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Correctional leaders: Should you use a contractor?

Contracting seems like a simple concept that takes a lot of responsibility off of your shoulders, but there are some questions to consider before you land yourself in hot water


AP Photo/Danny Johnston

When criminal justice budgets are on tilt, and public safety needs continue to grow, government entities look for ways to provide programs and services without adding additional full time employee (FTE) positions. Decision makers often select contracting as the best option for stretching the dollar while having work performed.

The concept sounds simple: get some other entity to hire staff, perform a defined scope of work for a specific period of time, for a certain amount of money. However, what sounds straightforward can become full of twists and turns when implemented in correctional environments.

It’s easier when contract staff perform duties away from sites where similar tasks are performed by FTEs. Privately run correctional institutions are a good example. But, when both contract and FTE staff comingle in the same work areas, perform similar duties and are both expected to follow agency policies and procedures, the work day can get confusing.

Security interests in facilities give rise to certain questions: What level of training do contract staff receive? Should contract staff be issued facility keys? Are they expected to act as first responders, hostage negotiators and provide backup when an incident occurs? Should contract staff be invited to facility good will events, like pot lucks and staff appreciation week, or be allowed to ride in government cars?

Can they be required to stay past work day hours to provide coverage during emergencies? If contract staff violate the facility’s code of conduct, which agency becomes the disciplinarian and enforcer? Finally, how is risk managed, especially when translated into liability and legal representation?

The morale of corrections staff is constructed from a notion that everyone backs up everyone else and, quite remarkably, without too much fanfare, a culture of esprit de corps develops on its own. The entire cast of characters, contract and FTE staff alike, simply adapts and believes their roles fit in order to support a common mission. Therein, found within the newly developed hybrid of an apple and an orange, lies the challenge.

For both entities to enjoy the benefits of a long term contractual relationship, avoiding confusion from the get go means clearly establishing language where lines are brightly defined and risk management is understood and managed. Failure to do so means, over time, small deviations, especially where staff are concerned, evolve into full blown practice, habit, tradition and acceptance.

Then, when questions arise about FTE vs. contract staff, any number of experts weigh in with different opinions about how best to mitigate a situation. What was once a sound, fiscally responsible decision for both contracting parties becomes messy and to the point of being down right acrimonious.

In correctional settings, staff should have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities, understand a matrix supervision model, know who provides pay and benefits and understand who will provide legal representation. To avoid unpleasant predicaments once the relationship is launched, leaders negotiating contractual work should ensure this information is communicated at all levels, so bright lines do not become blurred.

Cherrie Greco is a retired correctional administrator and consultant, having provided technical assistance to a number of criminal justice agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, and the states of Colorado, Texas, Florida, Maine, Alabama, Connecticut and Oklahoma on the topics of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Amendment Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act. During her career with the Colorado Department of Corrections, she served as Director of Administration, Warden, Legislative Liaison, and Director of Staff Training. In recent years, Greco served as a Senior Consultant for MGT of America and was the Director of Probation for Oklahoma County. She earned a B.A., Ed. from Northwestern Oklahoma State University and an M.A., Ed. from Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. Ms. Greco resides in Oklahoma. She has been a columnist for CORRECTIONSONE since 2011.