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How to eliminate bullying in corrections and improve staff retention

The success of our colleagues affects areas of our personal and work lives on a daily basis


In this Aug. 17, 2011, file photo, concertina wire and a guard tower are seen at Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

In his poem, Iron Gate, and accompanying discussion questions, author Kevin Smith continues the dialogue about how to create a welcoming and supportive environment for new staff members.

By Kevin Smith

When we think of bullying, most of us picture a schoolyard bully picking on a younger classmate. But bullying doesn’t just happen at school – it also occurs in the workplace.

Corrections is one career that seems to afford a unique outlet for bullying. While bullying can sometimes be the result of personal situations, it is often job-related and directed at newer team members. Staff in this career field are quick to pronounce judgement upon those they feel cannot “cut it.”

While it is understandable that correctional staff want competent co-workers, we often do not give new staff time to adjust to the unique challenges they face in the correctional setting. We forget that each one of us walked through the sliding doors of our workplace for the first time and sat in the dining hall feeling the glare of a hundred offenders as we were “sized up.”

Building survival skills takes time

I’ll address the elephant in the room first. We all know some new staff won’t make it. If you’ve worked in this career field for more than a few years, you have seen new employees “crash and burn.” This is the nature of some careers. I used to work in the steel industry and watched people quit after a day simply because of the environment.

Watch any survival show. People make it days, weeks, or months before giving up. One show I recently watched was filmed in Patagonia over several months in severe conditions. Now, those people could survive. They seriously knew their stuff. They went into the situation with learned survival skills. This show only took the best of the best, and even then, they struggled after the elements became too harsh. My point? Most of us don’t start in the field of corrections with the skills necessary to survive. We have to rely on training and those around us willing to take the steps necessary to show us how to “light a fire with a string and a stick when it’s already raining.”

If you watch those shows, you will find there are people not able to or unwilling to learn and apply the skills necessary to adapt. They will not survive. The environment itself forces them to leave. The correctional setting has a similar elimination process: learn the skills and adapt, or leave.

What is important to consider is whether we give new staff the time needed to adjust to the job environment. New staff come from different backgrounds and career fields. They may not realize corrections is not a good match, or they may just need more time and some help from the rest of us to realize their potential.

Of course, if someone is making critical mistakes, we need to make supervisors aware. That’s the proper route for dealing with new staff who are not learning the skills necessary to survive in this environment. My experience has been that if enough people bring concerns forward about an individual, management will either coach, retrain or dismiss them from employment.

So why should we care if new staff succeed? It is simple. The success of our colleagues affects areas of our personal and work lives on a daily basis. New staff success should be where we focus some of our energies for the following reasons:

1. The hours

Because the turkey is going to get cold while you’re working that double shift on Thanksgiving Day. Let’s face it. Most of us love time off. You want to be with your families on holidays and weekends. There’s nothing more depressing than rolling in from work to see your neighbor backing his fishing boat into his driveway after a Saturday on the lake or arriving at your kid’s soccer game 40 minutes late. If we keep enough new hires around, vacation approvals go up, mandatory overtime hours drop and morale is boosted. Don’t worry. If you’re an overtime freak, which I’ve been, you’ll still get plenty of hours. It’s inevitable in corrections.

2. The numbers

The “Magnificent Seven” still got beat up pretty bad. Extra team members ease the workload. Breaks come faster, inmate counts are easier, and work is distributed between more people. Higher staffing numbers on a shift creates a more secure working environment in corrections, especially during critical incidents. A few extra staff can make a huge difference during a serious situation.

3. The money

States have a financial interest in staff succeeding. Thousands of dollars and hours are invested in training and onboarding new staff members. The number of staff put through the academy affects the overall budget regardless of which institution they are from. This will inevitably impact your institution having resources to purchase newer equipment or make other improvements.

4. It is about image

We’re already beating back against the image of corrections portrayed in shows like “Orange is the New Black” and “Wentworth.” Unfortunately, people love Hollywood drama created by clueless writers. A constant stream of media portrays prisons as violent, out of control, offender-run institutions. Those of us who work on the front lines know we generally have a better handle on things and that a career in corrections can be highly rewarding and meaningful. Contrary to what the public sees on those shows, the wheels aren’t falling off the transport bus every day. We know better. Maintaining staffing levels make this image easier to uphold.

5. It is about eliminating judgment

There may be prior issues of prejudice toward a staff member’s race, gender, age, social status or physical attributes. Sometimes there are pre-conceived ideas of what a successful staff member looks like. In corrections, we work at being experts at reading people, yet with new staff we tend to look at the cover and toss out the book. I’ve seen people who appeared strong, both mentally and physically, fail miserably, while people who at first seemed weak become self-assertive leaders who could be counted on in any situation. You have to give people time for growth on the job. It’s also important to recognize that each person brings their own strengths to the table. Together, those varying strengths become a cumulative force for achieving our goals as a team.

6. It is about avoiding schoolyard politics

Unfortunately, some adults never grow up. Sometimes the issue is a lack of maturity. Johnny’s mad because Freddie wouldn’t play kickball. Penelope’s upset because Alice has prettier hair and Frankie likes her more. We’ve all seen it as adults in the workplace. My initial thought when I see this is, “For God’s sake, just grow up.” We shouldn’t carry our relationship problems from the outside into the workplace, or have them on the inside for that matter, especially when the job is full of criminals who pay attention to every detail. Do we really think inmates won’t notice our relational problems? They notice everything. They’re watching for any angle to use against the system they feel trapped in. Let’s not give them anything else. Keep the cliques off the job!

7. It is what’s right

We all have our own ideas of what’s right or wrong. I’ll tend toward guessing most of us like to see other people succeed. If you actually like watching people fail, well, you should probably admit you need some sort of help yourself. Most staff I know stay in corrections to some degree because they find fulfillment in helping other people. For a lot of us, desiring to see other people succeed is a given quality we have gained from our experience in this career field. We work in an environment that shows us the best and the worst of humankind. It’s easy to allow cynicism to creep into our minds and for us to develop an overall mistrust of everybody. We all work around a mix of seasoned and newer staff. It’s not difficult to find good qualities in those around you. There’s an endless steadfastness to our seasoned officers. They are unstoppable. The professionalism I see in most of our newer officers is a compliment to their generation: loyal, reliable, hardworking, concentrated and determined to be their best.

How to foster an environment of connectivity

So how do we help new staff move past some of the difficulties they may encounter when first starting in corrections? Supervisors, trainers and line staff should foster an environment of connectivity and teamwork. Here are a few ways to accomplish this:

  • If you’re tasked with training a new staff member, remember what it was like being new and be patient in teaching them.
  • Focus on the key aspects of what it takes to accomplish daily tasks in the workplace.
  • Pass on to new staff the tricks and tips that make the workflow easier.
  • The academy and new employee orientations give them certain skills. Ask them how you can help them hone those skills and what aspects of the job they feel they need to develop.
  • In situations where you can task them with most of the responsibilities of the unit you’re working in, do it. Coach them through the entire process, but only as needed. This way, they get an understanding of what it feels like to run a unit on their own.
  • Encourage them to ask questions and reach out to other staff when necessary.
  • While training, watch for areas of weakness with the purpose of strengthening those areas.
  • Training for new employees and long-term staff should include review of policies that cover bullying and harassment and detail the proper channels for reporting those types of situations. These areas are covered yearly in our e-learning process.
  • Our training department also established a mentoring program. New staff are matched with a seasoned staff member who is available to them if they have questions or concerns.

Administration’s role in the process

The administration’s role in this process is to ensure that situations brought to their attention are dealt with properly through the application of policy and procedure. It should be well known that there is an open door for reporting concerns about new staff members. Administrative staff should also work toward creating an environment that is accepting of newer staff.

At our old institution site, most of us would decompress in the parking lot. This allowed people to vent before heading home. For years we had discussed the idea of a staff area outside the fence to facilitate this. When our new institution site was being built, a decompression area was included in the design. It includes built-in grills and sitting areas. It’s available to any shift that wants to have a cookout or hang out there before or after shift. This, along with staff potlucks during holidays and other times, fosters an environment that strengthens the team.

Strive for everyone’s success

At the end of the day I’d like to think I was the person who made a new staff member feel just a little more comfortable about their future in corrections. I inserted myself into the training process in a way that was beneficial to myself, the institution and those we serve. Maybe if we all strive for this, the workload will get easier and we’ll be the one struggling to back that fishing boat into the driveway after a Saturday on the lake.

About the author
Kevin Smith has worked as a correctional officer for the State of Iowa for the past 19 years.