Shifting the training narrative to promote correctional officer proficiency
Professional and personal development is critical in all industries, but in corrections, it has the power to save lives and enhance safety for all
By Paul Baze, MPA, CJM, CCT, NJLCA
Why does the corrections industry hate training so much?
Let’s think about it. Unless training comes with engaging experiences and useful takeaways, it may not be making an impact.
For corrections officers, it’s important to act like a sponge and grow with the industry, but for that to happen, they must go back to the inspiration and purpose that brought them to the role in the first place. Professional and personal development is critical in all industries, but in corrections, it has the power to save lives and enhance safety for all.
Everyone has a different reaction when they hear the word “training.” Phrases like “voluntold” or “mandatory training” were created because leaders understood that not everyone values education enough to dedicate the additional time that could be spent completing other mandatory tasks. But here lays the question: Why do corrections officers hate going to training? Isn’t development a good thing?
It starts with how officers were introduced to training in the first place or lack thereof. Most correctional officers have received some level of basic corrections training. Every department offers a basic level of in-house training that meets requirements for ongoing education credits such as mental health awareness, sexual harassment prevention, CPR, defensive tactics, firearms and corrections license proficiency.
Unfortunately, this “basic training” is highly unregulated throughout the United States. For example, there are only a few states – Texas, California and Nevada to name a few – that have license-requirement training available based on state organizations that issue a license to enforce laws.
In other cases, regimented training programs don’t allow new staff to have inmate contact until the training academy is followed by a facility training program (FTO) that includes some phase review and yearly training requirements to maintain certification. To make matters worse, not all local facilities can provide a highly regulated training program most often because of staffing and funding. Of course, there are training programs that are formalized and shiny, but that is the exception and not the general rule.
Officers all over the country receive various levels of initial training to become good officers. Because training varies so much by state, proficiency can vary, which doesn’t sit right with everyone as some officers excel and others feel trapped by what seems like ineffective training.
Training programs and state mandates are out of the control of those who are impacted, so what can we do as an industry to equal the playing field? We improvise. We find areas to better ourselves and expand our knowledge. While these training classes are informative to maintain perishable skills, they don’t expand one’s knowledge to being a better officer, supervisor, instructor, or specialist. That’s where we must step out of our comfort zones.
Changing the training narrative
The approach of announcing a training session needs to be strategic. Think about it – officers are typically informed about a 4-hour training block right after they just finished a 12-hour shift and are exhausted. It makes sense why they hate it. As corrections officers working firsthand, it makes sense that they would learn best from real-world experience. Instructors can change the training dynamic by avoiding repetitive PowerPoints and war stories and instead leveraging interactive conversations and activities. For example, role-play scenarios and creative problem-solving will engage students and encourage them to get outside of their comfort zone to learn.
The corrections industry is not immune to hypocrisy. Officers may hate training one day but may complain about not receiving enough the next. The formality that comes with typical mandatory training has turned off younger officers who joined the industry because they didn’t want to sit in front of a presentation all day. Shifting training to be informal and less conventional outside of the classroom still works and provides officers with options that fit every learning style.
Self-directed vs. instructor-led learning
Training beyond instructor-led learning allows officers to move at their own pace and prioritize topics that interest them the most. Suppose officers feel more comfortable learning with educational videos for example. In that case, they can watch them by themselves and then bring their learnings back to the classroom for discussion and role play. When officers can control even a part of their own training, they feel empowered and motivated to take ownership of their success and improvement.
Outside of the classroom training can be considered “self-directed” as it is based on participation and personal knowledge. Officers can begin by critically evaluating situations and determining where they have room to develop. At this point, they are already building knowledge outside of the classroom. While informal learning can teach imperative lessons, officers need to keep in mind that there isn’t a certificate issued or “seat hours” allocated. However, the information they gain will be vastly different from the typical lesson they receive in the classroom. Being experienced in different situations inside and outside the classroom will help them become stronger and more confident officers. It also gives them a leg up compared to fellow officers unwilling to invest their time in personal development.
It’s important for officers to remember that while training may seem daunting, it could save their life someday. If they go about training with a poor attitude, then the training will be disappointing. Training, no matter what kind, will help them grow into amazing officers, and mentors if it’s tailored to their learning style. Think about what Martha Stewart said, “If you learn something new every day, you can teach something new every day.”
Where to start?
If an agency will not sponsor officer training and they want to be the best of the best, it is worth the cost, especially for tactical and defense training. Free training is also an option, but it’s typically online and rarely in person.
If an officer is considering investing in training, the Correctional Management Institute of Texas offers a variety of top-tier paid and free classes. The National Institute for Jail Operations offers courses that focus on legal policy and procedure in corrections, which is a helpful resource for anyone looking to dive deeper into that area.
For a nontraditional approach, joining a professional association often comes with educational resources and mentorship connections. The American Correctional Association and the American Jail Association are valuable options that also provide avenues to becoming certified across a variety of correctional positions.
Regardless of how an officer best responds to training, it’s important that they become a student of their own profession and embrace the variety of industry resources that can be adjusted to meet their own professional development needs.
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