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Tips for corrections training: Keep it interesting, keep it relevant

With facilities constantly short-staffed, today’s corrections training requires innovative scheduling, methods and platforms for success

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Corrections professionals across the board not only need to be trained, but most also want to be trained.

Commission on Correctional Peace Officer Standards and Training (CPOST)

Trainers walk into the classroom … and see empty seats. When they inquire as to why, the most common answer is, “The agencies are short.”

When corrections facilities are short-staffed, staff members miss training, required hours are not met and corrections training is hindered.

Trainers have to scramble to keep training going in times of short-staffing, also accounting for staff fatigue. Even if personnel get to a classroom, seminar or webinar, instructors ask: “Are they tired? Will they focus? Can I present the material in a way that will encourage attendees to pay attention?”

There are no easy answers to these questions. And though we have all heard the phrase, “Think outside the box,” in correctional training, it must actually be applied.

In addition to maintaining public safety while being short-staffed, corrections agencies also face the challenge of conducting ongoing staff development through training. Training involves more than developing objectives and lesson plans. It requires innovation to get the best results in short-staffed facilities. Innovative techniques in platform training, PowerPoint development, webinars and online presentations can be a game-changer in fulfilling these important missions.

Types of training

In corrections, there are several types of training. In all of them, the key elements include competent trainers using effective methods of presentation. In all classes and on all topics, the best people should be putting their best efforts forward.

  • Basic training: Commonly called recruit training or “rookie” training, basic training involves the recruit going through a course at a training academy. First, state and federal agencies determine the number of hours the training should last. Then, training academies design and schedule the training course. New officers must attend and pass the course. Academy staff teach job skills, using practical exercises to develop proficiency. Through this type of training, trainees become familiar with agency protocols and develop an idea about the culture of corrections and the nature of the work. Basic training is followed up by on-the-job training, where the academy graduate is assigned to a field training officer (FTO) for a period of time. FTOs determine whether new officers are proficient enough to work on their own.
  • In-service training: In-service training is a way for active corrections personnel to enhance skills as well as meet the required hours for certification. In recruit academies, new recruits understand that if they fail, they are terminated (or, in some cases, recycled). In-service training requires attendance and if corrections officers (COs) miss in-service training, they can be suspended. Generally, there is no “pass or fail” in an in-service course. Also, in-service training includes educating auxiliary and/or civilian staff such as laundry and food service, programs, medical, mental health and volunteer workers. These staff members receive orientations when hired, but should also improve and update their skills and knowledge through in-service training.
  • Specialty training: This training is for special assignments and skills, including supervision and leadership, firearms qualification, firearms instruction, general instruction, defensive tactics, emergency response teams, first responder roles, using emergency equipment and crisis intervention. Officers learn specific skills and must pass the course to qualify for new roles and duties. For example, in crisis intervention training they learn ways to safely manage offenders with mental health issues. Other specialized training also includes the use of equipment such as TASER devices, expandable batons, pepper spray, emergency vehicles and restraint chairs. Situation-based training can focus on de-escalating violent situations and responding to serious violent incidents and riots. Other topics include peer support training.

As the field of corrections expands and more ways to manage the custody of offenders are introduced, more training is needed. As new research about offenders becomes available, trainers must adapt their curricula. The same goes for new equipment and technology. In addition, trainers must keep up with newly developed ways to present training to spark learning. If they can make training innovative and refreshing, using the most modern pedagogical methods, they’ll be doing their part to help to retain officers and build a legacy for the future.

The challenges of corrections training

Being a corrections trainer involves several interrelated challenges. Training sessions do not magically come to life. Good training requires scheduling, research, overcoming negative attitudes and developing effective presentation skills. Let us take a look at how these impact training:

  1. Scheduling: The first priorities of any correctional facility are security and safety. To be successful, facilities (both adult and juvenile) must have sufficient staff. The same is true for community corrections and supervision. There must be sufficient numbers of correctional officers, juvenile detention personnel, work release officers, and probation/parole officers to maintain caseloads, perform field visits, supervise offenders in housing and work areas, maintain order and prevent violence and escape. Special populations, including LGTBQ and elderly offenders, females, substance abusers, and those with mental or physical disabilities, require staff to be scheduled and trained to manage them.

    Scheduling is directly affected by short-staffing. Corrections needs people — good people — to be trained and retained. According to researchers, the incarcerated population has increased by roughly 500% over the past 40 years. The corrections workforce has experienced high staff turnover; most officers have less than five years of work experience. In some state institutions, annual officer turnover has reached 55%.

    For example, in one Illinois high-security facility, an estimated 20 officers are “augmented” each day by assigning non-custody employees to custody assignments. Many officers in this facility work over 60 hours of overtime per week. Veterans may recall the phrases “warm body on a post,” or “all hands on deck.” When agencies are that desperate, training is affected. Staff may not be able to be released from duty for training, or augmented personnel may receive minimal training in their unfamiliar duties.

  2. Attitude: Employees at short-staffed facilities may be stressed out due to short-staffing. It is bad enough that they are called in for overtime or held over after rough shifts. They may enter a training session physically and emotionally fatigued, wishing they could be anywhere else. Or, if they are probation/parole officers or supervisors, they may be thinking of the evaluations they have to write, the interviews they have to conduct, or the field visits coming up. They may be longing for a day off, and they are sitting in a training class. Some may be veterans with “know-it-all” attitudes, with the less-than-helpful perspective of, “I have been doing this for a lot of years, and this is a waste of time.”
  3. Information: Experienced trainers are well aware of both scheduling conflicts and the know-it-all attitudes of certain staff members. With that said, they must present the information in the best way possible to hold interest and facilitate learning.

    One important part of ensuring that corrections training accomplishes its intended goals is the use of effective research methods. Two great sources for research studies on corrections topics include Lexipol and the National Institute of Justice. Other organizations, such as the American Correctional Association (ACA), the American Jail Association (AJA), the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), also provide resources and publications germane to corrections training. Another organization I highly recommend for trainers is the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel, or IACTP. IACTP is an organization of correctional trainers dedicated to the enhancement of correctional training. Through IACTP and other organizations, trainers can find out what other agencies are doing, either through online research, contacting other agencies, or by networking at training classes or conferences. The critical point is that the data, studies, laws, court cases and so on that form the basis of the training must be current.

    Creativity is also important in training. Being creative means bringing in new viewpoints and experiences into the training environment. If you are planning a training course, you might decide to bring in a co-presenter or guest speaker.

    For example, several years ago I was presenting an in-service class on jail special populations for a criminal justice training academy in Virginia. My co-presenter was a mental health professional who had worked with me when I was classification director at the Fairfax County Office of the Sheriff. We spent a lot of time developing the lesson plan, which included identifying offenders with mental health issues and how to safely manage and interact with them. The local chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness contacted the academy and asked if they could be of service. They sent us three people with mental illness, each of whom were under the care of mental health professionals, taking medication and undergoing treatment. My co-presenter talked to each of them, and we brought them in to speak to the trainees about their experiences.

    One of our guests told of her depression, suicidal thoughts and self-destructive behavior. She told us about standing on a bridge, wanting to jump into the water and die. Two police officers approached her and talked her down. The volunteer speaker described how these first responders acted, what they said, and how they convinced her to come down off the bridge. I took careful notes and incorporated her story into my classes on preventing jail suicide and managing special populations.

  4. Venues: Traditionally, corrections training was limited to the classroom, but that is changing. Trainers must be creative, and thanks to today’s technologies, they can be. Another way to enhance lesson plans is by using online news stories — especially if they include video. Webinars through Zoom and GoTo Meeting can allow more corrections staff to attend and obtain their training hours. As a relatively “old school training” trainer, I still find it amazing that I can hold a Zoom class from my home office in Virginia that is attended by corrections professionals from all across the globe.

    Another alternative is online courses. The key is to keep the content flowing and use good visuals, such as photos, graphs, charts and videos. Personally, I like to make up “game shows” and use quizzes — with questions based on actual events in corrections. I divide classes into teams that compete against each other. Other effective methods include asking survey questions, using chat rooms in webinars, and tapping into the experiences of the veterans. These are the sparks that can ignite the learning process and may draw in even those who really do not want to be there.

    Here is the bottom line: If trainers cannot get staff members to the classroom, the classroom can come to the trainers. Roll call training can be done in 10- to 15-minute increments, talking about a news event or analyzing something that happened in the facility.

Parting advice

Corrections professionals across the board not only need to be trained, but most also want to be trained. In my “training travels,” I have found that if I, as a trainer, put a lot of effort into my presentation, provide knowledge and data that can enhance skills, and make the class interesting, several things will result. First, my students will come up with interesting questions and discussions, right up to quitting time. Second, attendees may even remain after the class to both compliment me and ask about getting additional information. And finally, they may ask what other classes I teach — and where and when they will be held. I always tell classes that they enter the training session with a set of skills in their professional toolboxes — and hopefully leave with more tools in that toolbox.

Be innovative. Short staffing is not going away any time soon. Attitudes can change. Different venues can keep training lively. These are challenges, but with imagination, corrections training can be worthwhile and effective. Taking the time to make it count will benefit the agency, the staff and overall public safety.

References

1. Seiter R. Correctional Administration: Integrating Theory and Practice, Second Edition. Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ, 146-154, 2012.

2. LeMasters K, Maner M, Peterson M, et al. Staff shortages in prisons and jails highlight opportunities for decarceration. Health Affairs, January 21, 2022. Accessed 1/9/24 from https://www.healthaffairs.org/content/forefront/staff-shortages-prisons-and-jails-highlight-opportunities-decarceration

3. Augmentation: When federal prisons use nurses and cooks as guards. Correctional News, February 20, 2018. Accessed 1/9/24 from https://correctionalnews.com/2018/02/20/augmentation-bop/

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs, planning/ policy and classification.