How ‘shiftism’ in corrections creates disorder and unsafe conditions
You should be working to avoid “us vs them” with other staff in your facility
There’s nothing quite like Nightshift coffee. By shift change, the carafe has been sitting on a hot plate for the past five hours and developed a crust of unmistakable burn I can normally smell from a secure hallway as I approach the booking area.
Officer Smith from Dayshift will come in, dump the old coffee and shake her head, thinking, “These trolls on Nightshift.” With a bit of resentment toward Nightshift, Smith will start a new pot of coffee for her oncoming team.
While Smith is making fresh coffee in the break room, Nightshift will be closing down and preparing to brief the oncoming shift. Officer James will joke, “No one is here from Dayshift. We might be staying for a double.” James’ partner will say, “You know they’re not going to be here until five minutes before shift change.” This will be said with a blend of resignation and frustration.
The complaint reflects a point of difference between “us” and “them,” or how one shift sees another shift. Both may think, “We work harder, do things better and care about the job more. They just saunter in without enough time for a proper briefing and think they are better than us.” The complaints can expand into file audits, where staff look for mistakes from other shifts, armchair quarterbacking another shift’s critical incident reports and, at worst, staff complaining about other staff in front of or to inmates, then siding with inmates in matters of discipline and policy.
Us vs. them
Shift complaints against other shifts underscore an all-too-familiar issue in the world of corrections: Shiftism.
Shiftism, though seldom named, is the cultural and operational rift that exists between different shifts in a corrections facility. What this causes was well described by my corrections academy instructor some two decades ago.
The instructor directed students to share with the class how many corrections facilities their agency operated. When we were done, the instructor announced we were all wrong. Satisfied with the puzzled attention he got from his students, the instructor went on to ask one student how many shifts the student’s jail operated. The student offered up four shifts: nights, days, front half of the week and the back half. “So, you have four jails,” the instructor prepped his gotcha moment, “One for each shift and the inmates know it!”
Inmates not only know how many different jails you are operating within your facility, but they are also quick to take advantage of any disparities between shifts, often to the detriment of facility order and staff safety.
Inmates take advantage of shiftism
Each shift at a corrections facility can inadvertently run its own version of that facility, with unique rhythms and unwritten codes. From the casual observer’s standpoint, the difference might seem trivial. Still, for those within the system, these variations are stark, shaping everything from officer-inmate interactions to the enforcement of regulations. Inconsistency is a breeding ground for disorder.
Inmates have a lot of time on their hands to observe facility staff. They become astute observers of staff variances. They learn quickly which shift might be more lenient or which officers are sticklers for the rules. They also know how easily divisions will start and grow between shifts. This knowledge can become a currency within the walls, traded and exploited to gain favors or challenge authority. Inmates will test the waters with every shift, knowing that what’s forbidden on one might slide on another. This is why they will call up your control officer and ask who the supervisor is and who is running their unit. Inconsistency will also confuse new officers and erode the overall authority of jail staff.
Resentment is another byproduct of shiftism. When officers believe the next shift isn’t pulling their weight or respecting the efforts of the previous team, it can create an “us versus them” mentality. Such divisions within the ranks only serve to weaken the collective resolve necessary to maintain control of a facility. Again, inmates will notice resentment between corrections staff members, even if it is not verbally expressed.
Perhaps most alarmingly, shiftism introduces security risks. Varied approaches to routine checks, inmate supervision and crisis response can create opportunities for incidents that threaten the safety of both staff and inmates.
Addressing a lack of cohesion
Tackling shiftism requires a multi-faceted approach.
Standardizing protocols is a start; clear, written policies that apply regardless of the time of day can help ensure a uniform approach to enforcement. But writing policies alone isn’t enough — they must be lived and breathed by every member of the staff, along with shared values within your agency.
Improving shift handovers is another critical step. This could mean mandating shift overlaps where outgoing and incoming officers have enough time to exchange vital information without working for free.
But perhaps the keystone to bridging the gap between shifts is training and team building. Regular, integrated training sessions can foster a sense of unity and shared purpose. When officers train together, they begin to understand and respect each other’s roles and challenges, which can reduce the “us vs. them” mentality that fuels shiftism. Simply put, people tend to have more empathy for those they have spent time with.
Leadership also plays a pivotal role in combating shiftism. It’s up to command staff to set the tone and hold all staff accountable to the same standard, starting with first-line supervisors. This means being vigilant about cultural divides and addressing them head-on — through policy, training, or direct intervention. Divisions between shifts rarely begin without a supervisor’s instigation or ignorance of the issue.
As a supervisor, if you hear complaints from your staff about another shift, pay attention and make sure you communicate with other supervisors about the issue. If a corrections staffer on training or still on probation is vocalizing complaints about other shifts, your problem will need to be addressed sooner because s/he is picking up on an ingrained shift behavior and learning early that complaining about another shift is allowed and encouraged.
The next chance you get, try making a fresh pot of coffee before the end of your shift. Do this for the upcoming shift. If you and your partner are about to take over booking and an incident breaks out, take the keys early for the shift you are about to relieve, so they don’t have to stay late and write reports. Do not forget what it’s like to work a different shift and what the unique challenges were for you. Bring your Blackstone on a day off and feed another shift some breakfast. Remember, “Same uniform, same patch, same team.”
Most importantly, if you have an issue with someone on another shift, give them the respect to have a conversation instead of complaining about them behind their backs. In the case of your relief coming in at the last minute, tell them how it affects your ability to give them a solid briefing. Tell them you want to make sure they know what’s happening. Express what’s important to you as related to agency missions and you will likely find there is common ground.
Finally, keep in mind the judgment you pass on staffers in another shift is likely being passed right back. If you take steps to show understanding and cooperation between shifts, you will get the same back and avoid the pitfalls of shiftism.
Questions to ask
After reading the article on shiftism in corrections facilities, corrections officers should consider asking the following questions to reflect on the content and apply its insights:
1. How does shiftism impact the safety and security of our facility, and what are some specific examples of incidents that could arise from this division?
2. What steps can we take to standardize protocols across all shifts to ensure a uniform approach to enforcement and reduce inconsistencies?
3. In what ways can we improve shift handovers to facilitate better communication and information exchange between shifts?
4. How can regular, integrated training sessions help bridge the gap between shifts and reduce the ‘us vs. them’ mentality?
5. What role does leadership play in combating shiftism, and how can supervisors and command staff actively work to address and prevent these divisions?
These questions are designed to spark thoughtful discussion and encourage corrections officers to consider actionable steps to address and overcome the challenges posed by shiftism within their facility.