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Morale: What can we do to please the troops?

How can we contribute to increasing the morale at our facility?

Morale is difficult to keep up in a business like ours. We are surrounded by negativity all day, every day. Staff see inmates rewarded for being criminals -- getting three meals a day, paying no bills, getting recreation, free medical care, and, in some places, the opportunity to get an education or vocational training. They become resentful. In addition, many facilities are short staffed, utilizing mandatory overtime, and exhausting the work force.

How do we, as administrators, combat this? How can we contribute to increasing the morale at our facility?

Studying work place morale is nothing new. We’ve known for decades that “staff don’t leave jobs, they leave supervisors” and that positive morale increases productivity on every level. We know that disgruntled employees are like a contagious disease, infecting those around them. Disgruntled employees can negatively impact the rest of the work force.

Low morale impacts productivity and increases absenteeism. Worker discontent impacts staff both on and off the job. Studies have shown that unhappy employees have higher rates of physical and mental illness, as well as personal problems. These employees tend to daydream more on the job and are unable, or unwilling, to focus on detailed work.

The flip side of that is, according to the American Psychological Association, employees who love their jobs thrive. A Gallup study revealed happy employees impact the bottom line as well: “the annual per-person cost of lost productivity due to sick days is upward of $28,000. The sick-day lost-productivity cost among the happiest and most engaged workers: $840 a year.” (Gallup Press, 2007)

Recently, Corrections1 went to their readers and asked “what can be done to improve morale?” The answers ranged from providing raises (probably not possible in a fiscally tight environment) to backing staff over inmates.

Some more realistic suggestions include establishing a committee of line staff to come up with fun facility events. These don’t necessarily have to cost money. For example, you can hold a trivia contest or a scavenger hunt, and the winner gets their car washed by the administration. You can reward positive behavior by allowing to staff to pick their post or pick their partner. Do something nice for your staff. Organize a cookout, or buy the shift pizza. The money you spend will be well worth the reward you get from increased staff morale.

What role do we play as leaders in boosting facility morale? Staying positive and making sure your mid-level managers are positive as well will have an impact. Be sure to vent up and provide positive feedback down. Just as negative attitudes are contagious, positive ones are as well.

Be accessible. Wardens and Assistant Wardens need to be seen. Walk the compound, mingle with the line staff, search a few lockers with them, and get to know them and their families. You can’t manage a prison from behind a desk.

Morale isn’t only a “top-down” function. I think each employee is responsible for working on morale boosting at their job. We need to give employee input into the work place. Provide a suggestion box or hold roundtable luncheons where employees can provide input into the agency’s function.

As a leader, listen. Staff have important things to say. I know that I’ve learned a lot from line staff throughout my career.


  1. web site. Information Retrieved 7/19/13.
  1. Novotney, A. “Boosting morale: An unhappy workplace can increase depression and heart disease rates. Here are ways psychologists are working to promote employee health. American Psychological Association. December 2010, Volume 41, No. 11. page 32

Laura E. Bedard began her work in corrections as a jail administrator in 1984. During her tenure as administrative faculty for the College of Criminology at Florida State University, she ran a study-abroad program in the Czech Republic lecturing on crime topics in an emerging democracy. In 2005, she became the first female Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. There she was responsible for 27,000 state employees and over 200,000 offenders in the third largest correctional system in the country. Dr. Bedard has published and lectured on a number of corrections-related topics including women in prison, mental health issues and correctional leadership. Dr. Bedard is currently serving as the Chief of Corrections for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Sanford, Florida.