3 keys to limiting the 'stepping stone' mentality in corrections

A universal truth about corrections is the difficulty in filling open positions

Those of us with some time under our belt are familiar with the high level of employee turnover in corrections. We are used to new hires explaining their desire to use corrections as a stepping stone to go to patrol. However, a more recent trend is to use corrections as a catalyst into another government job. The questions quickly becomes why do they leave and how to slow the turnover? 

A universal truth about corrections is the difficulty in filling open positions. It does not matter if it is at the county, state, or federal level. However, at the county level, we have a unique set of circumstances that allow for easier transfer between agencies. Primarily, it is location that enables new hires to move from the jail to another government agency. 

In many counties across the nation, departments share space in a government complex, where an applicant can literally walk down the hall or across the street and conduct job interviews for positions in areas like child support, health and human services, clerk of courts, and so on. 

A CO opens an entrance to a segregation section of San Quentin State Prison.
A CO opens an entrance to a segregation section of San Quentin State Prison. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

1. how to Attract and Retain Good Candidates

Put yourself in the shoes of a recent college grad. Some spend months – sometimes a year or more – applying for jobs as police officers, state troopers, game wardens and deputy sheriffs, and failing to gain employment. Many college grads have tens of thousands of dollars in college debt and need a job sooner, rather than later. They turn to other public safety jobs, namely corrections, as an interim job. Their plan is typically to work as a jail officer for a year or two and re-apply for a law enforcement job. 

However, after two years working for the county, they have vacation and sick time built up and may have started a family. It is no longer a viable option to start over at a new place of employment. So they begin to re-assess their career path. They think about the tens of thousands of dollars they spent on a college degree in order to be a cop and have been forced to “settle” on being a corrections officer in a jail. 

It seems those same employees would rather not be in public safety any longer. They take their degree in criminal justice, social work, psychology, human services or government and two years of experience in dealing with difficult people, multi-tasking, maintaining accurate records and begin to look elsewhere in the county for jobs. 

Is it possible to stop new hires from using corrections as a stepping stone to other public sector jobs? I don’t think it is a realistic goal to think we can stop everyone. However, it is our responsibility to try and slow the rate of exit. Below are some strategies for attempting to reduce turnover I have gleaned from my experience as a union vice president, training officer and adjunct instructor at a local technical college. 

First, clearly state the conditions within the jail. We all know the smell of the jail on a hot August day. The site of an inmate doing laundry in a toilet bowl or floating milks in the toilet bowl can seem odd to some people. So many of the shocking moments a new hire may experience can be mitigated by organizing tours of the jail for criminal justice students and providing internship opportunities when possible. 

Secondly, those interviewing the applicants need to stress the long hours spent locked up with criminals. It still amazes me how many people simply do not understand that jails require staffing 24/7.

After explaining these negatives, management can explain the good things that occur in the jail. Working in a jail can be a front row ticket to the greatest show on earth. Think of the things you have witnessed during your career. Not just the gross or horrific, but also the interesting.  Management can point out the high level of teamwork found in the jail. We know the level of camaraderie found between corrections officers is amongst the highest anywhere. 

2. how to Create Career Advancement Opportunities in corrections

Moreover, jails need to develop a career development strategy for officers. Clearly establish performance tasks needed to advance in rank. Allow officers to specialize in areas of interest. In many instances, corrections officers are not afforded the opportunity to develop a specialization in an area that interests them. 

If a CO wanted to join the cell extraction team, gang unit, training cadre and so on, what would they have to do? Is there a process for this, some sort of test or peer review? Is there even an established team? How do people advance in rank? The way to advance in rank and specialization should be clear and consistent. This allows everyone to have a realistic expectation of what they will get for their efforts. 

If veteran offices can’t take the time to wear a clean, appropriately fitting uniform or maintain good personal hygiene, then what kind of example are they setting? As frontline staff members, are we contributing to the already negative environment by using profanity excessively? 

Management and labor need to realize that being a jail officer is different from patrol. In jails throughout Wisconsin, many people start as a corrections officer and aspire to “transfer” to patrol. They don’t realize it is often not the case. They must reapply and compete for the job like anyone else. 

In many cases, corrections officers do not get paid as much as a patrol officer, have as good of retirement plan, or fringe benefits. The daily tasks a jail officer completes are quite different than those a patrol officer does. Management needs to understand this when developing department-wide policies and procedures. That does not mean we should be held to a low standard, rather a different standard of equal merit. 

Jailers are taught the definition of deadly force and the behaviors that justify deadly force, but we rarely train for it. If we don’t train for it, then even the most tactically sound officer will, at one point, falsely believe their lives are not in danger while at work. This sense of false security leads to a breakdown of safety practices across the board. By training officers how to use deadly force with everyday objects (the same objects and inmate would use to harm or kill us), I truly believe jail officers will become more aware of the dangers they face. We can be honest and admit fewer corrections officers die in the line of duty then patrol officers, but we can’t ignore that it still happens. 

3. how to Gather “Intel” from Departing Employees

Lastly, human resources should make every attempt to conduct an exit interview with anyone separating from the jail. The questions should be provided well in advance to allow the employee leaving ample time to consider the answers. Also, a higher-ranking person within the jail should be invited to attend, with the employee’s permission of course.  

Sheriff’s departments are spending too much time and money on new hires just to have them leave for a different government job. Sheriff’s departments need to take a good look at the dynamics within their counties and in some cases make radical changes to the way they recruit applicants. Moreover, by considering the suggestions above, I believe the departments will begin to see more people choosing to stay for a career spanning 20 years, not 20 months. 

This article, originally published July 19, 2016, has been updated

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