Trending Topics

Prison management styles

Prison managers must be willing to get to know the culture of their facility and adjust their management style as necessary

By Eric Williams

One of the precepts of good business management -- as well as good prison management -- is the idea of “Management by Walking Around.” The gist of this concept is that you have to walk the tiers and the pods in order to know what is going on in your facility.

Wardens today are much more aware of the importance of this, whether it means standing mainline at meals or just checking up on how the staff is doing at their posts. “Walking” George Beto was famous for showing up unannounced at all of his facilities in the Texas Department of Corrections (now TDCJ).

As valuable as walking one’s facility is, the information one gets from doing this is valuable only to an extent -- there is much more to management than just being visible.

In my book, “The Big House in a Small Town,” I discuss two types of wardens: the Citizen and the Hermit. In writing about community relations with rural communities, I got to thinking about styles of management inside the facility, and the effectiveness of different styles.

One warden I got to know well was brought into a high-security facility after a correctional officer was killed by an inmate. After taking over, he cracked down on inmate alcohol consumption (including a ban on all sugared drinks), split the exercise yard into sections, and initiated a zero-tolerance policy for inmate infractions. Several years later, the facility is safer for both staff and inmates.

This warden’s style was a good fit for the type of institution he had to fix. But would it work at a different facility? Would he be as effective in a lower security prison? How much does the culture of a specific prison influence a manager’s ability to be effective?

A warden’s management style has to fit the type of institution he or she is running, and a bad match can lead to disastrous results for staff and inmates.

Although all wardens should actively walk their facilities to get a sense of their culture, this is only a start. They need to adjust their management styles to staff and inmate needs, taking into account the culture of the facility and being willing to change the culture if necessary. A gung-ho warden who wants to change things too fast will receive a backlash from staff and inmates.

In his book on policing, James Q. Wilson discusses the styles of police leadership: the watchman, legalistic, and service styles. Wilson argues that the amount of discretion in policing has allowed managers to create their own styles that match their organizations or to create an organization in his or her image.

Despite outside constraints put on prison managers from the home office, I would argue that prison managers are very similar. Ultimately, a prison is a small town and the person at the top wields a great amount of power. As organizational units, prisons differ greatly, even within a single system, even with the greater bureaucratization of corrections departments. A manager’s ability to either adapt to an organization’s culture or bend that culture to his style is an important part of being successful.

Eric’s book, “The Big House in a Small Town,” will be published in two weeks and can be purchased at Amazon.

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.