Involve staff to make policies and procedures real

Written policies and procedures are a very important element of an effective correctional operation. Policies and procedures are management’s formal method for communicating to staff members what they are expected to do and how to do it. Policies are also very important in regard to liability risk management, in the sense that they are management’s way of demonstrating that practices in the facility meet prevailing legal and professional standards.

But policies and procedures ought to be living, breathing documents that reflect reality to the greatest possible extent. For policies and procedures to most effectively meet both of the above objectives — serving as a management tool to direct staff in the performance of their duties and serving as a liability risk management tool — corrections managers should strive to realize two key goals: (1) staff members should buy into and support the policies as much as possible so that they will be more likely to follow them, and (2) there should be maximum congruence between what the written policies say and what actually happens in the facility, on a day-to-day basis. The best way to realize these two key goals is for management to proactively involve staff members, including line officers and supervisors, in the overall policies and procedures development process.

The second of the above goals is very important. If policies and procedures on a particular issue say one thing but what actually happens in regard to that issue is different than what the policies say, that can be a big problem in the event of a lawsuit. It makes it easier for plaintiffs’ attorneys to show that jail or prison officials were negligent, or even deliberately indifferent in directing staff members in the performance of their professional duties. Also, it makes it more difficult for defense attorneys to show that jail or prison officials are competent and are doing the right thing.

Specifically, if there is not congruence between what policies say and what actually happens in a facility, then the lawyers for both sides must focus on "actual practices" as the standard for proper action. Usually, that scenario is good for plaintiffs’ attorneys and not so good for defense attorneys because there is usually inconsistency between the ways that different staff members at an institution, or even staff members on different shifts, do things if they are not adhering to uniform policies and procedures as the guide to their actions.

By planning to involve line staff members (corrections officers) and supervisors (particularly first-line supervisors, such as sergeants) in policies development, management can try to minimize the likelihood that there will be a difference between the content of policies and what actually happens in a jail or prison.

How can managers best involve line staff members and supervisors in policies and procedures? There are several options. One is to proactively involve them in the policy development process from the start, perhaps by forming committees or task groups to conduct research and to offer ideas and suggestions as to what should be in the policies and procedures.

For example, management can form task groups on specific subjects or issues such as admissions and releases, security procedures, emergency response procedures, inmate supervision, programs, and so on. The mission of such groups might be to come up with specific suggestions as to the contents of policies and procedures on specific issues. In many cases, it means that group members will conduct scenarios of procedures to be sure that they are workable. The group members do not actually have to draft policies — that can be done by someone else — but they can at least offer concrete ideas, based on their practical experience, as to how best to do common tasks in the jail or prison.

Another option is to simply offer line staff members and supervisors the opportunity to review and comment upon drafts of policies and procedures before those policies are finalized. This approach always works best, however, when it is organized and well-planned. Sometimes management will simply pass out draft copies of a policy to staff members and say something to the effect of, "Read this over and let me know if you have any comments."

That approach rarely results in meaningful feedback because staff members are not sure what is expected of them and there is no timeline or deadline. It’s better to be very specific: "Please review this policy by noon next Friday and write down, either on the draft or a separate sheet, any suggestions for improvement in the policy statement or procedures. Be as specific and practical as you can as to your constructive ideas for the best way to accomplish our tasks, based on your experiences and ideas. Do not just say 'This won’t work' or 'This is a bad idea.' Tell us why it is a bad idea, and include suggestions for doing it better or differently. Please include reasons for your suggestions, where applicable."

An even better approach is to set up opportunities for staff members and supervisors to work together in small groups to review policy drafts and to offer suggestions for improvement. This allows for discussion and exchange of ideas and makes it easier to get unified perspectives, rather than just the opinions of a number of individuals.

Why do this? Experience has shown that correctional officers — the people who actually do the day-to-day job of working in a jail or prison — inevitably have good ideas as to the practical aspects of doing their jobs. They know what works effectively and what does not. This is not to say that all of their ideas and viewpoints are good, but many are.

But, experience also indicates that unless their practical ideas are sought by management, officers and supervisors will not usually take the time or make the effort to offer them. Instead, they will just do their jobs as they see fit, and that may or may not be in accordance with what written policies say. Thus, a good corrections manager will do everything reasonably possible to capitalize on the experience and perspectives of staff members and to incorporate these into the written procedures of the facility.

Additionally, for management to seek the input of line staff and supervisors into policy contents is a way to empower staff, and to try to narrow the gap between "us" and "them." It is a way of indicating that the policies and procedures of the facility are something that everyone — management and workers — have a stake in, rather than just another set of imperial commandments delivered from on high.

Whatever the method for soliciting and receiving review and comments from staff members, it is critical for management to somehow convey the message that they are serious about wanting such feedback. Experienced corrections officers and first-line supervisors are not fools; they know when management is just going through the motions by asking for ideas or feedback but has no intention of taking those ideas seriously or following through. If that is what staff members think, then it is, of course, much less likely that they will bother to offer their ideas and suggestions.

Policies and procedures are a management prerogative. That is, management always has the final authority as to the contents of policies and procedures, and of course they are legally responsible for those policies and procedures in the event of litigation. Thus, management is under no obligation to follow the ideas and suggestions of staff members as to policy contents. They have the right and authority to accept, reject or modify any such ideas or suggestions.  Staff members understand that. Managers should make clear that they have ultimate decision-making authority, but at the same time make clear that they want to get feedback and ideas from staff members, and that they intend to take that seriously. It is no dilution of management's authority to involve staff members in the policy development process, to the maximum extent possible.

Correctional staff should be involved not just when policies and procedures are first drafted, but also when they are revised. Policies and procedures should be reviewed, and revised as necessary, on a routine basis. Some facilities, for example, routinely review policies every year or every two years. One of the focuses of such review is to determine if the policy contents and actual practices in the facility remain congruent. If not, then either the policy should change or the practices must change to conform to policy.

Additionally, policies should be reviewed, and revised as necessary, as a result of debriefings following critical incidents. The key purpose of critical incident debriefing is to see what can be learned in order to improve future performance in regard to specific issues. To determine that, it is very important to seek the input of line staff members and supervisors.

Finally, management has to make sure that there is congruence between policies and in-house training of staff. It is a problem if in-house trainers in a facility are teaching staff members to act or respond in certain ways but the policies or procedures on those issues are not the same as what is being trained. That is another type of inconsistency that plaintiffs' attorneys love to see.  To try to avoid that inconsistency, management must be sure that trainers are proactively (there’s that word again!) involved in developing policies on issues which are the focus of their training as well as with review and revision of those policies and procedures when that is necessary.  

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