Closing the gap: Getting young COs to fit in with the old

Here are some tips for young corrections officers finding their place in a correctional environment

The modern correctional work place is composed of several generations of employees attempting to accomplish a common goal for the good of the organization.

Looking closely, an observer will notice these age gaps have influenced different approaches to performing the same task, different grades of anxiety about deadlines, the level of importance placed on vacation time and many other factors filtered through life experiences, education and training, language and culture and above all, technology. It’s a wonder anything gets done.

In fact, send two workers off to complete the same task, and, depending on generational placement, the manner in which the assignment is completed is likely to vary greatly.

Conducting job interviews and evaluating candidates for correctional agency vacancies can be a unique and revealing experience. Most novice applicants certainly do not have an understanding of the true meaning of public safety, nor have they truly considered what will be expected of them once on the job. Crazy shift work, managing anti-social and dangerous populations, using special communication strategies, writing reports, keeping to a standard code of conduct and other requirements may be for many the first time they have worked in such a regimented environment.

By design, most prison and jail staffing complements follow a paramilitary style. For many reasons, this type of chain of command has worked, but it may also be the downfall for young workers tackling their first real job. Working for a government agency means following strict time and attendance rules and acquiring leave in specifically approved ways.

Correctional environments establish work schedules often months ahead and calculate staffing based upon planned annual leave and training schedules. It takes young, inexperienced correctional staff time to figure out this process and understand there is little room for flexibility. For staff working to support their leisure time activities, understanding seniority and choice vacation periods requires adjustment, and some never make that transition successfully. Earning a day and taking a day becomes the norm.

Understanding agency policy and procedures is one of the basic keys to success for young correctional workers. Therefore, knowing the rules and following them seems simple enough; however, for new correctional staff, just reporting on time for roll call and shift briefing, dressed in the uniform of the day can be a test. Often this behavior is not meant to be willful or reckless.

Instead, these staff members have little experience in understanding how critical all kinds of schedules are synchronized in correctional environments. Seasoned shift commanders typically have a low tolerance for the relaxed view young workers have of their jobs. Providing counseling and feedback is important in order to clarify expectations. In the end, some young staff, new to corrections, may discover the environment is too rigid, and opt to get out early.

While it is true retiree numbers continue to grow, correctional organizations find themselves blending a work force comprised of vast age and experience differences. Leaders are challenged with knitting together the best and most diverse qualities into functional teams who know what the job requires and are completing tasks at the highest level.

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