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The state of corrections post-pandemic

The measurement of work productivity, facility violence and inmate recidivism will tell the tale as time goes on


The full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the strategies that have been put in place to deal with it will not be fully known for years.

AP Photo/Chris Carlson

By Susan Jones, PhD

As the pandemic lags on, the toll it is taking on all of us is not even measurable. The negative impact upon the correctional environment will be experienced for decades. In many agencies, inmate programs have been non-existent for months. Teachers haven’t been teaching, case managers have had very little contact with their clients, and mental health programs have been minimized to reduce exposure to disease.

In the middle of all of this, many agencies have enacted protocols that have required staff to quarantine at home for one to two weeks (depending on a variety of factors) after certain types of exposures.

This has resulted in custody staff working even more hours than before the pandemic. This fact alone, even if you ignore all other impacts of this pandemic, has resulted in a mass exodus from this line of work.

Any review of social media platforms for corrections personnel reveal the numbers of people who are so fatigued and feeling so “disposable” that they feel they have no choice but to leave corrections.

The flip side of this same issue is the numbers of corrections officers who have already completed so many years in this career that they see no choice but to remain (at any cost) because they are so close to their retirement benefits. The irony of this is, of course, that these employees are older and less able to manage the stressful work of corrections when they are heavily fatigued.

Then, you know what happened next, these older employees started getting sick and going on leave. So, the employees who are left are working even more hours.

covid-19 and its impact in corrections

Some agencies are handling these critical staffing shortages by putting teachers, program staff, and even medical staff to work on custody posts. This is, of course, not what they planned to do with their lives, so these staff are finding work elsewhere.

Then, what about the inmates? They are not getting access to programs, so in some agencies they are not getting access to parole. In other agencies, inmates are being locked up for at least 23 hours a day, sometimes with a cellmate. This is being done to try to contain the spread of the virus. The result is, of course, inmates who are agitated, bored, separated from contact with their families, and potentially more violent. The recent push to eliminate 23-hour confinement (often referred to as solitary confinement) has been stalled. This movement gained steam based upon the negative impact of this type of confinement upon inmate’s mental health, so the full impact of this recent widespread use of lockdown (even for lower level inmates and inmates who are not misbehaving) is yet to be seen.

In another crazy extreme, some agencies have relaxed the rules regarding how inmates are being managed, in an obvious effort to reduce any violence. I have talked to staff in agencies where they have been told to not enforce all of the rules, and inmates are even given “treats” to prevent misbehavior. Is this the new norm? Or will the corrections officers who have not been allowed to enforce the rules during the pandemic going to be expected to go in and take away the treats and start once again enforcing all of the rules? I imagine we will see it happen both ways, in different agencies.

Either way, whether the inmates are locked down or are being allowed extra privileges and fewer rules, the barriers that have been put in place to reduce the spread of the virus have also reduced the positive interactions between staff and inmates. We have already seen the negative impact of the use of masks and partitions between people who are not in prison, and a similar, if not more pronounced result is likely to be taking place in confinement facilities. I had a staff member from an eastern state tell me that the way staff and inmates are treating each other is just like the “old days” (50 years ago) – that is, not well.

bringing employees back to work

Then, there is the issue of bringing the employees back to work, in a facility, when these employees have been working from home for the past year. This is not an issue that is only impacting corrections. All businesses and agencies are grappling with this matter, as their employees are making a case that there is no need to return to the organizations’ buildings, if they have been productive working remotely.

This is a valid argument in many settings. However, how will this play out in a corrections setting? Will employees who have been working from home be able to continue that type of work? Some agencies may allow this to continue, for a specific few types of positions. I believe that most agencies will not allow this to continue. In fact, many agencies have already called employees back to the facilities. This decision has also led to an increase in the numbers of employees leaving corrections work.

Is it justified to return people to the buildings? One could make the argument that having office-type people on-site increases the number of staff available for an emergency response. In fact, in many agencies, administrative staff are often called upon in an emergency, therefore, having them on-site makes sense.

The issue of “team” is also important in most work settings, but in corrections it is critical. Having a cohesive team that is clear about their vision and mission is important for safety of staff and inmates, and it is also important for retention of staff. Can a cohesive team be created and maintained when some employees are never on site? That will be the real question that has yet to be answered as we move through the pandemic.

a different environment post-COVID

Additionally, the pandemic has created an environment where many families’ lives have changed dramatically. Not only are many employees working from home; many of their children are attending school from home as well. The remote learning that has occurred in many areas of the country has altered child care arrangements, parental involvement in the education of their children, and relationships between family members.

There may be some instances where these changes have not been positive, and where employees and children are anxious to get back to school and work. There may also be instances where this type of environment has been a success, so that the employees are not willing to return to a traditional work environment.

For the employees who have been working from home, they have not always been held to a strict work schedule. Many have been allowed to work at any time of the day or night, as long as they get in their hours or complete their work. This type of flexibility is not often embraced by corrections agencies. Then, in other corrections agencies, some employees have been paid their full salary, yet they have not been required to work a full schedule.

In these cases, just getting back to working a 40 (plus) work week, at a set schedule, can be very difficult. I talked to one employee who admitted that they hadn’t worked a full 40 hours in over a year and they didn’t know if they could even do that anymore. I understand that the corrections employees who have been working massive amounts of overtime for over a year have no sympathy for this problem, but this is one more issue that will have to be addressed if these employees are going to continue to work in corrections.

Again, the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the strategies that have been put in place to deal with it will not be fully known for years. The measurement of work productivity, facility violence and inmate recidivism will tell the tale as time goes on.

NEXT: Roundtable: How COVID-19 challenged corrections

Reprinted with permission from the May 2021 issue of the Correctional Oasis, the monthly ezine of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach.

2020 © Susan Jones, PhD

About the author
Susan Jones, PhD, spent 31 years working in Colorado corrections. She worked in facilities that included both male and female inmates, and in security levels from Community to Supermax. Susan entered this work at the line officer level and retired at the level of Warden. Even in retirement, Susan continues to support corrections staff. She believes that the challenges faced in the criminal justice system can be met by prepared employees that are given the tools, encouragement, and support to provide the leadership necessary to change the systems.