The forgotten staff: Training civilians and volunteers in corrections

If civilians do not have good training, the security network of the institution suffers


When we imagine the people who staff our correctional facilities, our minds probably jump to sworn correctional officers.

But similar to military bases and police administration buildings, civilians and nonsworn staff play important roles inside jails, prisons, work release centers and juvenile detention centers. Some civilian correctional staff are paid, while some volunteer their services.

Many civilian correctional staff members interact with the inmates. This naturally brings up the issue of their training.

Correctional facilities depend on the work of civilians. They are good for the agency and good for the inmates.
Correctional facilities depend on the work of civilians. They are good for the agency and good for the inmates. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Sworn correctional officers receive training that emphasizes the risks of working with inmates and strategies for keeping themselves, the inmates and the facility safe.

While we can’t expect to provide the same level of training to all civilian correctional staff, ensuring they are trained in key areas is critical. If civilians do not have good training, the security network of the institution suffers.

The Importance of Civilian Correctional Staff

Veteran correctional officers understand that sworn staff can’t provide all the services required in a jail. Correctional agencies work on budgets, including pay scales. Many facilities focus the duties of sworn correctional officers on security and public safety and use civilians to perform supportive duties. These include:

  • Maintenance

  • Medical and dental services
  • Mental health services
  • Programs: religious, education, substance abuse, vocational
  • Information technology
  • Administrative: booking, inmate records
  • Laundry
  • Food service and delivery

In addition, many jails use volunteers for mentoring programs, assisting the chaplain, academic tutoring, job training and more. While volunteers are not paid, most of the above civilian staff are contracted with the corrections agencies through a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) or another type of contract.

As corrections expands in both knowledge and operations, some civilians working inside the jail may be student and faculty researchers and interns from nearby colleges and universities. The data they obtain is used to write policies, procedures and correctional standards.

Having civilians working in jails provides two additional benefits. First, civilians in programs such as rehabilitation, religion, education and mentoring provide a positive influence on the inmate population. The civilians can serve as good listeners and offer hope and encouragement. Many inmates thus look forward to civilian-led programs and use them to make positive changes in their lives.

Second, civilians working inside correctional facilities, especially in programs, are good for the public image of the agency. For example, news media coverage of a job fair organized by an agency that helps offenders find jobs can illustrate that jails, prisons and juvenile detention facilities are staffed by good people who keep the public and inmates safe and try to help inmates make positive changes in their lives. After all, one of the goals of corrections is to help inmates reintegrate to society-as law-abiding citizens with the knowledge and skills needed to live responsibly and productively.

Civilian Correctional Staff and Security

No correctional officer expects a civilian to take the place of the sworn staff. The sworn staff searches for contraband, controls disruptive inmates, looks for contraband, works to keep inmates and staff safe, and combats escape attempts. Much of the job requires careful observation. Correctional officers are trained, for example, to look for signs of suicidal behavior in inmates and for physical breaches in security. Sworn staff are always on the lookout for security problems, malfunctioning equipment, contraband and unusual inmate and staff behavior.

But let’s be honest – correctional officers and cameras cannot be everywhere. Civilian correctional staff can extend the sworn staff’s eyes and ears, providing insight into what is going on inside inmate living and working areas. Inmates may feel more comfortable speaking with civilians, including volunteers, than with sworn staff members.

A quick example: A jail deputy sheriff (now retired) was assigned to supervise the jail’s programs unit. The jail’s rated capacity was 1,260 inmates. The deputy sheriff supervised mostly civilians, working for five different agencies under MOAs, plus outside instructors for vocational programs, and a local university. This totaled seven groups, six of which sponsored volunteers, for a total of around 300 civilians.

On two occasions, volunteers told the programs director about inmates who exhibited signs of suicidal behavior. Female inmates in a volunteer’s program informed her about an inmate who was sad about her situation and was suspected of hoarding her medications. Mental health and jail deputies intervened; the “stash” was found, and a life was saved. In another incident, a volunteer informed the programs director an inmate was despondent and was asking to see his mother and a priest. Once again, mental health professionals and deputies were able to intervene.

Other details inmates may share with civilian correctional staff include being the victim of harassment, physical assault or sexual assault, and overhearing plans to smuggle contraband, take a hostage or escape.

But what makes inmates more likely to confide in civilian staff is also an inherent vulnerability without the appropriate training. Inmates frequently flirt with program staff and may be bolder in asking for favors such as requests for unauthorized items (contraband), relaying messages to other inmates and people (friends and family) on the outside, and intervention in court proceedings, especially sentencing. If civilian correctional staff aren’t properly trained on recognizing, resisting and reporting these behaviors, the safety and security of the facility can be jeopardized.

When civilians breach security, the results are damaging – and embarrassing. Most corrections professionals can recall the 2015 escape from the Clinton (NY) Correctional Facility. Two convicted murderers, doing life without parole, escaped with the help of a civilian seamstress employee and an unethical correctional officer. The subsequent investigation documented failures involving 20 correctional employees, both civilian and sworn, as well as issues with the facility’s civilian employee training program. As a result of the investigation, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision agreed to require civilian employees to complete appropriate academy-based training prior to assuming their duties, including training focused on dealing with inmates, and to complete annual training thereafter.

A few other examples:

  • In 2015, two food workers in a Midwest U.S. jail were involved in security breaches. One pleaded guilty to smuggling drugs into the jail on three occasions. Another was charged with second-degree criminal sexual conduct with an inmate.
  • In 2015, a sheriff’s department drug detection K-9 alerted deputies to a car parked in the jail parking lot. When the vehicle was searched, deputies found methamphetamine, tobacco, marijuana, rolling papers, Saran wrap and cigarette lighters. he car’s owner, a 33-year-old jail nurse, was charged with contraband smuggling and drug charges.
  • In 2007, at a Pennsylvania jail, a kitchen worker and five correctional officers were charged with sexual contact with inmates over a two-year period.

Effective Training for Civilian Correctional Staff: The BEST Approach

Clearly, civilians are an essential part of the jail. Equally obvious, we need to ensure they are properly trained so their presence doesn’t create security risks. I’ve developed an acronym to make it easy to remember the critical areas for civilian training: the BEST approach.

B is for boundaries 

Civilians must realize they, along with sworn staff, have what inmates want—and it is not necessarily drugs, cell phones or weapons. It is access to the outside. Inmates will use the “slick” approach to prey on civilians they target. Any training program for civilians must discuss boundaries issues.

Inmates will try to manipulate staff who bend the rules, criticize the institution, are too sympathetic and talk too much about their private lives. If the inmates find out a programs counselor is getting a divorce, they will use that information to feign a romantic interest to “fight the loneliness.” If a kitchen worker complains to inmates he cannot pay his bills on his salary, inmate workers will try to convince him to bring some drugs in – for a nice cash fee.

Training staff must make it clear to all civilian correctional staff that professional boundary lines must not be crossed. The two best words to guard against the inmate manipulator are “shut up.” In other words, do not talk so much, and do not tell inmates about your personal lives. Rules are important. The veteran jail programs director mentioned in this article used volunteers to run the jail’s Alcoholics Anonymous programs for male and female inmates. The volunteers would say to inmates at the beginning of their sessions: “You know the rules; I know the rules. Please do not ask me to break them.”

E is for education

Ask yourselves – are you rushing through a civilian orientation about working inside and interacting with inmates, or are you providing thorough training? An ideal civilian training session should be at least 8 hours and include sworn staff who explain the duties of correctional officers and the reasons for them, including what inmate classification accomplishes. Tours should include stopping at a correctional officer post for an explanation.

Civilian correctional staff training should include an explanation of the dangers and consequences of smuggling contraband and not following the rules (including criminal charges). Discuss the fact that many inmates are used to a lifestyle of not conforming to the rules and laws of society and that just because they are incarcerated doesn’t mean they will follow rules.

Also, ensure civilian staff are properly vetted. Are they workers of good standing with their agencies or are they being “dumped” into the facility by management? Are supervisors ensuring, through good communications with outside agencies, the facility is not getting a “problem employee”?

Topics in a civilian training session should include, but not be limited to:

  • Basics: What the facility is and what it does
  • Duties of sworn staff, including classification
  • Familiarization: In-depth tour
  • Basic security policies and procedures, including emergencies
  • Interpersonal communications: inmates and staff
  • Inmate manipulation, maintaining boundaries
  • Inmate subculture and lifestyle
  • Rules and rescinding entry privileges for violating them

Training must be mandatory. If a volunteer misses a training session, especially the first orientation, they should not be allowed to work in the facility until they complete training. In one jail, the programs staff revised the civilian and volunteer training and required completion for all staff. When a 12-year volunteer refused to attend, the programs director thanked him for his years of service and asked for his entry badge. Needless to say, he went through the training.

S is for situational awareness

Does your civilian training talk about situational awareness and the need for rules and security practices? It should be made clear that working inside a correctional facility is not like a regular workplace. Civilians must have a grasp of the correctional environment. Volunteers should realize that volunteering to teach reading inside a correctional facility is not the same as tutoring at the local high school, community center or library. Civilians should know what to do in cases of emergencies, such as a missing inmate, escape, riot, disturbance, fire, power outage or weather emergency. All civilians should be always aware of where they are and who they are interacting with.

T is for two-way communications

Security and safety inside a correctional facility is dependent on staff talking to each other. Civilians and sworn officers should feel comfortable around each other. Civilians should be able to relay information about what inmates tell them and what they see. In addition, correctional officers should go into the areas where civilians work, including programs, the kitchen laundry, so inmates don’t get too comfortable with civilian staff. This allows civilians to feel safe and to know that the officers “have their back.”

Sometimes, sworn correctional officers view programs staff and volunteers as “bleeding hearts” or “too soft.” Senior staff must address such misconceptions right away because they will hamper civilian/sworn staff communications, which can in turn impact security. If a post correctional officer speaks condescendingly to a civilian, that civilian will most likely hesitate to approach officers with information or concerns.

An Essential Resource

Correctional facilities depend on the work of civilians. They are good for the agency and good for the inmates. But too often they are "the forgotten staff" – left to navigate complex interactions with inmates without proper training. Correctional leaders must ensure civilians and volunteers are informed, trained and properly supervised.

One final thing to remember? Always thank civilian correctional staff for their time, dedication and service!

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