Last week, Boston Globe reporter Jenna Russell released her long-awaited piece about MaryCatherin DeFazio’s story of workplace abuse in ‘I’m a shell of who I used to be.’ A female prison guard’s tale of torment.
Russell beautifully captures the nuances and emotions of workplace abuse, opening with how detached DeFazio felt after a traumatic experience with her husband. She believed the worst was behind her, but the torment was only beginning.
Her prison workplace would become her own prison, the torment she faced from her own colleagues unrelenting. No matter how she tried, she would find no way to stop it. And she would never know for certain why she was treated this way. Was it because she was an outsider at the new prison where she had been transferred? Or because she was a woman working among mostly men? Or did it grow out of some misplaced loyalty to her husband, who had been a prison guard, too, and still had friends in the system?
…The onslaught would begin as a lone insult tossed her way, then become a steady hail of them. Slut. Whore. Stupid bitch. Every shift she worked at NCCI Gardner, a low- and medium-security prison north of Worcester, the hateful words were hurled at her by other officers, DeFazio says, men and women wearing the same uniform she did. They seemed to her to take pleasure in it.
…The verbal battering was only the beginning. DeFazio says that in time, her co-workers put their slander in writing, scrawling profanities next to her name in the book where employees updated their schedules…. They stole her time card, bumped into her on purpose as she waited by the time clock to punch in or out, and threw things at her.
…More ominous, she says, colleagues sometimes ignored her radio calls on the job, making her feel isolated and at risk in a workplace where staff safety was always a concern. When she called guards in other parts of the prison to share information or ask for help, they sometimes hung up on her.Jenna Russell
This abuse was set against a culture where management claimed workplace bullying would not be tolerated. After reports of mistreatment by DeFazio, help never came. Abuse was tolerated under the guise that management conducted an investigation and addressed results.
After a violent episode with her husband, DeFazio transferred to another prison. “She thought she would feel safer. But the abuse began almost right away,” says Russell. Her husband had friends at the new prison, and they blamed her for the charges against him. DeFazio saw it as a boys’ club, whose members saw her as a threat. They were hell-bent on punishing her, despite the conviction of guilt of her husband. Even the union representative joined in.
Supervisors who defended DeFazio found themselves on the receiving end of workplace hostility.
Later, management pulled the old “you’re both at fault” nonsense, disguised as consequences for petty conflicts. They blamed DeFazio for not getting along with other staff, calling her “sensitive.”
As the shock (of her husband’s violence) began to ebb, she told herself she would not be defined by this act of violence and degradation. And she resolved that she would not let it break her.Jenna Russell
Then one day, DeFazio couldn’t take the abuse anymore. She realized the culture and the abuse would never change. She never returned to the prison.
The result: financial devastation, emotional trauma, and a lost career.
The abusers won.
DeFazio says she once had it all together. Now she’s a shell of who she used to be.
If someone dealing with some of the Commonwealth’s most dangerous criminals and who was self-sufficient since age 17 can experience damage from the trauma of workplace abuse, who can’t?
Told for its severe cruelty, DeFazio’s story involves some textbook elements of workplace abuse:
- The target is left confused about why the abuse happens in the first place.
- The abuse escalates.
- Management ignores the abuse, even if they claim they don’t tolerate it.
- There’s a club whose members “other” people who don’t fit into their distorted views.
- There’s gaslighting, or blaming the target by calling him or her “sensitive” for having normal reactions to abnormal situations.
- Targets have nowhere to turn, feeling isolated and enduring financial loss, emotional trauma, and career loss.
It’s a story of abuse of power that thousands of targets of workplace abuse can relate to on some level.
It’s time to make these severe behaviors illegal.