The importance of correctional leadership

Professional correctional leadership is the key to establishing and maintaining humane prisons

By James B. Jacobs and Elana Olitsky

It should be obvious to anyone familiar with the last quarter century struggle to improve prison conditions that professional correctional leadership is the key to establishing and maintaining humane prisons.

Well-run prisons are not brought into being by good philosophy, good laws, or good lawsuits, although, to be sure, these are very important. Without intelligent, competent and even inspiring prison leadership, there is little chance of creating decent, much less constructive prison environments and operations.

Even unconstitutional conditions of confinement lawsuits that result in sweeping remedial orders can only succeed if there are professional prison personnel willing and able to carry out court-mandated reforms. The most skillful prison leaders are able to utilize court interventions as opportunities to improve the prison’s physical plant and administration.

Contrariwise, if prison officials are hostile, recalcitrant or incompetent, reform cannot be accomplished. It matters who leads our prison systems and individual prisons. Prison history is full of examples of exceptional leaders who have made a difference, at least for a time, as well as with examples of leaders whose failures in vision, values, and capacity have led to squalor, chaos, and human suffering.

Leadership is crucial to all organizations, e.g., educational, military, and commercial. Many private organizations, and the U.S. armed forces, invest heavily in recruiting and developing leaders who can define, refine, and achieve goals, solve problems effectively, creatively, and efficiently, and elicit their subordinates’ best efforts.

There is a vast academic and popular literature on leadership. Given the socio-political importance of the vast jail and prison system in our society, defining the ideal qualities and characteristics of prison and jail leaders should generate a substantial corpus of professional and academic writing.

Unfortunately, literature on correctional leadership scholarship is very thin, making it all the more important that now (at this late date) we make the topic a top priority.

Correctional leadership qualities and skills
At a minimum, we need prison and jail leaders who are highly motivated, energetic, humanistic, mature, reflective and innovative. They should be capable of relating well with, and bringing out the best in, their subordinates and inmates. They must have very strong organizational management skills, based on expertise in human resources, personnel management, labor relations, and public administration.

They also need to be conversant and comfortable with public accounting and budgeting, prison law, maintenance and operation of the physical and mechanical penal infrastructure, public relations and legislative politics.

Moreover, they should be well educated in penology, criminology, correctional law, sociology of organizations, sociology of poverty, African-American studies, Latino studies, and psychology. Finally, these correctional leaders ought to have a solid grounding in the scholarly and popular literature on leadership.

This is quite a list of qualities and capacities. Can we be serious? Yes, indeed – very serious. One can hardly imagine a more difficult job than running a prison or large jail.

The assignment is to keep order, discipline, and a modicum of good morale among troubled, anti-social, and dangerous inmates, who live under conditions of extreme deprivation including idleness, lack of privacy, sexual frustration, and inter-personal and intergroup conflict; add to that overcrowded facilities, deteriorating physical plants, dwindling budgets, demanding litigation, and public health problems like AIDS, tuberculosis, and hepatitis.

Managing a penal institution so that its inmates will conform to reasonable rules, achieve and maintain good mental and physical health, not victimize one another, the staff and the facility, and even have a positive outlook is a mind-numbing challenge, but that is not all.

The correctional leaders have to manage a workforce that is massively outnumbered by the inmates, often poorly educated, poorly trained, poorly paid, feeling chronically unappreciated and laced with interpersonal and inter-group frictions and gang conflicts.

In addition, in many prisons and jails, there is the union to contend with. It constitutes a powerful stakeholder that limits (or can potentially limit) the managers’ ability to effectuate policy choices.

Finally, correctional managers have to deal with a complicated external environment of legislators, interest groups, volunteer groups, laws, lawyers, courts and media. For institutional level leaders, the correctional department’s central office is a powerful “external” player that impacts all operations and decisions.

Correctional leadership as collaboration
It must be emphasized that prison cannot be effectively managed by a single person, no matter how able and energetic; good administration requires more than just a charismatic state director of corrections or city jail director, or a heroic prison or jail warden.

Leadership may start at the top, but it needs reinforcement and amplification all the way down and across the organization. One of the most important qualities of an effective leader is the ability to recruit and inspire subordinates. Leaders need to have a breadth of vision so they can challenge their subordinates to think and operate in new ways. Prisons can no longer be run as authoritarian command-and-control organizations. Top officials must empower their subordinates to make appropriate decisions and encourage them to communicate information, ideas, and visions to the wardens.

This article is an excerpt from James B. Jacobs and Elana Olitsky, Leadership & Correctional Reform, 24 Pace L. Rev. 477 (2004) 
Available here.



James B. Jacobs is the Warren E. Burger Professor at New York University School of Law and the Director of the Center for Research in Crime & Justice. His contributions to prison scholarship include Stateville: The Penitentiary in Mass Society (1977) and New Perspectives on Prison and Imprisonment (1980) as well as numerous articles on prisons and prisoners’ rights. He is a graduate of John Hopkins University (B.A,) and the University of Chicago (J.D. and Ph.D.).

At the time of publication of the original article, Elana Olitsky was a second year student at the New York University School of Law. Prior to law school, she worked for the Defender Association of Philadelphia, where she helped to investigate conditions and staffing at several juvenile justice facilities and adult prisons. She is a graduate of Swarthmore College.

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