“I love to talk,” says Minnesota Corrections Officer Rick Neyssen with a chuckle.
Chattiness may seem like an unlikely job qualification for someone responsible for keeping the peace among some of Minnesota’s most violent offenders, but in fact, it’s one of the most essential.
“You have to be able to communicate. To be a good corrections officer, you have to be quick and smart and be a good communicator,” explains Neyssen, the winner of a Never Quit Service Award. He firmly dispels the notion that being a successful corrections officer is about intimidation, though being 6’5”, 275 pounds, with a booming voice doesn’t hurt.
But over the course of his 26-year career at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-St. Cloud, Neyssen, a member of AFSCME Local 599 (Council 5), attributes his success to being able to communicate with the prisoners who reside in Baker House, the 174 offenders living in the cell hall under his charge, as well as with the larger St. Cloud prison population.
They are men whose crimes “run the gamut. We have people in here for everything from DUIs, to rape, to murder,” he says.
Even though Neyssen is among the most seasoned COs at the more-than 1,000-person prison, which serves as the sole intake center for all of Minnesota’s male prisoners, the stress that accompanies the job and its inherent risks weigh heavily on him.
“There are a lot of us who suffer from mental health issues,” acknowledges Neyssen, who points to incidents like the recent death on the job of another Minnesota CO, Joseph Gomm, that haunt him and his co-workers. “It beats you up mentally. We need to acknowledge the problem.”
A 2017 survey by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley says COs “are exposed to violence at rates roughly comparable to military vets.” For many, depression, anxiety and even thoughts of suicide are a way of life.
Despite the constant pressures of the job, Neyssen believes he’s making a difference, savoring small victories as they come.
“It can be very rewarding. I appreciate every day when I can work with someone to have an ‘aha moment,’ or just to change their behavior,” he says.
Neyssen’s days adhere to a precisely regimented pattern: a 6:25 a.m. briefing, followed by a 6:45 breakfast for the inmates, after which prisoners attend classes or do vocational work, punctuated by cell counts, lunch, yard time and rest periods.
To some, the routine may seem boring, but Neyssen says adamantly, “Boring is good. Mundane days are your best.”
Showing up to work and collecting a paycheck isn’t enough for Neyssen, who views his job as having a direct impact on his community, since most of the men he works with will, one day, return to that community. Since he’s been living and raising his family in St. Cloud, the stakes feel personal.
Neyssen is also a member of AFSCME’s Racial, Social and Economic Justice Working Group, which aims to ensure that AFSCME remains a leader in promoting equality and respect both within our union and beyond, and to fostering a fair economic system that benefits all people.
The father of a 23-year-old son and a 20-year-old daughter, Neyssen knows that a strong union improves the world his children will inherit, and given those stakes, he doesn’t plan on shutting up any time soon.