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Preventing hazing in the workplace

Hazing may not be anything new, but it also shouldn’t be happening inside of prisons; here’s how to recognize and discourage your staff from hazing new recruits

Just when you think you’ve heard it all, out jumps a rabbit you never anticipated. I recently read an article about an investigation concerning the hazing of new correctional officers at the Maine State Prison. Really? Are we running frat houses or prisons? Hardly makes sense these days with the challenges of hiring good, reliable staff.

Research shows that hazing in law enforcement, corrections and even the military is not new. Hazing is ritual abuse among social groups. It’s seen as a rite of passage and often implemented to break the person down so you can build them back up. Some see hazing as a way to “test” recruits to see if they have the ability to handle stress and hostility others participate in hazing because it gives them power.

Hazing rituals create suspicion, resentment and distrust within the group. Those of us working in the field of corrections know that trusting your colleagues is an important aspect of job safety. If we subject new staff to hazing rituals, they may end up over identifying with the inmates and not see us as their identified group. I’ve seen it in my career – some staff over identify with the inmates and become easily subjected to manipulation. Hazing newly hired staff can contribute to staff “crossing this line.” Hazing rituals can also be dangerous or deadly.

Most commonly associated with the University Greek system, hazing has been around for a long time. There is documented hazing in the United States as far back as 1684. Hazing includes ridicule, humiliation, degradation and often physical abuse. In 2011, at the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in my home town of Tallahassee, was in the headlines when drum major, Robert Champion, was hazed on the band bus and died from his injuries. After an investigation in the case, it was revealed that hazing rituals had become part of the accepted culture of the Marching 100. The band was suspended and several members prosecuted for their role in the hazing of Mr. Champion.

In Rosenberg Texas in July of this year, a police Lieutenant was fired and three of his colleagues disciplined when a rookie officers was hazed as part of his entry to the SWAT team. Officers laughed and made sarcastic comments while Rookie Erik Marmol was shot with “less than lethal” bean bag rounds.

The recent case of correctional staff in Maine is appalling. New recruit Peaslee was handcuffed and pinned to the floor by fellow officers in a hazing event. He was pepper sprayed, locked in a dog run at the facility and made to read humiliating messages over the radio system. He was forced to search for a lunch box which was hidden and was then locked out of the facility. Fortunately, there were staff who had integrity and reported the incident to superiors’ officers. One Captain voluntarily resigned and the others are pending discipline according to news reports. Peaslee never worked as a correctional again.

These sadistic behaviors most likely transfer to the inmate population. If staff are willing to treat their own like that, I shudder to imagine how they are treating inmates. Sadists usually don’t discriminate among their victims. The Maine Department of Corrections might want to look beyond the hazing incidents and reopen cases where inmates ay have complained about similar behaviors.

Hazing in corrections must stop. It is sadistic, degrading and defies the professionalism we have worked so hard for over decades. Those of us active in the field know how high turnover is and how difficult attracting new recruits can be – there is no sense in hazing those who want to give it a try. Our challenge should be to make them feel welcome and to mentor them throughout their journey so they can succeed in this field.

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.