wants to necessarily feels good when they have to walk behind the gate and they're at a dark, dingy area where there's no light, where everyone's hostile. 


We have to understand we've been doing things that aren't working. So, let's try some things that are proving to work in other countries. Like you said, the Norway model. So, we do need to step outside of the box and reimagine the way that we do things because it's also going to help our staff be better and be healthier and prevent suicides and improve retention rates. It's not just about money. It's about being happy and coming to work, and feeling respected, and having a sense of dignity. 


Fleet Maull: 

Wow, thank you for that. That's a great thing for people to check out. The Vera Institute does great work and people should check out that paper. 


I can't think of a better focal point than human dignity. I mean, that could just be the North Star for everything we're doing on the staff side, on the resident side. Are we increasing human dignity for everyone involved? That's such a powerful focal point. 

Well, thank you so much Michelle Ryder-Grebel, long term criminal justice professional. Thank you so much for everything you've been doing and continue to do. And thank you for being part of our Summit. 


Michelle Ryder-Grebel: 

Thank you.


Comments


bottom of page