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Corrections in the spotlight: Navigating a year of challenges and public scrutiny

From high-profile incidents to societal debates, the corrections world grapples with external “expertise” and the evolving demands of justice and rehabilitation

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High-profile escapes, inmate attacks, improper releases and deaths in custody have thrust the realities of corrections officers’ duties and lives into the public spotlight.


This past year has been unique for corrections. The general public has gained awareness of the corrections sector, along with its societal impacts and the ways in which it mirrors societal issues in its daily operations.

Rising public awareness: The corrections sector under a microscope

High-profile escapes, inmate attacks, improper releases and deaths in custody have thrust the realities of corrections officers’ duties and lives into the public spotlight. The surge in media coverage and blogging, along with ensuing discussions, highlighted society’s urgent need to confront the chaos, turmoil and traumas inherent in the country’s criminal justice system. These discussions often gave rise to a form of “expertise” that emerges from books, compassionate intentions, and, at times, a lack of real-world experience with the realities of prison and jail environments and their unique cultures. Such “expertise,” while well-meaning, can occasionally be misguided.

The nation’s jails and prisons serve as a critical window into the shifting culture, values and societal norms, highlighting the ongoing necessity to address the civil rights and programmatic needs of current inmates. This sustained media focus and attention have led to the emergence of numerous self-proclaimed experts eager to meet these challenges.

Blogs, social media posts and media attention have squarely placed the responsibility on prisons and jails to address and resolve these issues. While these institutions perform their roles behind the walls, they are primarily reactive to the systemic influx of inmates, as determined by the courts and judicial system. This influx often includes violent individuals and those suffering from mental illness. Prisons and jails have no choice but to house, feed, care for, protect and rehabilitate these individuals, who are identified as risks to society. Their role is fundamentally to manage and respond to this continuous influx of residents.

The expertise dilemma: Navigating external perspectives in corrections

In today’s climate, it seems everyone has an opinion — and increasingly, a platform to broadcast it — on how to manage the inmate population. Many are eager to share their perspectives and offer their expertise and guidance on the programmatic vision and mission they believe is necessary in prisons and jails. Their goal is often to transform lives and rehabilitate even the most challenging inmates — including violent felons and predators — into productive citizens.

This burgeoning influx of opinions and expertise from outside the corrections system presents an ongoing challenge for correctional facilities and their leaders. Such external viewpoints, often regarded by the public as de facto expert advice on corrections management and objectives, are not likely to diminish soon. Consequently, facility administrators, wardens, and prison/jail representatives must stay responsive to these evolving trends and recommendations. It’s imperative for them to continually showcase and demonstrate their mission and commitment to correctional reform at every opportunity.

The reality behind bars: Addressing inmate needs and systemic challenges

I will always remember the response from a tour I conducted years ago for three County Public Defenders and two County Court Judges. All of them were actively involved in ensuring the needs of inmates were met in their area. During this tour, they witnessed firsthand my facility’s response to two emergency situations within a span of just 11 minutes.

The first emergency involved a response to an inmate suicide attempt, where a 300-pound inmate threw himself down a flight of stairs. Two officers, attempting to mitigate the inmate’s fall, ran halfway up the stairwell. The resulting collision sent all three tumbling to the bottom in a heap. Although the inmate was bloodied and the officers were visibly shaken, thankfully, there were no injuries. The inmate received immediate medical assessment, was helped to his feet, and then taken to intake for observation. The participants of my tour were deeply impressed by the officers’ bravery and commitment, as they didn’t hesitate to put themselves in harm’s way to protect the inmate.

The second incident unfolded as we were walking down the central hallway toward the booking area. Just as we passed the barbershop, two inmates began to fight. The situation was met with an immediate and coordinated response from our officers. Impressively, seven officers from various units and sections of the facility arrived on the scene within just 16 seconds of the assistance call. They swiftly intervened, efficiently separating the inmates and bringing the assault to an end.

In the post-tour debrief, the visitors expressed not just surprise at our facility’s response to the incidents, but also amazement at the routine, almost “matter-of-fact” manner in which each event was handled. I explained to them that this was a typical Tuesday for us, and that our officers are always prepared and ready for each shift to address the needs arising from our inmate population.

Following the tour, the legal counsels and judges became allies, offering their support to our facility and its programs. They stood in our defense when social media experts and public opinion demanded sweeping systemic changes within the facility. These individuals continued to be a voice for the community, countering the calls for change from naysayers and the masses. They became our trusted experts, consistently engaging in the dialogue and never shying away from the challenges. Their support and advocacy in this role persisted well beyond my tenure at the facility.

Building bridges: How community leaders become allies of correction

“Voices of expertise and insight” from the highest levels are invaluable resources that should be developed and nurtured. As local corrections experts, we each have a significant role in expanding our network, building a team of reliable allies who understand and support our mission. This collective effort is crucial in shaping a strong support system for our challenging yet vital work.

Craig Gottschalk entered corrections in 2010 as a floor officer at the Saunders County Corrections Center in Wahoo, Nebraska and was quickly promoted to a supervisor role as a corporal and then shift sergeant. He served as third shift sergeant for five years until he was selected to serve as the assistant director at the Hall County Corrections Center in Grand Island, NE. Gottschalk served as the liaison to the Nebraska Ombudsman’s Office, Nebraska Jail Standards Board and multiple agencies and partners with the Hall County Corrections efforts. He was selected to serve as assistant ombudsman for corrections for the State of Nebraska in May 2022. Gottschalk provides guidance, investigation and oversight for county jails and the state corrections system in Nebraska, addressing inmate claims of rights violations, health care neglect, classification appeals, and other incarceration security and operational challenges.

Gottschalk has testified before the Nebraska Legislature Judiciary Committee regarding corrections issues and has spoken to the media on multiple occasions about corrections issues in Nebraska and across the US. Gottschalk has focused his management efforts on the pursuit of “excellence” versus the challenge of attaining perfection.

Contact Craig here.