Strategies to address the challenges jails and prisons face in 2022

COVID-19 put the spotlight on officer recruitment, retention and wellness. The good news is, we have solutions to these issues


At this point in time, I would be “preaching to the choir” if I endeavored to write about the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has posed for our nation’s jails and prisons. By now, most of you could probably “write the book” about how your agencies, facilities or institutions have dealt with this unprecedented event.

Myriad issues are challenging our profession. This article will attempt to focus on the “cause and effect” that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust upon our field.

These are the issues that have challenged us for nearly the past two years, and the good news is, it’s not all bad news.

All the challenges faced by correctional staff over the course of the past two years have brought the issue of officer wellness to light.
All the challenges faced by correctional staff over the course of the past two years have brought the issue of officer wellness to light. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Recruitment

When retailers, restaurants and other business owners are facing difficulties in staffing their establishments, logic tells us that recruiting qualified candidates to staff our jails and prisons likely will follow suit. This is certainly the case.

In many areas, the talent pool has dwindled to a puddle. Finding candidates who can pass a background check, a medical physical, a psychological examination and an integrity verification process who are willing and able to work difficult hours under difficult conditions, is harder than ever. In response, there may be a tendency to reduce hiring standards to widen the applicant pool. Don’t do it!

If hiring standards are lowered, you’ll likely get a candidate who might have been disqualified just a few years ago, who, we can predict, will be a substandard employee. There have been several law enforcement and correctional studies or cases over the years that prove this to be true.

So, what can be done to help? Incentives matter. Some jurisdictions are offering sizable bonuses for officers who are willing to relocate. Many agencies offer recruiting bonuses to existing employees who can successfully bring on qualified candidates. Other agencies are offering incentives such as fully paid health insurance premiums or other benefits.

What about schedules? Of course, newly hired officers or employees are not likely to get hired directly to a day shift position with weekends off, but does that mean a recruit will be stuck with the same two middle-of-the-week fixed days off on the midnight to eight shift for the next couple of years? There are options that include schedules with rotating days off, 10- or 12-hour shifts that provide more full days off and, incentive pay for those who work evenings or overnight. The point is, we should endeavor to make the seemingly unattractive, more attractive. This is equally important for retention efforts as well.

Corrections1 resource: What every agency needs in a social media recruitment plan

Retention

Perhaps a bigger challenge than attracting good people is keeping them. We know that corrections is not for everyone and attrition has always been a factor. It’s a tough and often thankless job. Our profession is sometimes viewed as a stepping stone toward other pursuits within the criminal justice field, especially toward becoming a law enforcement officer. Chances are good that if there are exceptional law enforcement officers within your agency or your community, they likely started their career somewhere in corrections. We should do whatever we can to keep good people working on “our side of the fences.”

It all starts with training. Most jurisdictions have an academy or pre-service training program to prepare new hires for the technical or philosophical aspects of the job. Much time is likely spent on learning about the laws of the jurisdiction, along with the policies and procedures of the agency in question. But does that build confidence in one’s abilities or level of comfort in dealing with inmates? Probably not. The key is a robust field training program.

Who wouldn’t want their best and brightest officers/deputies to show the new kid how the job should be done? We’ve all had an officer or deputy on our team we wish we could clone. Congratulations, you just found your field training officer.

This is a win/win scenario if done correctly. The new staff member will gain confidence in working with inmates under the direct supervision of your best. They’ll learn to be comfortable (not complacent!) in an environment that most people have never experienced, while their role model training officer helps them along. Those of us who have spent time working in a jail or prison know that initial (academy or pre-service) training lays the foundation, but the house is built on actual, practical experience.

(A word of caution, an improperly selected training officer will have the complete opposite effect.)

Build a robust field training program and stick to it. Avoid the temptation to prematurely assign a new employee to an area where they have had a few days of training because of staffing shortages. Keep trainees with their training officers for the duration of the program.

Finally, we can predict that people are going to leave our ranks. The question that is not asked often enough is “Why are you leaving?” Here’s where a well-designed exit interview process comes into play. Are we asking people why they’re leaving and, if so, is the person asking the questions the one who should be asking the questions? Might it be the human resources employee who has had zero investment in the departing employee’s professional journey and is simply “checking the boxes?” Or might it be someone in a high-ranking position whose mere presence alone won’t solicit honest responses? I suggest a peer-to-peer exit interview, better yet, someone who worked alongside the departing employee if you really want to know why people are leaving the job.

Exit interviews are a great opportunity to gauge staff morale, as well as to identify problem areas within your facility. Don’t just file them away in the employee’s HR file. They should be reviewed by the departing employee’s entire chain of command. Most importantly, if there are persistent patterns identified, adjustments must be made. People will quit a bad boss, even if they have an otherwise satisfying and rewarding job.

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

Wellness

As mentioned earlier, there is a silver lining to the COVID cloud. All the challenges faced by correctional staff over the course of the past two years have brought the issue of officer wellness to light. Finally, it’s okay to talk about wellness, specifically mental health.

Many agencies are taking a proactive approach to something that has loomed in our profession since its inception. Whether it’s developing a peer-to-peer support network, contracting with an employee assistance program (EAP) provider, hiring in-house or contracted mental health specialists for staff, or enlisting the services of Lexipol’s Cordico solution, agencies are recognizing the detrimental effects working in corrections can have on employees' mental wellness. It appears that long-standing beliefs like “never show weakness” or “leave your work problems at work and your home problems at home” are finally abating. 

This is a step in the right direction, and it ties back into recruitment and retention. If people know they will be taken care of from day one, and throughout their time toiling in our jails and prisons, chances of keeping them around will greatly increase.

Corrections1 resource: Breaking the “I’m good” code of silence

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