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10 ways correctional supervisors can improve their decision-making skills

As a first-line supervisor, you are the first step in the decision-making process for handling problems in a correctional facility


It is much easier to justify a decision, whether right or wrong, when safety and security is the foremost consideration in the decision-making process.


With my promotion to sergeant in 1996, a senior sergeant gave me this piece of advice: “I am going to tell you how to get off probation and be successful as a first-line supervisor. Do not make any decisions. Sit back and wait for someone else to make the decisions. If you sit back long enough, someone else will make it for you and have to answer for it. If it’s wrong, it’s on them and not on you.”

This was a “gut-punch” moment. Not only did I lose respect for this senior sergeant, I vowed to do the opposite. I am not saying that every decision I made was right, but I did not make the same mistake twice. Supervisors must not be afraid to make mistakes. With this in mind, it is with the best of intentions that I hope to assist you with your decision-making and help minimize the mistakes you will make along the way.

How to approach the decision-making process

When your commanders promoted you to a first-line supervisor position, they did so expecting you would make sound decisions on behalf of your department. They also know you will make some mistakes. It is when you learn from the mistakes you make, that you mature into your position. Maturing also requires that you gain institutional knowledge and attain life skills related to your field. This is all part of the growth process of any new position. It is how you achieve growth and development into the next stage of responsibility. You must be willing and able to make good decisions.

As a first-line supervisor, you are the first step in the decision-making process for handling problems. When evaluating a situation, consider the following:

  • Does your department’s policy address the situation?
  • Is your decision lawful?
  • What are the positive and negative outcomes of the decision?
  • Does your decision affect other areas in your department?

Learn to think like a chess player. When dealing with inmates, what you see may not be what is going on. Ask yourself:

  • What is happening here?
  • Why is this happening?
  • What led up to this situation?
  • What is the inmates’ desired outcome?
  • What is my desired outcome?
  • Is this a set up?

Like a game of chess, try to anticipate the inmates’ next move and how they will react to your moves. Always think three steps ahead.

When you become a critical thinker, you can make critical decisions. In correctional decision-making, we usually have too much information. Critical thinking assists you to focus on what matters in any given situation. We usually have many options available to us when making a decision. Critical thinking helps you do what is important to resolve the situation at hand. Here are 10 steps to take:

1. Clarify the problem

Ask others to be clear and detailed. Ask for examples. If you are not certain what the problem is, you cannot address it.

2. Seek accuracy

Make sure you are getting the facts and reporting facts. This way you will be able to check accuracy. Avoid generalizations, euphemisms and other uncertainties.

3. Stay relevant

Stay on point to the situation at hand. Pay attention to others to see if their possible solutions could solve the problem. Listen to others who may have good ideas or solutions.

4. Know your purpose

Ask, what am I attempting to accomplish? What is important?

5. Understand the situation

Try to see things from everyone’s point of view. Imagine how they feel and how you sound to them. What would you think if you put yourself in their shoes?

6. Leave out emotion

Emotions only confuse your thought process. Pay attention to how your emotions may be driving your thinking and correct it.

7. Have awareness of your own lack of knowledge

Even if you think you know more than your adversary, you still might be wrong. Continually educate yourself, either formally or informally.

8. Think independently

Do not believe everything you hear and verify information when you can. Stay on track with your priorities and your department’s priorities.

9. Know your biases

Notice how your preconceived notions may influence your decisions. Your bias will muddle your thinking regardless of logic. People from different cultures and generations may have a different thought process.

10. Think through the situation

Consider the consequences of making or not making a decision.

Just do it

A frequent complaint I hear about making decisions is the worry of someone second-guessing what you did. Welcome to the big leagues. Everyone has a supervisor to answer to regardless of rank or position. The officer has to answer to the sergeant, the sergeant to the lieutenant, the lieutenant to the captain, the captain to the chief, the chief to the sheriff and the sheriff to the board of supervisors. Get over it and do the job. If you cannot, let someone else step up to the plate.

Use common sense

Pay attention to your common sense and instincts. Use your “gut” feelings to guide you. If you have a feeling something is not right, most likely it is not.

In most instances, we have discretionary time to make a decision in a corrections setting. We rarely need to hurry. Take your time to make the right decision the first time.

If you find yourself in a situation requiring you to make an urgent decision, always lean toward safety and security. It is much easier to justify a decision, whether right or wrong, when safety and security is the foremost consideration in the decision-making process.

This information is solely intended for training and educational purposes and shall not be considered as legal advice. If you decide to use any concepts from this material. you should consult your department’s legal counsel to determine how the laws of your jurisdiction affect the application of this information to your individual department.

Sean T. Stewart is a captain with the Pima County Sheriff’s Office and has over 20 years of experience. He currently serves as corrections captain operations division commander for Pima County Sheriff’s Office. Captain Stewart is one of the Pima County Jails’ litigation specialists pertaining to policy and practice in civil and criminal cases.