"What Makes a Good Warden?"


An interview with Warden Hood, Part I

Last month, Corrections One sat down to talk with Robert Hood, National Security Specialist for General Electric’s Homeland Protection department.

Hood has more than 20 years experience with the FBOP. He’s been a warden at three facilities, including the Administrative Maximum (or “Supermax”) prison in Florence, Colorado, where such notorious inmates as Theodore Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, and Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 WTC bombing, have been housed.

Printed here is the first part of our interview, which centered on the topic “What makes a good warden?” The second part, which focuses on the future of corrections and dealing with issues like overcrowding, drugs, and budgeting, will be released in a couple weeks.

~ Luke Whyte, C1 editor



(AP photo)
Related Article:
Inside the "Supermax" in Florence, CO with Warden Hood

Corrections One: What factors make a good warden? Are there certain principles that guide effective leadership? Does this differ depending on whether the person is working on the local, state, or federal level?

Robert Hood: My position with G.E. Homeland Protection allows me to travel throughout the United States and abroad to develop security solutions with wardens and administrators. From my experience and observations, I believe the following keywords to be the basics of effective prison leadership that any good warden should follow:

Sanitation, Inmate Programs, Security, Key Control, Tool Control, Visibility, Communications, Responsiveness, Staff Training, Inmate Accountability, Staff Accountability, Teamwork, Professionalism, Policy Knowledge/Compliance, and Completed Staff Work.

Regardless of local, state, or federal mission, an effective warden needs to have a belief system that includes some of the following goals and ideals:

• Correctional workers have a responsibility to ensure that inmates are returned to the community no more angry or hostile than when they were committed
• Inmates are sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment
• You must believe in man’s capacity to change his behavior
• Drug interdiction programs should be a major part of your treatment/security program; non-intrusive and effective detection strategies will provide a safe environment for offenders, staff, and the general public
• Technology should supplement experienced staff
• There is inherent value in self-improvement programs
• Inmates need legitimate opportunities to enhance their self-esteem
• Use only the amount of force — verbal or physical — to maintain order, security, and staff and inmate safety
• It is important for staff to model the kind of behavior they expect to see duplicated by inmates
• Promote relationships with the media; especially on the success of academic, vocational, and treatment programs for offenders
• Use public funds effectively
• Hold people accountable

Effective re-entry initiatives 

C1: I understand that you have spent much of your career working with re-entry programs and initiatives, why would a warden want to do this?

RH: Re-entry initiatives are inmate’s ‘Society 101’ for success. Every day, we spent thousands of dollars to keep inmates locked inside. When their sentence ends, we say “Okay, here’s a hundred bucks, goodbye!” Then we simply put them on parole. A good warden needs to realize that although we can’t fully supervise inmates on the outside, we can work with our communities to more efficiently to guide them.

I used to offer a mock “job skill fair” for inmates. We’d bring local business owners into the prison, give them a nice breakfast, have them tour the facility and then bring them into the gymnasium where we set up booths.

I set a very high standard for the inmates at these fairs. I wanted their clothes to be pressed and their buttons polished. You didn’t even get into the gym unless you could pass with me.

We brought inmates to these fairs that the community puts an X on and required them to complete three interviews. Not only did this help the inmates to build skills, but it allowed the community to put some trust back into them. Sometimes, people would say the caliber of interviews was better than with the general public.

Even the harder staff started saying, “Hey, these guys are acting pretty good.” And they were proud. So we started videotaping this stuff. We practiced interview skills. We did everything that should have been done with these guys in public schools.

Most (public) interpretations of wardens are reactive: “Yeah I know how to tear gas an inmate.” And yes, there is time for force, but that’s when everything else has failed.

The bottom line is that if an inmate has a reason to get dressed up in the morning — “Hey why don’t you go through this parenting program and we’ll give you an extra visit from your kid” — then he’s going to make a better inmate and citizen.

In every prison where I was warden, minus the Supermax, I had a cap-and-gown formal graduation assembly for the inmates with inmate bands and inmate choirs where we brought in the family.

Even to do a talent show, with comedy hour and refreshments makes a difference.

As a warden, if you are not doing these things you are going to pay for it in a different way, because the inmates will have a greater reason to say “I’m not gonna make it when I get out.”

Dealing with high-profile inmates

C1: What are some of the more important things to keep in mind when it comes to dealing with prisoners on the Supermax level as opposed to those incarcerated at a lower security level? Psychologically, is there a different approach officers should be taking when dealing with high security prisoners?

RH: Generally speaking, dealing with prisoners in any setting should be the same.

However, inmates at the Supermax have some personal characteristics and conditions of confinement not found in most correctional institutions that need to be considered, such as:

• 35% are serving life sentences
• 30% are serving 20 years or more
• Average sentence is 23 years
• 28% are in for homicide, agg. assault or kidnapping

Unlike traditional prisons, the Supermax setting restricts inmates in a variety of ways. Inmates are assigned to individual cells measuring in size from 77 to 87 square feet. The cell contains a cement-based stool, desk, and bed area. Although sunlight is available, no view of the terrain or local community is available. Recreation outside the cell area is limited to a few hours a day in single-man security yards. All inmates escorted to and from their cells are within view of hundreds of cameras and a high staff-to-inmate ratio. Family visits are provided in a highly-secured setting using security glass, phone contact, and require the inmate to remain in restraints.

Inmate characteristics and the restrictive setting create an interesting work environment. Staff needs to be the best in the agency and training must be more frequent and address the mission. Emergency planning and crisis management training are essential to the orderly running of a safe Supermax prison.

Inmates have nothing to lose at the Supermax when compared to other correctional settings. Psychologically, staff needs to communicate and interact with long-term offenders effectively while maintaining a professional distance.

As with all offenders, staff should review specific background information on the offender and develop a management plan around select characteristics.

Tips for aspiring wardens:

C1: Do you have tips you would give COs — or anyone else — who aspires to become a warden?

RH: There is no standard requirement for becoming a warden. However, if someone asked me what it takes, I would say: Be responsive to inmate concerns. As weird as it sounds, if you are not being responsive to their concerns you are not going to make it. If you don’t develop your interpersonal skills and learn how to deal with inmate issues, you are going to create an environment that the rest of the staff is going to pay for.

If you don’t get passed this custody v. treatment thing, then you won’t make it. We are all custody first. However, by having a holistic group of staff and by being clear with inmates as to why you do things, you’ll be on the path to success. Let the staff know that they are custody first, but that the treatment people are here for a reason.

For instance, I would make my “rock and roll” guys work the inmate graduations. This way, they develop skills by helping the inmates develop skills.

I tell younger folks who want to be wardens to go to the volunteer appreciation meetings, to the graduations, to the back of food service area, to the rear gate and the mechanical shop. Go to the visitor room when inmates have their families coming in and talk with them about the experience.

You have got to be extremely visible. You have got to know what is going on in the whole facility. I made checklists for my executive staff, to make sure they saw the whole process each week.

Also, by walking out in the yard alone and asking inmates who won the game or how much they are bench pressing, or by going to their church services — no matter what type of service — you gain important respect.

What I try to tell promising correctional professionals is that if you really want to move up, you’ve got to know the business. Know the average age of people in your institution. Know both sides of every issue.

There is not a day that I don’t go on Web sites like this one and check out the news about the industry.

Try to find the time to pick up the pre-sentence reports for a certain group and read the summary sheets, know what makes them tick. You never know, it might the knowledge that a certain inmate had a grandmother that brought them up that will be your most effective tool for dealing with a seemingly unrelated situation.

As hard as it might seem, as a warden you need to show the inmates that you care. Not doing so might cost you your, or someone else’s, life.


Robert Hood retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons as warden of the United States Penitentiary "Supermax" in Florence, Colorado in 2005. He has 35 years of experience working in local, state and federal correctional facilities and currently is the National Security Specialist (Corrections Division) for General Electric (GE) Homeland Protection. Over the next month, Corrections1 will be posting segements of an interview on a variety of Correctional topics between Hood and the C1 editorial team. Check back for more details or sign up for the C1 Newsletter and have all of our exclusive content sent straight to your inbox once each week.

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