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Correctional force in the form of effective relationships:
Part II

To be a relationship warrior in corrections, officers must develop and refine skills and attitudes that contribute to successful relationships

By Gene Atherton

I in Part I of this article we discussed the importance of effective relationships in corrections. I suggested that, at times, good relationships can be as effective, if not more so, than the use of physical force. In order to be a relationship warrior in corrections, officers must develop and refine skills and attitudes that contribute to successful relationships. Some of those skills and attitudes are:

  • All officers learn through two main avenues: During basic and in-service training, and over time from their colleagues. I suggest correctional officers should not simply copy what they see or let those experiences be the sole determinant of their performance on the job. In order to be a successful relationship warrior, each correctional officer should have a personal vision of how they would like to see themselves on the next shift, in the next month, and down the road as their career unfolds. In order to be successful, that vision should include successful relationships with staff and inmates. I suggest correctional officers be concrete about that vision and be willing to take action towards its fulfillment.
  • I suggest that an effective relationship warrior in corrections have the courage to hold themselves responsible for the feelings and related behaviors that affect others on the job. When the shift begins and some staff and inmates are unhappy, in a bad mood, or openly offensive, it is important for them not to blame their attitude on corrections, the cellblock, or others. It is critical to understand those who are acting that way are the authors of that negative behavior; it is not caused by someone else or something out of their control. The good news is, at any time we can refuse to be triggered in the old familiar ways. We can take responsibility for our behavior and initiate extremely effective relationships with inmates and staff in corrections. Those improvements can have a direct impact on improving correctional safety.
  • A successful relationship warrior will seek every opportunity to dialogue with inmates and staff. Instead of avoiding tough relationships, staff should use every opportunity to engage with inmates and staff in a healthy, meaningful, and professional dialogue. In this sense, dialogue means the sharing of information among two or more individuals. It is one of the building blocks of healthy, productive relationships in corrections. It is a proactive, powerful approach to solving problems before a serious incident occurs. Every opportunity for healthy dialogue should be pursued by the relationship warrior. It is within this dialogue that attributes of respect can be displayed, demonstrating that corrections is “all about the people.”
  • An effective relationship warrior increases the possibility of success over time by not displaying anger, even in the most difficult situations. In my years among inmates and staff, I have never seen an instance in which anger had a positive influence. Anger distorts communications and causes participants to move away from building relationships. Except during brief moments under emergency conditions, displays of anger have no positive value in corrections.
  • Corrections is often limited by myths. One such limiting myth is that once someone is a criminal, he or she will always be a criminal. There are myths based on race, gender, and age. It is helpful for the relationship warrior to recognize that we all have personal mythologies that affect our judgment and, without creating undue risk, it is important to suspend our personal agendas in order to support positive changes in human behavior.
  • Staff who are effective relationship warriors work to earn the trust of both inmates and staff. Staff should be sincere and motivated in their desire to be actively involved in their relationships. Staff can make sure they make only commitments they can meet, and they meet the commitments they make. There are many other ways to earn trust.
  • Staff who are effective relationship warriors never lose touch with the idea that all correctional relationships have a relationship to the mission of corrections.

Correctional staff who reflect the skills and attitudes of a relationship warrior will be successful in their careers. Once relationship warriors in corrections achieve effective relationships in corrections, the day-to-day business becomes much more successful. Good things happen faster with much less effort. People achieve safety improved relationships. Corrections as a profession then experiences a previously untapped resource. I invite you to add your ideas about which tools are important to the success of the relationship warrior in corrections.

Perseverance, 2010, page 63, Margaret J. Wheatley, Barrett-Kohler Publishers, 235 Montgomery Street, Suite 650, San Francisco, CA 94104-2916.
Dialogue and The Art of Thinking Together, 1999, page 9, William Isaacs, Doubleday, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.
The Thin Book of Trust – An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work, 2009, Charles Feltman, Thin Book Publishing Co., 86 SW Century Dr #446, Bend, OR 97702.
The Speed of Trust –The One Thing That Changes Everything, 2006, Stephen Covey, Free Press, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

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.