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Corrections and evidence based practices: What does it mean?

My fear is that as more corrections departments implement purely evidence based practices, we close off areas for true transformative leaders to shine

By Eric Williams

Evidence Based Practices, or EBP, has become the new catch phrase in corrections. In its most pure form, it guides the decision-making process for corrections professionals in order to direct them to use academically-tested programs for dealing with staff and inmates. As an academic, I support cooperation between my community and the community of practitioners. As one who studies prison management, I fear the ramifications.

I have two fears that relate to this dependence. The first is a bit of “inside baseball” coming from my knowledge of how the academic world works. The second has to do with the changes that we’ve seen in prison management.

Academics are highly dependent on grants to do large-scale research projects. We go through big organizations, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) or National Institute of Justice (NIJ) in order to raise the large amounts of money it takes to do an in-depth project. These foundations put out calls for proposals on specific topics of interest to them, not necessarily the topics that interest the academics. In order to be successful in the grant world, an academic needs to cater his work to the audience that is giving out the funding. This means that we, as academics, are testing practices that fit into a fairly narrow box, not looking for truly innovative practices to test.

The bigger issue I have is how all of this will affect prison leaders’ ability to innovate. Prison wardens are guided, to a sometimes frustrating degree, by their respective central offices. As prison populations grew in the 80s and 90s, so did the level of bureaucratization and central office control. Now we have added to this level of control the need to comply with EBP in programing and management techniques.

In his book Leadership, James MacGregor Burns discusses what he calls “transformative leadership.” These types of leaders are those who can change an organization by using inventive techniques. A transformative leader brings out the best in those they work with by trying different things, whether it is ways of communicating with staff or programming for inmates. Transformative leaders are willing to take risks.

My fear is that as more corrections departments implement purely evidence based practices, we close off areas for true transformative leaders to shine. By only implementing programs that have been studied and tested, we are closing off the possibility for creative transformative changes. In other words, we will eventually just keep trying the same things, despite changing prison populations and the need for new methods. A transformative leader must be given the freedom to try and sometimes fail in order to find programs that will work.

We have to find a middle ground. Give wardens and administrators the tools they need using tested EBPs, but allow them the freedom to develop and change without an overarching bureaucracy looking over their shoulders at every turn. Then bring in the academics to test these new, innovative methods. If we are putting the right people in the warden’s chair, we might see some truly innovative results.

Eric J. Williams is a professor of criminal justice at Sonoma State University.

His book, “The Big House in a Small Town: Prisons, Communities, and Economics in Rural America,” is published by Praeger Press and can be found at Amazon.

Williams joins Corrections1 through the Correctional Management Institute of Texas. See all the CMIT columnists here.

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