A house divided cannot stand: The critical need for staff unity
Staff’s negative perceptions of their agency – whether founded or not – must be addressed or these negative perceptions will breed division and discord
I’ve heard many a time the saying that perception IS reality.
Since perception at times may in fact be a misperception, and not actual, true reality, I take this saying to mean that the way we perceive situations can “push our buttons” and cause us to react in certain ways regardless of whether the perception is accurate or not.
In the workplace, if having healthy and harmonious staff relationships matters to us, then staff’s negative perceptions of their agency – whether founded or not – must be addressed, discussed, clarified and worked on as needed, or else these negative perceptions will breed division and discord.
What I’m about to discuss here is a very delicate matter at the heart of the philosophy of corrections in the United States.
We probably agree that the pendulum (regarding how and why corrections is being carried out in the United States) has swung from a strictly containment, “warehousing,” or even punitive model to a more rehabilitative and treatment-oriented model, which is humane, necessary and good.
This approach has been gaining momentum as prison reform advocates continue to break new grounds and gain support.
This shift in approach has necessitated changes in criminal justice policies and practices, including consequences for offender rule infractions or policy violations and sentencing options.
For successful changes of this magnitude in correctional agencies, the impact of these changes on every component and level of the system must be evaluated and managed.
The perceptions I want to draw your attention to here are perceptions we’ve heard repeatedly from custody staff across the country regarding changes in correctional philosophy related to offender management.
In a nutshell, because of changes in policies and practices, some custody staff perceive that their professional authority is being undermined and that their safety is being sacrificed in order to promote offender privileges, rights and treatment.
That is, frontline staff perceive that they are no longer allowed to do their job as they were trained, and/or that their safety is being jeopardized in order to assist offenders as they proceed on their path to rehabilitation.
It goes without saying that such perceptions – whether based on truth or not – are highly detrimental to staff morale, and ultimately to the successful fulfillment of their agencies’ mission, and therefore must be dealt with.
Again, I’d like to repeat that this article does not address whether such perceptions are objectively true or not, or to what degree they are true. It simply addresses the existence of certain perceptions.
How custody staff view rehabilitation
Research evidence suggests that custody staff are not opposed to a more rehabilitative, treatment-oriented approach for offender management. In fact, the majority of correctional officers in one study agreed that rehabilitation programs should be made available to those offenders who wish to engage in such activities. In that study, 86% of correctional officers who responded endorsed items that supported drug and alcohol treatment of offenders, 82% supported academic training (such as GED preparation) and 77% of respondents endorsed items that supported offender vocational training. 
However, when they perceive that their own safety is on the line, staff’s view of rehabilitation approaches becomes less favorable.
For example, in the same study, custody staff who reported suffering from PTSD symptoms were less inclined to state that rehabilitation is a central goal of incarceration and more likely to agree that the goal of incarceration is to maintain public safety.  That is, staff who experience PTSD symptoms may be less optimistic that offenders can be rehabilitated, and their concerns about their personal safety trump their investment in rehabilitative models.
Similarly, our conversations with custody staff indicate that they are not against rehabilitative efforts. Rather, what staff object to is what they perceive to be a lack of procedural justice and fairness in how they are viewed and treated by their leaders, especially compared to how they perceive convicted felons are being treated.
Concerns about security
Custody staff are vastly outnumbered on the job, where they deal with potential threats daily and even hourly. When, due to policy changes, certain threats are not lessened or removed like they used to be, staff’s anxiety and agitation skyrocket. This can easily result in them becoming more reactive in a “fight or flight” way, and/or feeling helpless, and/or coming to believe that their employer is unconcerned about their welfare. This can result in disengaged and at times highly volatile employees.
Frontline staff have shared with us that their offender management “tools” are being stripped away from them due to reduced consequences for offender misbehavior, or due to the reduction or elimination of certain disciplinary practices. It is the frontline staff’s strong perception that this renders their correctional workplace more dangerous than it used to be for all concerned.
For example, if administrative segregation is now meted out only in cases of staff assault, staff worry that they will get assaulted even randomly when offenders who are concerned for their own safety want to go to segregation in order to get away from the remainder of the offender population.
Similarly, when threatening or assaultive offenders are not removed from the general population, staff worry that these individuals will be emboldened to continue with their threats and intimidation of staff or other offenders, or carry out such threats, due to lack of substantial negative consequences for such behaviors.
Being blamed for offender behavior
Staff from across various regions of the country and agencies have talked to us about their perception that their managers favor and believe offenders over their employees, and act as if the frontline staff are guilty until proven innocent.
For example, staff report being blamed for offender behavior when offenders aggress against them – instead of the offenders being held accountable for their actions. After they are assaulted, staff may be asked, “What did YOU do to cause the offender to hit you?” One can only begin to imagine how such a response impacts staff still reeling from a recent assault.
Alternatively, staff have recounted times when, in line with policy, they have written offenders up for violations, only to have their documentation be thrown out as not serious enough or otherwise not worth pursuing.
Mental health risks
Frontline staff also perceive that mental health providers are making decisions that impact physical safety in the workplace. They are disturbed that these providers, who may have not worked in correctional systems for any length of time, end up having the last word, that is, control of operations, even when this puts everyone in harm’s way by increasing their risk of exposure to violent offenders.
An example of that is when explosive offenders who are making threats against staff are not removed from the general population, or when very brief lockdowns are implemented after a staff assault, or when assaultive offenders are returned to the general population much sooner than they used to be.
Granted, the influx of offenders who are battling serious mental health disorders in prisons and jails has necessitated the involvement of mental health providers in the running of correctional operations. However, every effort should be made to communicate and demonstrate to frontline staff that the welfare and interests of all parties concerned are taken into consideration when decisions are made about the management of psychiatric conditions in correctional settings.
Impact of COVID-19
The perception (due to the shift of correctional philosophy) of reduced consequences for offender violations, and of custody staff as the sacrificial lambs, has been accentuated as never before due to COVID-19.
During that time, some agencies relaxed their disciplinary standards with offenders in the midst of extreme staffing shortages, and also due to the offenders’ anxieties about the virus, and the lack of visits and other educational and recreational activities for them. This has only served to aggravate custody staff’s perception that they are left unprotected, unappreciated by their leaders and even expendable to them, and with no one in their corner.
To look at these matters from the perspective of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the circumstances that custody staff are experiencing that cause them to feel continually unsafe at work leave them in the bottom rung of the hierarchy since their basic needs for physical safety are not met. Additionally, moving up the hierarchy, it is also the staff’s perception that their psychological needs are not being met in the workplace due to the substantial disunity among various ranks.
Assuming that these basic and psychological needs are not met for a considerable number of frontline staff, it can be expected that they will very rarely function in the top tier of Maslow’s hierarchy, where they would see the bigger picture of rehabilitative efforts and options, think creatively, and find meaning in their daily work.
Since research indicates that staff are not opposed to the “new” rehabilitative efforts, these efforts might be understood and accepted by them on an intellectual “head knowledge” level, but will be difficult for them to grasp and implement from the heart until they feel safe, appreciated, supported, and unified with their supervisors and administrators.
Consequently, it is reasonable to expect that, until staff perceptions of rehabilitative efforts change, the mission of correctional agencies as centers of rehabilitation would be undermined due in part to the fact that basic and psychological needs of staff are not being regularly met.*
A win-win approach
In these times of high stress and hardship, a “win-win” approach for all parties concerned is critical to pursue.
Given the acute staff shortages in corrections agencies nationwide, challenging conversations need to take place between correctional leaders and their employees in order to build or rebuild trust and strengthen staff’s engagement and commitment to the agency. Unity in the workforce and teamwork are essential to staff morale and also to staff retention.
Yes, this will require an ongoing, long-term balancing act that includes wisdom, empathy, excellent listening skills and dialog, and a desire to hear frontline staff’s suggestions about practical, hands-on solutions and policy decisions regarding offender management. After all, frontline staff are the ones who have direct experiences regarding how interactions with offenders play out day by day.
Persistent attempts must be made by administrators to try to understand frontline staff’s perspective (as they are the ones with “skin in the game”), validating their concerns even if they do not necessarily agree with them.
Similarly, frontline staff need to be educated about the rationale behind changes in correctional philosophy, with clear and detailed explanations and real-life examples from United States correctional agencies as to how such changes can be advantageous for staff and for their communities as a whole.
Frontline staff who come to perceive that their administrators truly “have their back” will be more likely to do their best to manage complex interactions with offenders professionally and humanely than if they perceive that they have to fend for themselves.
And that is why this topic is so important to acknowledge and to discuss.
The alternative of not addressing frontline staff’s negative perceptions of rehabilitative efforts is not a viable option, as it will most likely prove to be much costlier in the long run in terms of reduced safety of operations, reduced quality of rehabilitative efforts, and reduced staff retention rates.
A house divided cannot stand – at least not for long.
*Observations regarding staff functioning in the context of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs were contributed by Daria Mayotte.
1. Lerman AE. (2017). Office health and wellness: Results from the California Correctional Officer Survey.
2021 © Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC