5 supervisory styles you find in correctional facilities

What style of supervision is best for managing correctional officers?

Like many Corrections1 readers, I started my career in corrections working “the floors” – making rounds in inmate housing areas, etc.

On the squads, the corporals and sergeants were the ones I looked to for guidance.

While the academy prepares a correctional officer for the demands of working inside a correctional facility, the supervisor behind the front line is the person staff rely on to make decisions and give advice – often quickly and on the spot – making sure line COs are doing the right thing.  

Much research has been conducted about CO work and supervision.
Much research has been conducted about CO work and supervision. (Photo/Pixabay)

My father – a World War II veteran – was a staff sergeant in the United States Army Air Force. I remember him telling me that sergeants run the company and get things done.

The work of corporals and sergeants in correctional facilities

If you think of the correctional facility as a paramilitary organization, the front lines are manned by the correctional officers, with corporals and sergeants directing activities right behind them.  

I still remember my first corporals and sergeants and how they advised me about working inside a jail. Their advice stayed with me throughout my career.

The work of corporals and sergeants accomplishes several things:

1. They make line COs feel confident they can do the job and do it well.

2. The risk of lawsuits and catastrophic incidents – such as escapes and suicides – are lessened because line COs are closely supervised and mistakes are avoided or corrected.

3. Corporals and sergeants provide input for the higher levels of management, ranging from performance evaluations to changing or modifying policies and procedures.

4. These ranks prepare the CO for serving at higher ranks. Corporals prepare the CO for sergeants’ rank, and sergeants prepare for promotion to lieutenant.

Much research has been conducted about CO work and supervision. In this article, I will discuss five supervisory styles. They are:

  • Impoverished
  • Authority-obedience
  • Country club management
  • Organization-type management
  • Team management.**

Let’s discuss how each approach impacts operations.**

1. The impoverished supervisor

The stripes look great and the paycheck is nice, but this type of corporal or sergeant does not care about getting the maximum effort from subordinates. Things just plod along. Management by walking around is not part of their supervisory style. Where do COs find these supervisors? They are often in the office or the break room.

2. The authoritarian supervisor

This is the corporal or sergeant who strictly controls the squad – giving out orders with little or no room for discretion. He or she has no real concern for others’ feelings, input or problems, and adopts the “my way or the highway” approach. They do not like questions.

If you know history, think of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer. His style was so authoritarian that he lost the respect and support of his subordinates, so he surrounded himself with friends, relatives and supporters of his views, including two of his brothers and his brother-in-law. He became insulated from others’ opinions and views. What was the result? He divided his forces at the Battle of Little Bighorn in spite of being outnumbered by the Indians, and ignored and dismissed out of hand the cautionary advice from his scouts and officers. He was wiped out.***

3. The country club supervisor

This supervisor pays attention to the needs of subordinates, which results in a friendly and comfortable work environment. The supervisor is friendly and thoughtful, but this can result in putting people above performance.

While it is okay to be friendly with subordinates and considerate to their needs, there is one big pitfall: favoritism. For example, a CO assigned to classification asks to leave early due to a family function. The other COs on the team remain silent and continue working up the interview data and the move lists for the night shift. They know that the job must be done. The sergeant says, “OK, just this once,” because he does not want to be called a “hard ass.”

Two weeks later that same CO asks to leave early and again a month later. A dangerous precedent has been set.

Also, this type of supervisor may not be as thorough with performance evaluations with below par employees in case “feelings get hurt.” Being a supervisor with stripes means being clear, blunt and telling it like it is on performance evaluations.

4. The organization supervisor

Performance is enhanced by balancing the necessity of getting the job done and maintaining staff morale. Sergeants and corporals recognize the organization has a mission to accomplish and maintaining staff morale is important. The supervisor can be a compromiser, discussing orders and direction with staff and getting their opinions.

Without appearing weak, a supervisor can be concerned, answer questions, and explain decisions and directives from upper management to COs.

Chain of command is important to this supervisor. When an inmate wants to go around the chain of command and see a supervisor, this type of corporal or sergeant will refer the inmate to his area CO, thus backing up the CO.

5. The team management supervisor

This is an excellent style of management and, when combined with the organization approach, can be very effective. This supervisor values staff and morale. High morale can lead to a commitment by everyone to do the job correctly and give the proverbial “110 percent.”

Sergeants and corporals cannot allow COs to “do their own thing,” but they can allow the CO to shine and have a sense of trust and independence.

The line CO feels that this supervisor trusts him or her to run a unit or tier, which results in people working well together. They learn to depend on and trust each other.

The Value of Teamwork

COs are committed to making a facility run professionally and smoothly and that is what all sergeants and corporals want. An example of this is the direct supervision unit inside a jail. If COs are professional, well trained and know the job, they can run the units, taking pride in their work. A sergeant or corporal can stop by, answer questions and see how things are going, but they do not need to micromanage.

Sergeants and corporals hear about teamwork, but it must be developed. Trusting the COs to do the job and COs trusting each other and training to work together is essential. When everyone knows who does what, how different tasks are performed and how different units are run, you develop a supportive climate. Colleagues can help each other and give advice on what’s going wrong and strive to do what is right. Remember the word team means:

  • Together
  • Everyone
  • Achieves
  • More**** 

If you have those stripes on your sleeves, be proud of your record, job performance and accomplishments. But be introspective. Ask yourself, what is your supervisory style?


*Cornelius GF. In Service Supervisors Seminar: Corporals and Sergeants: The Foundation of Jail Supervision. 2016.

**Hutton SD. Staff Supervision Made Easy. Lanham, MD: American Correctional Association, 1998.

***O’Reilly B, Fisher D.  Legends and Lies: The Old West. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015.

****Whisenand PM. Supervising Police Personnel: The Fifteen Responsibilities, Sixth Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007.

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