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Forming a proper dialogue in corrections

Success in the correctional world is entirely dependent on effective relationships among everyone involved at every level

Some correctional staff claim that what they say or don’t say to others is a matter of personal choice and their own business. Often the comment is heard, “I don’t work here to make friends.” The reality is success in the correctional world is entirely dependent on effective relationships among everyone involved at every level.

Dialogue is a cornerstone to that effectiveness. Dialogue is “a shared inquiry, a way of thinking and reflecting together. It is not something to do to another person. It is something you do with people.”1

Correctional challenges have never been more complex and difficult. One or two people should not serve as the problem solvers for an entire prison facility. It simply is not possible.

Effective dialogue opens doors by involving staff in creating successful strategies for running the organization. The result is critical to success. Leaders do not become successful in corrections unless they are good at creating and supporting successful dialogue.

To be someone who creates and supports effective dialogue, you have to do well in two general areas. First, start with yourself in terms of understanding what it is that you want out of dialogue with others. That vision needs to include a realistic idea of yourself and the kinds of things you can bring to the relationship.

Most importantly, you’ll need a clear idea of what you want to accomplish as the result of the dialogue both in the form of a brief conversation or a long-term series of encounters. You must be willing to change things about yourself that get in the way of accomplishing that vision.

Secondly, as you connect that vision with what you are saying and doing in the dialogue, you must be mindful of the pitfalls that can ruin a constructive dialogue and remain aware of your original vision of the outcome throughout the experience. We must avoid common impulses of “wanting to win,” or “hoping to remain safe,” or “seeking revenge.”2

Correctional leaders must not avoid opportunities at dialogue by hiding behind office doors. They must live in the institution and seek every opportunity to model good dialogue by suspending judgment, listening carefully, and being empathetic.

Every opportunity should be provided in meetings, shift briefings, and informal discussions for dialogue to occur. Finally, staff who refuse to exhibit the behavior that fosters dialogue and effective communication, or are purposefully destructive in this area, should be held accountable for failure to perform the challenging job of corrections.

1. Dialogue and the Art of Working Together, 1999, William Issacs, page 9, Random House, Inc., 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.

2. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, Patterson, Kerry, McMillan, and Switzler, page 649, MCGRAW-Hill Publications, 2002.

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.