Corrections and 9/11: Lessons learned from tragedy

If asked, prison and jail staff on the job during 9/11 can likely recall in detail the part they played in America's biggest story

By Cherrie Greco

Contemporary criminal justice communities recognize the enormous impact of crime on victims. Ten years ago this fall, all Americans became victims of the greatest crime ever committed on our soil, and since that event, law enforcement agencies have forever altered the manner in which they manage daily operations and respond to emergencies.

During that event, the traditional public safety mission was tugged, pulled, and wrenched upward, so that today, agencies who fail to adequately recruit and retain talented personnel, or fail to provide the training and technology needed to react appropriately, run the risk of placing their staff, offenders, and the public unnecessarily in harm's way.

If asked, prison and jail staff on the job during 9/11 can likely recall in detail the part they played in America's biggest story.

On 9/11, as prisons and jails began to lock down nation-wide, staff were conflicted and fearful about the safety of their own families, about unknown dangers to be met head on, and their duty to stay on post.

Since that time, agency leaders have developed critical emergency plans which, when executed in the midst of chaos, mean trained and prepared employees will perform and support one another and carry out well-defined roles, not only for the benefit of their own institutions, but also for sister law enforcement agencies, all with the spirit of common cause and cooperation.

In addition, offender property, contraband, mail room procedures, visitation, phone calls, classification and the role of the inspector general have all been impacted by lessons learned from 9/11.

During the past 10 years, prison and jail budgets have grown lean, while demands and expectations have increased, and public officials are being challenged to manipulate the largest item on prison and jail balance sheets: personal services.

Wage and benefit packages make up the largest piece of the pie, and even with staff cutbacks across the board, vacancy savings and other strategies to save precious budget dollars, agencies must continue to hire a correctional work force.

As new hires are assimilated into organizations, they should grow to increase skill and commitment, as demonstrated by organizational leaders. But how can agencies be sure they are soundly investing in a valid recruitment and retirement process? Staff who fail to measure up later, or blatantly violate agency policy requiring disciplinary action or even termination, need ongoing maintenance.

On the other hand, many well-meaning and professional staff are eager to make the right choices and take the high road. The hiring process, then, is crucial. The testing and application component should include an in-depth background check, some form of academic exam for specific positions, and a professional integrity interview. Successful completion of pre-service training should be a condition of hire.

Since September 11, 2001, correctional agencies have learned to develop vigilance, and recognize their staff must never, never take shortcuts. Correctional professionals combat terrorism every day by embracing their duty, performing as they have been trained and ensuring complacency never creeps in to erode the integrity of the mission.

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