Why we need to change corrections at its very C.O.R.E. to improve recruitment and retention

Correctional staff are greatly under-utilized with performance expectations diminished to an abhorrently low level

By Sgt. David A. Cardinal

The current organization of corrections staffing, operational duties and correctional housing unit responsibilities needs modification to address inefficiencies, create incentives to retain and attract more experienced staff to correctional positions, and restore necessity respect and authority to our front-line security staff. Additionally, the corrections profession need changes that will effectively improve staff morale and instill a greater level of pride for the people performing this challenging work. We need a monumental foundational shift to occur.

What follows is what I have termed a Correctional Operations Reorganization Exposition, or C.O.R.E. for short. I hope it will be the starting point for reorganizing the corrections profession to benefit both staffing and operations.

The corrections profession need changes that will effectively improve staff morale and instill a greater level of pride for the people performing this challenging work.
The corrections profession need changes that will effectively improve staff morale and instill a greater level of pride for the people performing this challenging work. (Photo/CorrectionsOne)

8 steps for correctional operations reorganization

Correctional staff are greatly under-utilized with performance expectations diminished to an abhorrently low level. The majority are capable of much more than they are required to do, while those who are lacking in some skills or abilities deserve to receive training to improve their capabilities.

We need to create an environment where people feel privileged and honored to work in corrections. Raising expectations and providing opportunities for people to achieve success while uncovering pathways for professional development will draw more people into corrections and inspire pride for the jobs we perform. When corrections is widely viewed as a respected career and a valued service to the community, people of high character and motivation will be attracted to join our mission.

Here are eight key areas to address:

1. We must retain experienced sergeants on correctional housing units. This is essential so that these officers can share their knowledge and experience with the less-experienced officers under their direction. Part of their duties are aiding the development of these officers while providing a stabilizing and guiding presence on the housing units. A sergeant should endeavor to bring out the best in their officers and inspire within them the desire to better themselves and advance their own careers.

2. All staff members must advance and build up their skills and capabilities. There should be opportunities for staff to perform tasks and assignments that are outside of their regular routine duties that push them out of their comfort zones in order to discover their strengths and weaknesses. This allows supervisors to better understand the individual potential of each staff member while also uncovering what these staff members need to learn or improve upon in order to advance their careers.

3. We should provide greater opportunities for more staff involvement on committees, training and extra-duty positions. Many staff repeatedly express that they are interested in but are rarely offered an opportunity to participate in extra-duty positions. To better open up this process and advance the fair assignment of extra-duty positions, we should post them just as we do other job postings. Administration can establish qualifications or other benchmarks they see fit to assign for them, including having an interview process if warranted. Service in any of these extra-duty positions should, if it is not already, be noted in personnel files. Additionally, other means of recognition and incentives should be developed to draw in a greater participation level and inspire others to serve at a more committed level. 

4. Tangible benefits and additional authority for sergeants would act as an incentive for officers to apply for promotional positions. The sergeant positions should offer some greater scheduling stability and provide a better balance of work and personal life.

5. Additional responsibilities for sergeants would encourage more ownership of their housing units. Sergeants should conduct performance reviews on the officers that serve under their direction and present them to their supervisor rather than having supervisors that have very little (if any) interaction with the officers conducting them. The sergeants should be more involved with inmate reviews and offer programming recommendations. They should be hearing minor conduct report tickets and assigning dispositions and sanctions. When sergeants know that they have a greater voice and feel that they can make a difference in the outcomes of actions taking place, they will take more ownership of their housing units and feel more pride in the roles they serve.

6. There need to be stronger partnerships between unit or program managers and housing unit sergeants. These sergeants should be acting almost as a co-manager of these areas and assisting with coverage in the manager’s absence. Managers should work in tandem with sergeants and prepare them to potentially become future managers or fill other administrative roles. This aids in the development and advancement of staff members, which secures the future leadership of each facility and provides consistency of mission objectives for the department.

7. Develop and promote Limited Term Employment (LTE) programs and other temporary or part-time roles. We have many retired staff members with an enormous depth of correctional knowledge and experience. Many could be willing, with a little persuasion, to come in and cover occasional shifts or provide specialized training. They should be encouraged to share their knowledge and experience while giving them the opportunity to supplement their retirement income by participating in an LTE or similar program. The dramatic change in purpose that occurs in retirement plays a big factor in the shortened life expectancies of correctional retirees. Administrators should actively recruit these people into this limited service role. It also shows them that while they may no longer be a full-time staff member they still have value and can be of benefit to others. This can be instrumental in offering a continuing purpose in a life that was once very active and fulfilled by their service in corrections.

8. Create a limited number of part-time correctional officer positions. These should be created to aid in providing miscellaneous vacancy coverage. Staff could be scheduled to work as extras on the weekends, but they could also be allowed to accept vacancies that occur during the middle of the week as well, working up to, but not more than 40 hours a week. This will help alleviate some of the forced overtime that regularly occurs in corrections and aid in reducing the number of hours the state has to pay out at a time-and-a-half rate. They could be utilized to provide coverage for additional training opportunities for full-time staff. They could be assigned random tasks or projects that often end up getting put off or overlooked because of being short-staffed. Area searches, contraband sweeps on housing units and other special actions needed can be more consistently accomplished with the addition of a small contingent of part-time officers.

Applying this C.O.R.E concept to a correctional facility or even an entire department is just the beginning. Engaging this process of evaluation would reinvigorate many of the disenchanted and disgruntled staff members that are just marking time and punching a clock until something better comes along or they ultimately drudge along into their retirement. People want to feel pride in serving in corrections, they want to feel good about coming into work each day and they want to feel like they are valued and making a difference. That is not the current mindset for most staff working in corrections anywhere in our country.

A substantial move to restructure how we function operationally and how we care for and develop our precious human resources would profoundly help overcome the staffing, recruitment and retention challenges that correctional operations in federal, state and local government service have struggled with for generations.

Good luck in all your endeavors. Be alert, be aware and be safe!

About the author

Sgt. David Cardinal has been in the service of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections since 1995. He has served at four different correctional facilities over his correctional career. He has worked in every area of correctional operations within medium and maximum custody levels and has been a strike team leader in an Emergency Response Unit. Additionally, he has been a field training officer helping to train and guide incoming security staff on the facility’s daily functions and operations.

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