5 of the biggest challenges facing corrections in 2019
As we enter the final year of this decade, these challenges should serve as a roadmap to identify opportunities to improve the field of corrections
We asked C1 readers what they think will be the biggest challenge in corrections in 2019. Check out the responses here.
By Dr. Ron Wallace, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, at American Military University
December is a time to reflect on the challenges of the past year and start preparing for the coming year. While there will always be new and unexpected challenges in the field of corrections, many of the issues previously experienced provide a hypothetical barometer of the issues corrections can expect to face in 2019.
Below is an overview of those issues that are likely to continue as challenges in the field of corrections. I intentionally use the word “continue” because anyone with a background in corrections will recognize that most of these issues represent ongoing problems. Also note that the following is by no means an all-inclusive list and is not presented in any particular order.
1. Prison overcrowding
A report from the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this year indicated that inmate populations have consistently declined for several consecutive years. The problem with these reports is that by the time the numbers are published, they are already at least two years old, which means they may not accurately reflect current inmate populations nationwide.
More important, despite suggestions that overall inmate populations are dropping, we know that many prisons are still overcrowded. This is partly because the inmates being released are most often those who pose the lowest threat to society, but the number of inmates considered to be the most dangerous tends to remain consistent. There are limited high-security facilities that can safely house the most dangerous inmates. This problem is worsened by the fact that new high-security facilities, which are needed to disperse overcrowding, are rarely built because they are expensive.
2. Funding gaps
No matter how good the economy, corrections rarely sees an increase in funding. Conversely, when budget cuts are required, corrections is often considered a prime source for money savings. Understandably, it is challenging to make the argument in our society that adequate funding to run prisons is as important as the education of our children or support for the needy.
Prisons are expensive to build and, once operational, expensive to maintain. This is especially true for facilities designed to house the most dangerous inmate population. As a result, we tend to see patchwork fixes applied to keep old facilities operational as opposed to building new facilities. Additionally, equipment is often outdated, which in turn compromises staff safety. These pressing issues have to be addressed in budget allocation discussions before the topic of staff pay can even be considered.
3. Staff safety/inmate violence
Staff safety and inmate violence are so intertwined that they warrant being discussed together as a consolidated concern. Inmate violence, especially among the more dangerous segments of the prison population, poses an issue for both other inmates and staff. Since the most dangerous inmates are the ones correctional facilities are required to keep for longer periods of time, it increases the potential for repeated violence within facilities.
When inmates attack each other, staff must intervene to take control of the situation. This intervention puts staff at risk. However, it is not just inmate-on-inmate violence that causes concern for staff safety; violent inmates also target staff. This links directly to a previously noted concern of aging prisons and patchwork fixes in facilities. As prisons age and systems deteriorate, inmates have more opportunities to take advantage of weakened systems, thereby escalating the threat to staff safety.
4. Advancements in technology
At first glance, technological advances appear to be a benefit as opposed to a concern for corrections in the coming year. If technological advances were leveraged to benefit facility operations and staff safety, that viewpoint would be accurate; however, limited funding often results in corrections being unable to spend money on technology that would benefit facilities and staff.
Meanwhile, inmates are able to benefit from technological advances, especially as we see an increase in the miniaturization of devices. Consider how small some communication devices are today. The smaller the device, the easier it is to smuggle inside a facility and, in turn, for the inmate to conceal the device. As technology continues to advance, so do concerns about contraband and associated challenges.
5. Staff retention
As a correctional employee, how often do you question why you continue to work in a field that exposes you to the most dangerous members of our society; struggles to fund the facilities designed to house these individuals; and requires you to remain constantly vigilant against threats to your safety? The reality is that you are not alone if you ask these questions repeatedly, especially since correctional employees work for some of the lowest salaries in the criminal justice system. More and more corrections personnel are deciding that the risks of the job outweigh the rewards and are leaving the field.
Staff retention continues to be an ongoing concern in the field of corrections. Arguably, corrections is the most dangerous sector of the criminal justice system. Correctional staff are required to enter a secure facility filled with deviant individuals who are constantly looking for ways to harm others. Over time, the stress caused by constant exposure to deviance and threats to safety can become too much to endure. As a result, too many good employees choose to leave the field of corrections for other job opportunities.
The future is not lost
These ongoing challenges that we will continue to face in the upcoming year should not be viewed with an “all hope is lost” perspective. Instead, as we enter the final year of this decade, these challenges should serve as a roadmap to identify more opportunities to improve the field of corrections.
It is important to keep the following in mind: Correctional staff serve as a line of defense between the good in our society and deviant individuals. Whether it is widely recognized or not, our society depends upon correctional employees and administrators to keep deviant individuals securely out of our communities until they are deemed ready to return. Do not lose hope or faith in the value of your role in maintaining public safety and protecting your communities – your impact is greater than many will ever realize.
About the Author
Dr. Ron Wallace is a criminal justice professional with more than 35 years of experience in both the public and private sectors. He has worked with criminal justice agencies nationwide as a consultant on various projects and has several years of teaching experience at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Ron currently serves as an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at American Military University. To reach him email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.