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3 words that will improve correctional facility operations

The first step to becoming an effective member of any team is to consider the big picture


Corrections Officer Tracy Donovan writes in a clip board as she walks past rows of beds at a new facility at the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln, Neb., Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017.

AP Photo/Nati Harnik

You are a corrections deputy running the floor. Commissary comes through after lunch. Your focus then will be on making sure the inmates get their care packages, chips, candy and shampoo. The nurse needs to see a laundry list of special housing inmates, maintenance still has to fix that main door into B-Pod and your partner called in sick today. You better hit the floor running and keep everything moving. Every hiccup and roadblock is a challenge to your overriding mission of safety and security. This is a jail.

Help from the booking deputies is non-existent. Do they even know what you are dealing with today? Control seems to be running molasses slow. You find yourself standing at doors, itching to call the operator out on your radio. You wonder, what is taking so long?

It is time to let a group of inmates out to use the day room, but Classification walks in to conduct an interview. The classification officer explains she is behind on this interview, so it has to be done right now. You will have to let the group out later, maybe after lunch. The nurse shows up with the list. “How many can we get done before lunch?” she asks.

You are experiencing competing mission objective overload. In your eyes, at this moment, you are juggling the most pressing issues unfolding in the jail. Can’t everyone see the challenges you are facing? Where is the help? Who is paying attention? Why can’t I get some assistance in here?

Your break comes and you are sent off for a few quiet moments. First stop? Control, to tell him he needs to start paying attention! You get up to the tower, loaded with demands and questions. The control board operator is breaking a sweat. It looks like he is playing the piano. Bells are going off from every corner of the jail. Half his monitors have shut down and his phone is ringing. He looks at you with relief. “I need some help here,” he says.

The horse race

We often work with blinders on, focused on our own set of tasks. We perceive the importance of these tasks based on our own connection to the outcomes. How many times have you become irritated with a fellow team member for failing to recognize how busy you are with an imperative mission? How many times have you failed to recognize a team member who is just as dedicated and focused on her own mission for that day? Take off the blinders.

The first step to becoming an effective member of any team is to consider the big picture while you push forward in your own microcosm. This is how leaders view operations. Big-picture thinking makes you a better candidate for promotion.

Every correctional facility operation involves a series of events and situations with varying levels of pressure and competing interests.

At this moment, it will be a fight in your housing unit. In a half-hour, it will be a flood down the hall. Sometimes we need to reallocate ourselves to help address “someone else’s” problem. After all, is any problem in your jail REALLY someone else’s problem? Jump in!

‘I’ll get that’

My favorite words to hear on shift are, I’ll get that.” This means a deputy is juggling tasks. A second deputy with blinders off observes the need for help. The second deputy actively changes course, and in he jumps. Does your jail have an “I’ll get that” culture? Shifting to a culture of team service will pay dividends down the road.

Try it for one week. You will have to be on your game. Focus on maintaining enough efficiency in your own work by avoiding unnecessary distractions and moving from one task to another with less break time in between those tasks. Make it your goal to set aside time for others. Do not expect anything in return. Just jump in when you see a need. Others will follow.

From an outside observer’s perspective, including inmates, it is harder to divide and conquer when correctional officers work as a team. As you know, many inmates try to play psychological games with staff. Have you ever had an inmate tell you that you are the hardest working deputy in the jail, then slip in that it seems you never get any help? The inmate is trying to separate you from the team. This won’t work in a healthy “I’ll get that” culture.

What about ‘that guy’

What do you do with a team member who does not serve the team? You may have one officer who asks for help much more than he offers it. He may suffer from chronic self-doubt, marginal motivation and regular browbeating. Most likely, everyone in your well-oiled machine has given up on him. Throw him a lifeline. Ask for help.

Helpers feel needed and important. The psychological benefits of giving and helping are well documented. Teammates who fail to participate may just need to be reminded how good it feels to be needed. More important, that teammate is more vulnerable to inmate games if they feel shunned. Look for opportunities to bring teammates who resist positive change back into the fold.

Who serves whom?

Let’s take the service concept one step further. Control and tower operators generally serve everyone else in the facility. How could a movement deputy serve the control operator? What can the nurse do to facilitate smoother movement of inmates to the medical room?

The movement deputy can chose the most direct paths, when possible, while moving inmates. Anyone being served by the control operator should be aware of how many movements may be occurring at one time and be patient. The nurse can make inmate movement lists grouped by housing unit with updated and clearly listed housing assignments. A housing deputy can serve booking staff by filling out sobering cell observation logs on the way through Booking. You’re already there.

It is critical to mark information on your paperwork, as that information will serve anyone who has to read your reports. We write clear, concise and complete reports to better serve whoever needs to make information-based decisions tomorrow, next week or months down the road.

When you consider who your work could affect one, two or three steps down the line, you become a better servant to your teammates. Even the most seemingly mundane tasks take on more significance when we all stop to consider whom the tasks serve. We are in the service business. We succeed in serving the public. We do great in serving our mission. When was the last time you set aside your own set of tasks for just a moment to throw someone a lifeline? When was the last time you served your team?

Zohar Zaied is a background investigator assigned to the Corrections Division at the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California. He served 16 years as a deputy and supervisor at the Mendocino County Jail, including a post in the Gangs and Classification unit and the Home Detention and Work Release programs. His book, “The Corrections Toolbox,” is now available on