Spotlight: Darrel Stinson, Retired Corrections Officer

The Spotlight series highlights individuals in first responder life who have felt an impact, made an impact, and shared an impact with others. We need to share our stories to know we’re not alone and we can do this… together!

Caroline: Today’s Spotlight features Darrel Stinson, or Coach D, who worked for the state of Michigan for 25 years before his recent retirement. Darrel was a corrections officer from 1996, moved on to boot camp in 1997, then obtained an office job as the Corrections Program Coordinator. Now that he’s retired, he’ll be working as a life coach with us at First Responder Coaching. Darrel, thanks for joining me.

Darrel: My pleasure.

Caroline: We’re going to talk about perspective today. You have a lot of history as a first responder. You had mentioned you used to help inmates, particularly about moving past self-judgment and that victim mentality of having a prison sentence. I know you wanted them to see they can be so much more and build the life they want. Let’s start by talking about your experience with that. Is that where the ‘Coach D’ comes in?

Darrel: Kind of. I played college football at Central Michigan and at the time we called our coach Coach D. His last name was DeRodney. Coach D was a short guy but a very powerful person with his influence. Small package but he had a lot to offer. That’s where it sticks in my head the most. When I was at the college, I was raising my son, and I was coaching his little league team. They would call me Coach D for my first name, Darrel. I let that ride because I had so much respect for my Coach D.

Caroline: So, you had a Coach D and when they used it for you it meant something.

Darrel: Yes.

Caroline: That’s awesome. Talk about your experience when you were a corrections officer and you used to coach and encourage the inmates there.

Darrel: I worked at a place that was a military boot camp for prisons, so it was run like the military. It was a special alternative incarceration. We called it SAI. What happened was, we called [the inmates] trainees because it was an alternative to prison.

Even though it was prison, it was considered alternative. It was only 90 days. But the way it worked is, when they got there, it was one-way communication. We told them what to do. They followed orders or they would have problems and they wouldn’t get to go home on a shorter sentence of 90 days. They’d have to go back and get re-sentenced. We could pretty much tell them to hold their finger on their nose for ten minutes and they’d stand there holding their finger on their nose.

It came later, after doing that for years, there was some research done. They said, “You know what? Your boot camp looks good while you’re there. What’s happening at the behavior boot camp while you’re not there telling them what to do?” So, they started trying to do research and came up with this. If you could teach somebody how to behave even when you’re not around, it’d be better than them behaving when you are around because you’re not always going to be around.

So, the whole boot camp mentality changed. It was still run like the military (Yes sir, No sir, and respect), but we also included a lot of evidence-based programming so we could teach them how to make good, sound decisions, have integrity, and do the right thing even when we weren’t there. When we got that evidence-based training, I liked it. I don’t mind telling somebody what to do; I normally make pretty good decisions. But now, when you can teach them to make good decisions on their own, I found that to be more effective and more rewarding. 

Caroline: Absolutely. I’ve heard the saying, maybe you have too, “Character is who you are in the dark.” It says who you are when no one’s looking. That’s what that made me think of when you said to teach them to behave right when you’re not there. I think that’s a great program.

Darrel: I believe so too. And it helped me grow as a person also. 

Caroline: What kind of influence do you think that had on you?

Darrel: I was cool telling them what to do. I thought it was fun, but I wasn’t thinking long-term. I wasn’t thinking when these guys leave, how are they going to survive if they have nobody there telling them what to do? They’re going back to the same environment, they’re going around the same friends that got them in trouble, they’re going around the same neighborhood where they have the opportunity to sell drugs, run the streets, get in a gang… All those opportunities are still there. We’re releasing them right back to that exact same environment.

Now they need to say, “Hey, due to my training, I now know right from wrong. Due to my training, I know how to evaluate with just a couple of quick questions to myself, how to evaluate if this means trouble again.” And then, “Even though I’m in the same environment, I’m a different person. So, I can make different decisions in this environment.”

And so, there are people that now, when they leave the boot camp after 90 days, they write letters back. They’re telling more success stories of how they set and achieved goals. Even though they were in the same environment, they thought they had to move, now they can stay around their families. It was just all about making different decisions. So letters just came back. The people that came back to the boot camp tried to tell their message.

We got a lot of positive feedback. When I run into some of the ex-trainees, at the auto show, or a restaurant, at an amusement park, or just out and about, the stories they have of their success… They remember the boot camp and the lessons they learned. It’s so long term that I know that the program was effective because of their responses way after they were done being incarcerated. It was a long term effect so I know the program works because I’ve actually seen graduates. And of course we get stats and numbers and percentages and all that, but me personally, I run these ex-trainees and I hear their stories so I know that it was an influence on a good majority of them.

Caroline: That’s really great. That’s encouraging that that’s out there because you always hear people say that prison isn’t good and it doesn’t reform people. But that’s not true because I know there’s programs like this out there. So, it’s really encouraging to hear your experience and that you hear the response and those success stories. Is there one particular success story that stands out that you could share?

Darrel: Not just one. I’ve got a few but I can tell you just one.

I’m shopping at the outlet mall, and me and my wife and my kids are in the store shopping. The person that was helping us was really, really nice. Before we were done, I said, “You know what? I want to buy you something because you were so kind and so helpful.” And he was like, “You don’t remember me?” I said, “No, you don’t look familiar. Why would I remember you?”

He said, “I was at the boot camp so many years ago and you told me that when you do anything, do it at your best. And at the time I was doing crime at my best and now, when I get a job, I try doing my best. When I meet a girl, I try being the best boyfriend to her. With this trying to do my best, I have gotten a girlfriend, gotten married, we have a family now, and I got a job.

“Where I used to come to this outlet mall and see what I could steal and shoplift and run from the store. Now I’m managing one of these stores. I got hired in and moved up to assistant supervisor and now I’m managing the store with keys to it. And it’s just, my way of thinking of doing my best for good versus my best for wrong has changed my life.”

It’s all from that statement of, “Always try to do your best.”

Caroline: That’s amazing! That’s so encouraging. You were able to be that influence and be part of a program that was able to change his perspective and bring him around to doing his best for good. What a great turnaround.

Now that you’re with First Responder Coaching, you said you hope to give back and help first responders as they deal with seeing all kinds of horrible things and then going home to their families. Talk about that for a little bit. What are your hopes?

Darrel: Well, I was working for the department of corrections for a long time. We’ve seen all kinds of things: death, near death experiences, someone trying to hang themselves, someone trying to kill themselves, someone going into a big state of depression because of them being locked up and not being able to do anything about it. All kinds of things happen to these inmates from them being incarcerated.

Well, it doesn’t just affect them. If they hang themselves, it’s up to us to deal with that situation. We cut them down, or to try to prevent them from hurting themselves. When they get in a fight, we have to break that fight up, protect ourselves from the blood, from getting hurt ourselves from it being actually a set-up. The list goes on and on about the things that happen in prison that we deal with on a daily basis. It’s a stressful environment even when there’s nothing going on because at any second something could pop off.

So, after doing this for so many years, I’m fortunate to retire pretty early but I know what they went through. I’ve seen somebody hanging. I’ve had to do CPR on somebody. I had to do the heimlich on somebody that was choking from trying to eat too fast because the boot camp is fast paced. I’ve broken up fights with inmates and also an inmate that attacked a staff member. And that staff member, that could’ve been a day when a staff member got killed because he literally got attacked and I was there.

So, because I’m out, I know what they went through, I know what they were going through when I left. Then COVID magnified a lot of things where a lot of people quit. They felt we were put in an unsafe environment because COVID was actually in the prison. We’re in there in such an enclosed environment. They felt trapped like an injustice and then the ones that left, they’re gone, but the ones left behind, now they’re working 5-6 days a week doubles. And they don’t get to go home to their wife and kids. They don’t really get to relax much because now they’re in a stressful environment for longer periods of time not by their choice.

So, I’m like, “I’m out fortunately, but I know what you guys are going through.” If I could give back to anybody, to my corrections officers, my first responders, people I know that deal with these stressful situations every day… I can relate to them because I was there, because I’ve seen it, I want to give back to them.

Caroline: What would you want to say to them in that situation in order to help them move through it? What do you think the biggest thing is?

Darrel: The biggest thing is we all know what each other goes through. EMS, fire, have come to our places. We help to respond to things. The police have come to our place and we have helped the police and we keep a lookout. I’ve been in restaurants where the EMS or the police or fire departments have come. I’ve seen them come and how they have to manage the crowd and the situation. I would just say the biggest thing is we really are the same. We don’t do the same exact jobs, but we’re in the same boat. When something happens, and it’s major, we’re the ones that’s responding to it. We are dealing with the high stress of it, dealing with the urgency, being professional, and it’s stressful.

We all know that if a police [officer] does a routine traffic stop, he could be shot at or hurt on duty. A firefighter can go into a fire, save somebody, go back in to save somebody else and may not come out. But we are the ones that respond to these critical situations and we all are trying to help when everybody else is afraid to help. We are not alone.

That’s what I want to say. We are not alone. We should stick together and we should talk about it. And we can relate to each other so it’d be just like a group of friends getting together, debriefing, enjoying each other’s time, company, and conversation. So, that would be what I want to tell anybody that wants to contact First Responder Coaching. Yup, we all have family members or we are first responders. We know what you’re going through, we can relate, and I’m here for you.

Caroline: Yes, that’s true. We need first responders to realize that they’re not alone, that we’re all in it together. Especially as coaches, we’re here to support them and work through it with them, walk through it with them. I think it’s great that it seems you always had that Coach D mentality, right? You were coaching your son’s little league and then you were coaching inmates at the boot camp. Now you’re going to be coaching first responders. It’s that helper’s heart that we always talk about. I think that’s great. Is there anything else that you want to talk about or mention as far as your experience in corrections or as a coach?

Darrel: No, it’s just like you said, I got this helper’s heart. I get so happy and so much joy when I can put a smile on somebody’s else’s face. When somebody’s going through hard times and I can help them see the light on the other end, it’s just so rewarding. All the way even from the inmates, when the inmates were in there and like, “I’m a felon and my life is over…” and stuff, and I’m like, “You’re 24. You’re going to be out of prison in 90 days. Do you know how much life you have left to change things around? Do you know that if you change your mindset, you’re going to change your life?”

When that light clicks for them, it’s so rewarding. When I help somebody that’s depressed… I had a friend that was going through hard times in a relationship and I helped him get through that. I’ve helped some get through divorces. I’ve helped some of them understand that when life’s difficulties come, if you do the right things to get past them, if you talk to the right people, if you build your good support team, if you’ve got people that have got your back and help you weather the storm… When the storm passes and you do the things necessary to get back on track, if you were happy before, you will be happy again.

One more thing is that people get stuck on where they are. They get so stuck on what’s happening right now, the pain, the tragedy, whatever. So, one of my biggest things is, “Okay, so here’s what we’re going to do now. Take a deep breath. Soak it all in. Cry if you need to, but understand that it’s going to come to an end.” As long as we keep moving forward, it always gets better. Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better, but it’s always going to get better. 

Caroline: Yes, that’s the perspective we need people to aim for. A lot of times people get stuck in the moment. Like you said, they get stuck in their misery and they focus on that. So, what we want to do is turn that perspective around and help them to see that it’s going to get better. Nothing lasts forever including whatever miserable situation you’re in and we do have a choice to change our outlook.

Darrel: Yes.

Caroline: Thank you so much for all the perspective that you brought and all the stories that you have. I’m really glad that you’re part of our team. 

Darrel: I’m excited to be part of an organization like this. I’m so happy I just got my business cards. I’m ready to start sharing those and put them up on Facebook and social media. So, people can know that our first responder organization is out there for them. We can be part of their support team and, if they need us, we’re here and the [First Responder Coaching] website is there and they can go and take our survey and see if there’s a way that we can help them move forward with whatever they’re dealing with. I’m excited about that.

Caroline: Yes, like you said, keep moving forward, and I know we will. 

Darrel: Oh, no doubt.

Caroline: Awesome. Well, thanks so much, Darrel, for talking with me today.

Darrel: My pleasure.

Caroline: Folks, we can all be subject to feeling upset about our situations. If we turn our perspectives around like Darrel suggests, we can find a new way to look at things. We can find a clear path to better living. We’re grateful for Darrel and other coaches working to help first responders in this often difficult journey. And we invite everyone to keep moving forward with a positive perspective.