The chasm between carpet and concrete

I challenge every administrator to step out of their carpeted bubble and walk the concrete floor with their officers

There is and will always be a real and/or perceived disconnect between administrators and line officers in corrections. I refer to it as the “chasm between carpet and concrete.”

Few administrators fully appreciate the depth and breadth of this chasm between those officers we so respect and admire and our own perspective of the jobs and duties performed each day. If, as administrators, we believe we understand that separation, rarely have we found ways to make those we supervise, lead and hopefully inspire, appreciate our true passion for their safety and success on the floors of our institutions. We don’t go far enough to connect to or help those officers see the wisdom, intent and insight to the planning, actions, or policies administrators implement to ensure a safe and secure facility.

I have grown from floor officer to corporal to a sergeant supervising shifts to an assistant director in county corrections in Nebraska. To this day I do not understand how some corrections administrators so readily forget from where they came, or their duty to the officers serving under them. Each administrator must ensure officers in their network and facility take value in their daily duties, know how to pursue excellence each day when protecting the communities they serve, and how best to protect their legal and moral responsibilities from attack.

We must continually attempt to tear down the walls blocking communication between line rank officers and administrators.
We must continually attempt to tear down the walls blocking communication between line rank officers and administrators. (Corrections1)

As both an officer and administrator, I know personally the challenges inherent to our systems of management and operation. As an officer, I’ve felt the nervousness when administration shows up on the jail floor at 2 am and everyone wonders, “Who’s in trouble now”? And I have caught the wrath of administration when I asked challenging questions that all had on the tip of their tongue but none would broach due to a fear of reprisal.

I know most administrators are not “unapproachable” or unwilling to hear the challenges occurring on the jail floor each day. We do want to know. But, most administrators do not fully appreciate that long walk an officer or union rep takes from the concrete to the inner sanctum of carpeted administrative offices. This march seems miles long over a bottomless chasm of fear, trepidation and tumult. Few have the stomach for it.

I have known as an officer the gripes that circulate among COs: “Admin has no clue,” “What is admin thinking,” or “They haven’t worked the floor in years and could care less what it is like behind these gates!” I thought it as an officer. I fought it as an administrator.

This chasm is of our own making. I’ve known multiple administrators who said, “I can’t help on the floor or in a use of force as I have to maintain separation for legal review.” The officer only sees an administrator who is above them, unwilling to assist, may no longer be able to serve as an officer or who is not about to stoop down to their level. An officer will never see an administrator who is looking to protect the officer’s vulnerability to inmate allegations and legal attacks.

What we can do is continually attempt to tear down the walls blocking communication between line rank officers and administrators and go out of our way to ensure they can relate and know our true intentions.  Nothing demonstrates better an administrator’s ability to know their cadre of officers than being present: 

  • Be there during the shift. 
  • Help with ordinary officer duties. 
  • Spend time and serve with the night shift. 
  • Serve meals during chow time. 
  • Clean up the meal trays. 
  • Ask officers how their shifts are going. 

Make sure they understand when a question is asked that it is not to put their feet to the fire but to understand what they experienced, what they encountered and what they did. Administrators need to learn to phrase their questions in a less accusatory manner and more experientially focused. Do not ask, “Why did you do that” but “What were you experiencing,” “What did you see or hear,” “Why did you decide to go hands on?”

I can tell you from personal experience, nothing develops trust or appreciation of an administrator than seeing them elbow deep in an inmate toilet, examining feces for contraband in a dry cell so the CO didn’t have to. We have to do the extra, the unexpected, the tedious.

Administrators must also ensure officers are not threatened by grievances or ombudsman complaints but see them as opportunities to know where we can be better and how to ensure we get better at what we do.  We have to instill the courage to fail, the drive to learn and the passion to excel. 

I challenge every administrator to step out of their carpeted bubble and walk the floor with your officers.  Be with them. Work the night shift regularly as that will be your fast track to staff awareness. Listen to shift stories and know officers' perceptions of supervisors and administrators. Make them comfortable with “asking the tough question” or raising their concerns or mistrust. 

The onus is on administrators to bring every officer into the world of the carpet and to ensure a complete understanding of the eventual impacts of leadership decisions on their world on the concrete.

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