Developing solid corrections leadership

In corrections, every officer must be a leader

By Barry Evert

In many jobs, leadership is left to supervisors. Think of foremen, CEOs, and middle managers.

We are in a profession that requires us, regardless of rank or position, to lead from the first day we pin on the badge.

Do you remember your first day? Your eyes were probably a bit glassy; your heart probably raced a lot. Many of us felt a little trickle of sweat down our back when we first were put in charge of a large group of inmates.

As an officer, there is no way you can fight every inmate you meet. You must use communication skills to make them comply. But the odds are stacked against officers. There are often 80 or more inmates for every officer in a prison, and this number gets higher as the security level goes down. I have watched many times as four yard officers stood watch over a 400-man yard of murderers and rapists. Somehow we pull it off.

There are many types of leaders in our profession, but they are generally separated between officers and supervisors. Let’s take a look at the two main groups.

The Officer
As leaders, officers must understand how their behavior affects both inmates and fellow officers. The following is a portrait of the different types of officers I’ve met over my years on the job, along with a short analysis of their effects on inmates and fellow officers and my advice for avoiding negative behavior.

The Player
Players believe they are God’s gift to Corrections. They know it all when they hit the gate. They roam the facility treating everyone as their inferior. Players lack communication skills and may fall prey to manipulation by inmates, who see their cockiness as an indication of hidden fear. Players often stay stuck in their bad behavior because of their stubborn pride.

To avoid becoming a player, make sure you come into the system humble but firm. Learn the rules of your facility and seek help from your peers. If you think you can strut around the yard and pretend to know what you are doing, you are sorely mistaken. Sit down, shut up and listen.

The Bucker
This officer does anything to swim upstream. Buckers refuse to conform to the system and feel that they are entitled to their position regardless of their behavior. They often refuse to comply with anything a supervisor directs, and will find something to complain about every day. Buckers are easy targets for inmate manipulators, and can easily be convinced to ignore rules.

If you’re a bucker, it’s best to just leave the system. Buckers drag morale down the toilet, and they can compromise an entire unit. At the end of the day, all we have is each other, and these toxic types do no good for their brethren.

The Commander
This officer enforces every little rule, every single time. He carries the regulation book around like it is his bible. Commanders are not respected by their peers, as this type is likely to rat on their colleagues for small infractions. They may project a larger than life, unwavering commitment to the regulations, but commanders are often unable to lead.

To avoid becoming a commander, learn to use your discretion. Not all rules must be applied rigidly every time. Cops will often let speeders off with a warning, and corrections officers can, metaphorically, do the same. Officers who lead through a combination of enforcement and restraint are more effective than those who relentlessly bark orders.

The 14-day Officer
These officers are unable to say no to anything. These officers lack leadership like a bicycle lacks an engine. These officers have no desire to excel; they just want their paycheck every two weeks. They will not support their partners, and rarely come out of the office or take initiative. In an emergency, they lack the leadership and communication skills to get out of trouble. This type is usually a prime target for assaults, as their lack of communication and leadership open them up to confrontation.

Avoid becoming this type by treating all inmates the same, all the time. Take the initiative in a crisis. Become assertive with problem inmates. Get up and get motivated, or get out and leave.

The “Cop”
Cops are true leaders. They have the brains to communicate effectively, the brawn to battle, and the personality to lead. Cops have the respect of their peers, and of the inmates. Inmates will usually follow the instructions of this officer. This is the ideal personality for officers, and it takes experience, and many mistakes, to achieve.

The Supervisor
Alright, now that I have harped on officers, it is time for me to speak to my fellow supervisors. Supervisors can all fall into the same categories described above. As a leader of leaders, it is supervisors’ job to support officers and make leaders out of them.

This can be hard to do from a desk. I know supervisors have a ton of paperwork, but they need to get out of their office periodically to make sure they are doing their part in grooming the leaders of tomorrow.

And leading is about more than busting bad behavior. Supervisors are here to give officers the tools they need to do their job. Change is always possible – both for good and for bad – and it is supervisors’ attitude and leadership that will rally the troops to effect change.

Make no mistake, leading leaders is tough, especially the passionate officers we work with. Show your officers what it is you expect through your own conduct, and they will follow. Barking orders and making their lives miserable will only drag down morale, and when the time comes for them to follow, they will rebel. You can prove your worth as a leader through your experience and your conduct.

Go out this week and ask your officers what they would change about the area you supervise. If there is a consensus on an issue, I challenge you to take it on. If the officers tell you it cannot be done, work twice as hard. At the end of the day your officers will respect your willingness to make a positive change.

A final word for everyone
Leading through example is the only effective way to survive in our business. If the inmates see you as a “cop” and the officers respect you as a leader, then we all win. We must all lead every day. When new officers come in, it is the job of every officer and supervisor to give that person the tools they need to become an effective leader. If you see anyone stray, including your own supervisor, let it be known in a respectful manner.

I know many of you have an opinion on this, some probably contrary to mine, so please, use the area below to let me, and the other readers, know what you think.

Watch your six out there!

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