Roundtable: Critical issues in corrections in 2019

From staff shortages to high-tech contraband, correctional officers faced many threats this year


As 2019 comes to a close, it is time to take a look at the critical issues that challenged the corrections profession this year.

We asked several Corrections1 columnists and contributors to share what they thought were the biggest challenges along with advice on how to address these issues in 2020.

Add your thoughts in the comments below and answer our reader poll on what will be the biggest challenge for corrections in 2020.

California Correctional Officer Alejandro Martinez monitors surveillance cameras at the Male Community Re-entry Program an alternative custody unit in Oroville, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
California Correctional Officer Alejandro Martinez monitors surveillance cameras at the Male Community Re-entry Program an alternative custody unit in Oroville, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Eight current challenges in corrections

Within the corrections field, there are always challenges. The position of correctional officer is labeled “high risk” for many reasons. Here are four serious challenges the corrections profession faced in 2019:

  • Correctional officer suicide: Correctional officer suicides tied an all-time high in 2019. We must implement suicide prevention policies for officers in every jail and prison across the country. Supervisors at every level need mandatory training in how to spot an employee with possible life struggles and how to help them. Front-line staff also must be trained on how to handle a stressful situation with a fellow employee.
  • Staff shortages: This is a never-ending problem that needs immediate attention. Staff shortages lead to overworked officers, stress on the mind and body, and more use of sick time. Staff shortages also lead to a dangerous work environment when dealing with inmates. Safety for our officers and civilian prison staff must be a priority. We must provide higher pay and train supervisors on how to keep up correctional officer morale in these trying times. We must work harder with recruiting and hiring workshops to attract quality people into our profession.
  • Prison contraband: I am hearing way too often that certain jails and prisons do not have the manpower to conduct cell searches or shakedowns. This is an area of huge concern for me because officers are being attacked with homemade prison weapons and exposed to dangerous drugs. We must find a way to conduct these searches even if we have to get supervisors to assist in order to make up the manpower. We also need more training on how to watch for signs of suspicious activity and search visitors for contraband and spot corrupt prison staff.
  • Management and front-line officers working together: Both sides must learn how to listen to each other and understand what everyone is going through. Together we stand and apart we fall. Set those egos to the side.

The issues I have discussed above will carry over into the next decade and continue to be issues we must work on. A few other challenges that come to mind that we must address over the next decade are:

  • Provide officers with the latest technology to keep up with the outside world: As the outside world advances with new methods of hacking into prison IT systems and inmates hacking into prison-issued tablets, we must stay one step ahead. We must also prevent outside intruders from looking in with drones and other surveillance equipment.
  • Provide personal protective equipment for correctional officers: Lack of funds is no excuse. Officer’s lives and civilian prison staff's lives are worth every penny.
  • Update all training: I still see many agencies using outdated training material. We must update and train to survive.
  • Fund our correctional needs: We must campaign very hard this next decade to convince state legislatures to provide corrections with the proper funds for training. Leaders in corrections must be trained on how to use the funding properly.

Gary York worked as a senior prison inspector for 12 years.

Shore up correctional officer emotional survival

2019 saw an increase in attention to the well-being and resiliency of police officers and sheriff’s deputies out on patrol. That same focus has not yet made it to the men and women who are employed in our jails and prisons. While this is not necessarily a new challenge in corrections, the challenge to shore up emotional survival within the profession is yet to be satisfied. 

It’s not a surprise that a long career in corrections can potentially erode the characteristics of a high-functioning employee. Years of exposure to the correctional environment toughen staff to withstand the daily grind, but can also change correctional officers in negative ways. Think back to some of the most positive personal attributes you had when you entered into the corrections academy and take honest stock of which of them have suffered over the years. In essence, our ability to stay mentally healthy after years around inmates may be a perishable skill that needs periodic training to rebuild resiliency.

Corrections will see fewer job applicants across the country and employees who are more likely to hop jobs within their first three years of employment. Command staff and shift supervisors will be challenged to keep the new generation of recruits engaged in the workplace and will need to appeal to their desire for mission specifics, technological integration and a knowledge that what they do matters to the overall vision of an institution. Our challenge moving forward will be to be more flexible in our management styles of a generation we can’t do without.

Zohar Zaied is a background investigator assigned to the Corrections Division at the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California.

The growing contraband threat 

While staffing is always a challenge for corrections and will continue to be one for years to come, there is another challenge that the corrections profession has faced in 2019: contraband

This challenge can and should be resolved by redoubling our efforts to be proactive and resolute with our responses to the continuing and growing threat of more and more dangerous contraband coming into our correctional environments. This can be achieved by:

  • Remaining observant of threats from all directions;
  • Conducting regular and thorough searches;
  • Holding ourselves accountable;
  • Cutting off the sources and pathways of contraband infiltration into our facilities.

These contraband threats are primarily coming in the forms of deadly narcotics and advanced technology devices.

There is an alarming number of inmate drug overdoses taking place in our nation’s prisons, a number of which are resulting in fatalities. Many in the public are simply unaware of this because these deaths often go unreported by the mainstream media, so little is done to prevent overdoses from happening. Fentanyl is one of the most dangerous drugs we have coming into our institutions with staff members performing basic searches at risk of being exposed to this deadly substance.

We must do better in ending the flow of these drugs into our facilities.

Cell phones are being smuggled into correctional facilities all the time. These devices have more superior capabilities than most of the computer systems that operate in our facilities. Plus, there are a greater number of inmates that possess the technological savvy to do great harm with them.

Drone aircraft are more cutting-edge than ever and available at lower costs with 4K video recording, programmable flight patterns, artificial intelligence guidance and even augmented reality flight controls that allow almost anyone to operate them with a professional level of ability. These cheap and light-weight drones also possess the capability of delivering all types of illicit cargo. They have been modified by users with functioning weapons systems such as small-caliber guns and explosives. I have even seen one with a flame thrower. They can also be easily outfitted with an aerosol dispersal system containing chemical or biological contaminants.  

These threats are very real and will only become a greater challenge to corrections over the next decade and beyond. Corrections administrators and front-line security staff will have to remain vigilant and proactive in learning all they can about these threats and how we can best prepare, prevent and overcome the resulting disorder and chaos within our correctional environments.

Staff and inmate safety should be of paramount concern to all DOC agencies and they should make sure that corrections staff have all the tools and training needed to protect and defend from these advancing threats.

Sgt. David Cardinal has been in the service of the Wisconsin Department of Corrections since 1995. 

Remember balance when applying technology

Round numbers seem to mesmerize us. As if by magic, milestone dates get our grey matter going. As the teens run out, the ‘20s are about to start. That prompts many of us to wonder about the future.  What is likely to happen in corrections before 2021 and by 2030? 

Certainly, new varieties of drugs on the streets and pharmacies will be smuggled into our corrections facilities in unobtrusive and fiendishly clever ways. This continuation of bootlegging will be facilitated by smaller and smarter communications devices in the hands of offenders and those who do their bidding. 

What we will see will really be newer versions of old problems in our vocation. It has always been a matter of keeping drugs and illicit communications out of the hands of prisoners in order to keep things safer for the public. It comes down to using standard corrections practices of detection and employing new technologies.

Of course, caveats come to mind. Over-reliance on new detection technologies could prove fruitless. As we “rely on the robot,” the vigilance of staff seems less necessary to the technophile and to bean counters. If the technology turns out to be mediocre in execution and we also stand down from our usual watchfulness, we run the risk of shortchanging the search process. 

Where does basic observation come in? Little cues may tell staff that something is not quite right. Some may deem that “the X factor” or intuition. Others, myself included, call it pattern analysis. Whatever we call something that is not as is seems, observation, patience and communication between staff will still be needed. 

In fact, technology should never overshadow observation. The marriage between vigilance and new technologies could make the coming decade safer for staff, offenders and the public. 

Joe Bouchard worked in a maximum correctional facility for 25 years and is now retired. He continues to write and present on many corrections topics. 

Move away from "thankless job" mindset, understand inmate custody and treatment needs 

An ongoing issue facing corrections is providing adequate mental health training and services for the individuals who sacrifice their lives every day to do a job most people would not do.

Incidents happen where too often the focus is on the well-being of the inmate. Yes, every correctional professional took an oath to provide a safe, secure and humane environment for the inmate population, but correctional administrations must do a better job of taking care of their own. Correctional professionals deserve to feel appreciated; we need to move away from the “thankless job” mind-set and provide myriad support systems for staff. Working inside a correctional facility for 10+ hours a day, sometimes 7+ days in a row can truly damage an individual’s mental stability, which is why support from administration and tailored training around mental health awareness are imperative to a healthy, successful career.

Looking ahead, corrections will face challenges as the country moves to fix a broken criminal justice system, one in which minorities are disproportionately represented. 

I believe that the biggest challenge over the next decade will be to recruit, hire, train and retain staff who understand the custody and treatment needs of the inmate population. It seems that the motto, “Be fair, firm, and consistent” has fallen by the wayside. New staff, as well as current staff, need annual and continual training on how to manage and supervise a diverse inmate population. Yes, the basics still need to be taught (i.e., housing management, key and tool control, accountability of inmates and behavior management), but there also needs to be a greater focus of training so staff are culturally competent in order to provide a safe, secure and humane environment, as well as being fair, firm and consistent, regardless of the inmate’s skin color, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.

It is imperative we train our staff better so that we can adapt quickly to the ever-changing environment we are faced with. 

Jenna Curren, MS, is an assistant professor of criminal justice studies and former DOC lieutenant.   

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