Trending Topics

A common correctional forum despite differences

It is not uncommon for the shift operations staff to be at odds with the medical staff in the prison infirmary. Often the medical staff feels security is too aggressive with inmates and cannot see the reason for using force on them.

Meanwhile, security staff are frustrated in trying to accommodate medication lines and medical requests for security staff to support their operational needs. Very often they see medical staff as being at odds with needs of the rest of the prison. They both seem to think their purposes are different and more important than the other.

Truly seasoned staff see both views and find ways to work together. Others find advantage in the differences and find value in promoting conflict with the organization. It is my belief that in corrections the more conflict and division between departments and among staff, the less successful the organization. Low performing organization can lead to typical outcomes of injuries, escapes, and damaging lawsuits.

For these reasons it is the ongoing task and responsibility of correctional leaders at all levels to bring “groups together — changing in positive ways how members of different correctional groups think and feel about each other and therefore how they treat each other — is a central task of leadership.”1 It is not acceptable to throw up your hands and say, “well, that’s the way people are.”

In addition to a host of interpersonal skills that can shape more effective relationships among staff, there are organizational strategies that can minimize differences among groups in a correctional facility. Three of the strategies are to respect differences among groups, to provide a forum where different staff can work together, and encourage staff to unite under a common theme.

Corrections in the 1980s and 90s saw many changes, including what many perceived as an increased level of threat to safety in the prisons. Some corrections agencies formed safety committees at each institution. Typically, the membership would represent departments from all across the prisons (maintenance, clerical, security, programs, administration, clinical services, etc.). They were tasked with accomplishing objectives surrounding the general topic of security and safety. In many cases it was an immediate success. I remember one prison where an enormous scrapbook of project photos was on display to edify the accomplishments by their safety committee.

All staff “buy into” the common theme that safety is in everyone’s interest regardless of memberships in other groups. Properly led, these people will put aside individual differences and join together to improve their work environment.

Leadership in corrections is too often swept aside in the midst in the whirlwind of important and immediate task requirements. It is important for everyone to take the time to develop bridges among disparate groups and use those experiences to model how productive staff relationships can be across lines that normally represent division.

1CROSSING THE DIVIDE Intergroup Leadership in a World of Difference

Gene Atherton is currently in his 40th year of service in the criminal justice field. He served 27 years for the Colorado Department of Corrections. After promoting thru the ranks, he became Director of Prisons for the Western Region in Colorado until retirement in 2004. For the last fifteen years Mr. Atherton has served as a technical assistance consultant and trainer for the National Institute of Corrections on a variety of topics related to corrections. He has served as an author of numerous ACA publications. He has served as mentor to Afghan Corrections Leadership and as a subject matter expert to the United States Embassy in Afghanistan. He has provided evidence in Federal Court as an expert witness on a variety of correctional issues, including conditions of confinement, use of force, unlawful discrimination, and management of high risk offenders. He is currently serving as an expert for the United States Department of Justice in the application of the CRIPA act to the Alabama Department of Corrections. Finally, Mr. Atherton currently serves as a member of several committees for the American Correctional Association, and as an ACA standards compliance auditor for the nation of Mexico.