Roundtable: How corrections was challenged in 2021

Staff recruitment and retention have remained critical obstacles, but there are still strategies organizations can employ to gain the upper hand in 2022


By Corrections1 Staff

We asked several Corrections1 columnists and contributors to share what they thought were the biggest challenges of 2021 along with advice on how to address these issues in 2022.

ROUNDTABLE PARTICIPANTS

  • Mike Cantrell, host of The Prison Officer Podcast, has been in corrections for over 28 years.
  • Lt. Gary 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. 
  • Jenna Curren, MS, is an assistant professor of criminal justice studies and a former Connecticut DOC lieutenant.
  • Zohar Zaied is a background investigator assigned to the Corrections Division at the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California.

Leadership crisis

Even though we will never know the full extent, the loss of correctional experience and leadership in the last two years is huge. A deteriorating public trust, COVID-19, annihilated budgets and just generally being asked to do too much with too little has caused a mass exodus of experienced leaders in the world of corrections.

Many staff who can retire are retiring. Others with the skills to move on are finding other jobs. This exodus is leaving our prisons, jails and correctional centers with a crisis in leadership. Some of the most trained and experienced leaders are no longer there to guide staff or to provide the vision needed to overcome these current challenges. Though maybe not as experienced, there are good staff who step up daily to take on these vacant leadership positions. These new leaders need direction and support that few agencies have time for. They need leadership training in a time when training budgets have been slashed and most training has been suspended due to COVID-19 or short staffing.

Before we can fix the recruitment and retention crisis, administrators must focus on fixing the leadership crisis. So what can be done?

  • Identify new leaders: Performance history is a start, but it does not always predict who will be a good leader. Look for staff who are natural coaches and mentors. These are the people who tend to inspire, encourage and guide others. Look for staff who understand and can see the bigger picture. Those who understand how the work they do affects the agency as a whole.
  • Help your new leaders understand the organization's vision: They need to understand that their leadership is not just about today. It is about how to change and improve tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. Leadership is a journey, not a sprint.
  • Develop your new leaders’ capacity for encouraging professional development: If you can’t have a day of training, encourage spot quizzes, tabletop scenarios, or e-mail tests. Staff need to learn, grow and be challenged or they become stagnant and complacent.
  • Show these new leaders how to create heroes in every correctional role: From housing unit officer to cook to lieutenant to a counselor. True correctional leaders will show employees how every position inside the fence is important.
  • Ensure your new leaders encourage excellence from everyone in all jobs: This in turn will increase employee retention by increasing pride in working for your agency.

Leadership is the answer to your staffing and retention challenges, but administrations and agencies have to do their part. Invest in your leaders, teach them to invest in your staff, and then your staff will invest in your agency. An agency in which the staff feel valued and have a vested interest can overcome any challenge.

— Mike Cantrell

Corrections 1 Resource: Essential elements of supervision in public safety

cultural disruption

Every institution, jail or prison, has within its walls a work culture that exists in a fragile balance. At the head of this culture is command staff, often far removed from the day-to-day operations of the institution. This group came up at different times, and they have to see the workplace as a whole from a healthy distance. Command staff is usually at least one generation older than incoming trainees.

In a healthy institutional ecosystem, the philosophical gap between our most seasoned command staff and newest employees gets filled with our 3, 6 and 10-year staff members, who grow into formal and informal leadership positions.

These mid-level culture keepers learned from current command staff back when our current captains and lieutenants were the mid-level culture keepers.

The mid-level group of leaders also plays a vital role in maintaining a continuum of institutional knowledge that transforms past successes and failures into best practices. In a functional work environment, skill sets are sharpened beyond training in a culture of multi-generational mentorship.

In this ecosystem, the more even the gaps in years of experience are up and down the chain of command, the more stable the structure of the institution. Additionally, the more evenly spread groups of hires are, the more stable the structure is.

In 2021, many corrections institutions experienced a disruption in our cohesion as a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and political opposition to law enforcement reduced our rosters. In the aftermath of lower academy attendance and reduced applications, prisons and jails have struggled to fill positions left empty by retirements, terminations and resignations.

As a result, some institutions will be forced to promote less experienced training officers and supervisors, who may or may not survive a trial by fire.

The disruption in hiring will lead to larger generational gaps for some time and a naturally destabilized work culture.

As the corrections world recovers from the past two years  and we will recover as we always have  it may take some extra efforts from command staff to maintain an institutional culture of mentorship and the natural handing down of hard-earned wisdom. In this current reality, gaps must be filled from the top-down, rather than expecting incoming line staff to take on culture keeping from the bottom up.

Any extra time spent by command in the trenches as our institutions build back up will help repair culture gaps in our jails and prisons.

— Zohar Zaied

Corrections 1 Resource: The value of a ‘leader as coach’ program for law enforcement

meeting public servants' needs

In many ways, it seemed that life was going to return to normal in 2021, but as the year progressed, we were forced to remain focused on controlling the spread of COVID-19 and the variants and vaccines associated with it. Thankfully many agencies were able to learn from the mistakes of others in how to better handle this crisis. Slowing and controlling inmate movement, regular sanitization of all areas, and screening have all helped to slow the spread. Despite the positive developments with COVID vaccines, most agencies found themselves with little time to devote to anything else except trying to staff their facilities.

Staffing and retention have always been big challenges for corrections. Shift work, violent/negative working conditions and stress have always created a demanding work environment to overcome. With so many choices in the current job market and minimum wages of $15 an hour in some places, applicants are being drawn away from our agencies. Many agencies have responded by lowering minimum hiring standards and offering unprecedented hiring bonuses, some as high as $15,000-$20,000. But despite these efforts, agencies are still finding it hard to find applicants, and even harder to find qualified ones.

However, the challenge doesn’t stop there; some agencies are even dealing with a first-year attrition rate of over 40% of the staff they do hire. And within agencies like the Connecticut Department of Correction, where there are currently 406 staffing vacancies as well as nearly 400 correctional workers becoming eligible for retirement in 2022, the crisis is likely to get even worse.

Trying to stem the tide, agencies like New York’s Department of Correction hired a telemarketing firm to call recent retirees and ask them to return to work. Another recent example is the Bureau of Prison’s newest penitentiary in Thomson, Illinois. In order to slow the loss of valuable prison employees, and after pressure from state politicians, the Federal Office of Personnel and Management (OPM) approved a 25% retention pay increase for all officers and staff at United States Penitentiary.

So, how do we fix this? How do we get people to choose corrections as a career? Should you hold more hiring fairs? Offer free ink pens? Entice the new applicants with promises of promotion?

Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don't want to.” ― Sir Richard Branson

People stay with an organization in order to be part of something bigger  something that matters, that has purpose. This is especially true for public servants. Once their basic financial needs are met, they care less about pay and benefits and more about how they are treated. Are they involved in decisions at work? Do their opinions matter?

A recent Gallop poll revealed employees want to know they are valued, cared about and encouraged by their supervisor. They want the opportunity to be part of the overall mission/purpose. They want to be led by experienced leaders with a vision and the capacity to care about the people that work for them. The problem is the challenges of recruitment and retention are being compounded by a leadership vacuum.

— Mike Cantrell

Corrections1 Resource: How to keep the people you worked so hard to recruit

frontline staff health and wellness

As the year comes to an end and we reflect on what has transpired, it is imperative to recognize that the challenges we have faced will likely be the same in the coming year. As the country and world continue to figure out its new normal, in an almost post-pandemic environment, correction facilities must elevate health and wellness practices for employees in an effort to increase staff retention.

Working within prison walls for the last year and a half during a pandemic has pushed many to take early retirements or resign altogether, even with minimal time on the job. Many institutions focused their attention on how to keep the offender population healthy and safe, and while that is in the mission of many departments, it is easy to see how the well-being of officers and support staff was pushed aside.

As many facilities move to a resemblance of “normal operations,” many are doing so with staff who are most likely burnt out. For years, it was commonplace for officers and staff to work doubles, day after day, no questions asked, and many have been conditioned to put their own health and wellbeing aside because being burnt out was simply part of the job.

This mindset or expectation by leaders within the department, however, is likely to be the “straw that breaks the camel’s back.” After putting in the extra blood, sweat and tears during the pandemic, our officers and staff need support, guidance and understanding. The challenge is for our leaders to recognize this and to set examples with their own behavior.

First and foremost, leaders must communicate their empathy for the dire conditions their officers and staff worked in as they are the ones who kept the facilities running. This is especially true for facilities that are short-staffed or for those putting through academy classes to fill the many positions left vacant.

Offering health, wellness and mental health workshops, as well as allowing officers to take days off to focus on themselves, will also greatly benefit the future of the department as well as foster a positive environment for both staff and offenders.

— Jenna Curren, Ed.D

Corrections 1 Resource: Post-pandemic mental health challenges for correctional staff and inmates: What leaders should know

training and morale

The year 2021 has been a difficult one for the men and women in our nation’s correctional facilities.

Working short-staffed is a continuing problem, causing stress due to officers being called in off duty or subjected to mandatory overtime. Also, as officers tire out and become fatigued, it becomes more important to keep their emotions and frustrations in check.

Management, from the top brass down to line supervisors, must be aware of officer stress and do what they can to assist officers in managing it. They must keep in mind the strain of a correctional career and develop ways to boost employee morale. Also important are the families, the loved ones who watch correctional officers go to work. They need support as well.

But improved morale can also be obtained by helping officers gain the tools they need to do a difficult job well, and training can go a long way toward accomplishing this goal, particularly when it comes to managing offenders of differing cultural backgrounds and special populations.

The years 2020 and 2021 saw racial tension at times between law enforcement and citizens, and this continues to be a fragile environment. Cultural diversity training, however, can help improve relationships by emphasizing de-escalation techniques, as well as how citizens and correctional officers can understand each other instead of engaging in negative behavior. 

Other suggested initiatives include corrections getting better at community dialog and public relations. Many in the community simply do not understand what jails do and how they keep the public safe; an improved understanding can only help with employee recruitment down the line.

Special populations are also an ongoing concern. More attention is being focused on the transgender inmate population, LGBTQ inmates, suicidal inmates, the seriously mentally ill, female inmates and the elderly. As we find out more about them, the training must be ongoing. Correctional staff training must incorporate the safety of these populations and how the courts have ruled that they receive adequate mental health and medical care.

The good news is that this training is already improving; many correctional officers are participating in crisis intervention training, or CIT, but there is still more to be done. Effective training will reduce the number of deaths in custody, inmate on inmate assaults, and reduce (hopefully) the number of lawsuits filed against correctional agencies.

Finally, important in dealing with problems is the way agencies provide training. Due to the pandemic, much training has been via webinars and online. As a trainer who presents instructor training, the best officers should be chosen for instructor training; they are the future. Staff is refreshed when attending in-person platform training. And finally, trainers must be creative in providing training when their facilities are short-staffed. This may require a fresh look at providing training at roll calls.

— Gary Cornelius

Corrections 1 Resource: Grow your profession: 4 resources for correctional officer training

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