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4 issues corrections must address in 2020

From a lack of civilian training to the effects of chronic fatigue on officers, the corrections profession faces many challenges in the next decade


A Sheriff officer stands guard over inmates at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles.

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

My views concerning the state of corrections are based on encounters with veteran jail staff during my travels as a jail staff trainer in Virginia.

Jail staff members are concerned about several critical aspects of corrections:

1. Staffing

Short staffing is a recurring issue. Many of the jails represented in my classes are experiencing staff vacancies, and the impact of the fatigue factor on personnel cannot be ignored.

When jails are short-staffed, many jail officers have to be available for overtime. A collateral concern is stress. Chronic short-staffing wears people down. In 2020 and beyond, agency heads, sheriffs and jail superintendents will have to develop hiring incentives and improved ways to retain staff to give officers a much-needed break.

A priority is having a workplace culture where line staff are listened to and appreciated. Working in corrections is a noble profession and like many jobs, officers should have support from management and incentives to make it a career.

2. Tablets

There are mixed views on the availability and usage of tablets for inmates.

Some jail officers see that tablets keep inmates occupied and support their use. Video visitation using tablets creates a safer climate for officers as groups of inmates do not have to be escorted to and from visiting areas.

However, I have heard comments about jails becoming too “comfortable,” with tablets providing inmates “perks” such as music and movies. The deterrent factor of losing outside comforts may become lost.

Most jail officers accept the fact that tablets are here to stay and will be available, but are concerned with inmates fighting over them, as well as inappropriate use such as risqué behavior during video visits.

3. Civilian training

An ongoing problem is the effectiveness of civilian training.

I sense that the majority of jail officers welcome civilians, including volunteers, and have observed their positive effects on inmates. Civilians help inmates develop job skills and learn how to problem-solve, as well as serve as mentors. However, I have heard from class attendees that many volunteers engage in excessively familiar behaviors, such as dancing with inmates or bringing in cell phones for inmates. Some officers have told me that some volunteers do not appreciate or understand facility rules.

More training is needed for civilians, such as resisting inmate manipulation and situational awareness. Situational awareness means two things. First, a civilian must clearly understand that they are inside a correctional facility that houses people (inmates) who may live by a different moral code. Secondly, civilians need to realize that rules are not intended to make the jail a harsh place but to keep inmates, correctional officers and the public safe.

Time must be allotted for good training, not just an orientation lasting an hour or two.

4. Training

The last thing I want to discuss involves training.

To save money and keep officers on-site in the jail, some agencies are providing more training online.

I ask my classes which type of training is more effective: online or attending classes with a live instructor in a classroom. While some like online training, jail officers still like classroom training.

In the classroom, officers can discuss topics and benefit from the experiences of other attendees and the instructor. Some of these discussions can get very serious because corrections is a serious and sometimes deadly profession. Topics such as inmate suicide prevention, officer stress management, escape prevention, officer safety, inmate manipulation, avoiding liability and managing special populations can be more effectively presented in a live forum.

A good compromise is online webinars, where the instructor is live, and questions can be submitted. Refreshers in policies and procedures can also be presented online. However, jail management will have to find ways of delivering effective training not just pointing staff to a computer in 2020.

These are a few issues that are present in our nation’s correctional facilities and thought must be given to how best to manage them.

Best of luck to all in 2020!

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs, planning/ policy and classification.
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