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Archive for the ‘Staff relations’ Category

Corrections fundamentals – The L.O.T.I.S. concept

July 7th, 2011

It has been about a dozen years since I picked up a pen and jotted my thoughts on the nature of corrections. In that time, I have visited many topics in various publications. In over a decade’s passing, much has changed in the world of publishing. One can scarcely believe the rapid shift from print to digital.
This article is an excellent example of this shift. Print on paper, while not dead, is not the only way for words to be regarded and exchanged. The rise of the internet has seen to this. In fact, books themselves may be written as e books and never with any form of stylus.
Despite those changes, corrections fundamentals are the same. And though fiscal uncertainties currently dot our vocational landscape, we are basically charged with the same task – keep offenders, staff, and the public safe.
Because of our important mission, we need to occasionally assess our foundation of knowledge. Consider our vocational foundation as a four-sided entity that supports all of our actions in the pursuit of our mission of safety. Our mission is compromised if we are not on a solid foundation.
And if we have no regard for the environment which supports our foundation, we are setting ourselves up for failure. In other words, we need also to look at the outside. Nothing is self contained. Nothing exists in a bubble. And corrections is no exception to this.
In consideration of our continued good work and operational integrity, I have designed the L.O.T.I.S. concept. L.O.T.I.S. allows us to assess the following:
Limitations consist of all external forces imposed upon our operations. Local politics, state and federal mandates, expectations of accrediting entities and economic factors all are examples of these. “Limitations” is the platform that the four following elements are placed.
Offender economies. It is no secret that prohibited exchange of goods and services in our jails and prisons is a vexing and persistent problem. Staff who understand how and why offenders trade contraband have a better chance of mitigating danger inside. The ultimate goal in contraband control is to enhance safety for all.
Teamwork is an important foundation element in corrections. Staff cooperation benefits all stakeholders and is the glue that holds together operations. Joint efforts enhance individual talents and help achieve a facility and agency’s goals.
Instruction that we receive through official channels forms our actions in our first days on the job. Continued training keeps us focused and professional. Good instruction is like regular oil changes that keep a vehicle operating dependably.
Self-knowledge is crucial for continued professionalism. All of us need to take a look at ourselves and see how we fit into operations. Without self-knowledge, we are like the hiker in a wilderness without a GPS. We simply meander with no purpose of direction and no perspective.
As you proceed through corrections, you can take a journey of discovery by exploring the outside and inside of your operations. With the concept of L.O.T.I.S., you can transform corrections concepts into prudent practice.

Assessing the organization, Security, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations, Training

Five rookie mistakes

June 23rd, 2011

Talk about hard lessons learned early! I know of a young driver who was almost done with the first portion of her drivers’ education course. She passed a written test and was just a few miles shy of completing her supervised time behind the wheel.

Little did she know that a deer, oblivious to the laws of physics and the weight of a mid-sized sedan, would try to dodge the vehicle she was driving. Try is the operative word. Put else wise, in the closing moments of her education, she got into a car/deer accident.

With the many hazards in the strange world corrections, it pays to be cautious. Season corrections veterans are not exempted from making errors. Still, it behooves us to watch the progress of junior staff and to help them as we can. Part of that is recognizing their missteps. Informing rookies of their mistakes may help our new colleagues avoid future occurrences. Here are five classic examples:

Over friendly –people can overdo it on being jovial in the corrections setting. Whether this behavior is because of upbringing or is a coping mechanism for stress, it is dangerous. Friendliness can be mistaken for a counter–corrections persona, forcing staff away when the rookie is most in need of support. In addition, this can be misconstrued by offenders. Over friendly is under cautious.

Overbearing – wielding the new authority like the lock in a sock is threatening. Quite simply, it puts veteran staff and offenders on edge. There is a difference between being assertive and being an aggressively loose cannon. Overbearing is under cautious

Having favorites – uniformity of action is like oil in corrections’ engine. When taken away, the engine seizes up. Favoritism builds resentment and revenge. It fosters distrust. In addition, favoritism gives the offender/recipient leverage for future manipulation schemes.

Failure to ask questions – those too timid to inquire about proper procedure may put a foot in the legal or ethical quagmire. There many operating procedures and practices in place that may seem counterintuitive to new corrections staff. Still, they are developed for a reason. Still, new staff fail to ask crucial questions because they do not wish to appear naïve or inept. During training, questions are expected. Performing the wrong action, or even in action, may land and the neophyte into deep trouble.

Overt fear – it can be granted that corrections is not a perfect fit for many. And being afraid on the first day inside is natural. In moderation, a little nervous tension is safer than the mindless chest thumping bravado. However, uncontrollable and noticeable fear sends the wrong signals. Other staff may label the newbies as cowardly and create distance. Prisoners will notice of fear and some will try to capitalize on it.

These and other road bumps make corrections one of the most challenging vocations there is. How do we ease transition for new staff? Training programs are of great assistance. Communicating that questions will be answered is also beneficial. A well-trained and mentor staff person adds to our overall safety. Veteran staff have a duty to help newbies through the hazards. Perhaps patience is the best philosophy for veterans to adopt when training new staff. It is also useful for the veteran to look back on their first days inside the walls.

Now we go back to our heroine. She was shaken, but not hurt. All others in the car were also well. The deer, of course, was killed. It is difficult to react to the unpredictable elements of wildlife, other drivers, and driving conditions while learning how to operate a motor vehicle. Corrections neophytes learning to operate in a jail or prison have a similar difficulty. Just like those of the young driver, rookie mistakes in our profession can cast a long shadow and can be dangerous.

Assessing the organization, Security, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations, Training

Notes to Newbies

June 15th, 2011

Do you remember when you were a fish? Can you recall the discomfort, trepidation, and uncertainty of your first days in the corrections profession? For most of us, it was like carrying the weight of the world.

Although it about 18 years ago for me, I remember my first days in corrections in the same detail as though it were my latest meal. I felt as encumbered as Atlas bearing the weight of the world on his mythical shoulders. First impressions are lasting, after all.

Working in a prison is something one has to experience to fully appreciate. Certainly, training and research help new professionals adjust. But no amount of training, reading, and reflection can match the value of actual time on the job. I believe that I learned many lessons in my first days of employment. Here are a just few of them:

 Every second is a test. Prisoners constantly tested me from all angles to see my vocational worth and general malleability. The range was from subtle ruse to blatant aggression.
 All staff eyes are watching. I knew that many colleagues were scrutinizing me very closely. They wanted to also test my mettle and reliability.
 There were so many policies to learn. I could not believe the voluminous literature that I had to become accustomed with in order to become effective at my job.
 Keep things in perspective. Initially, I failed to keep things in perspective. I was frozen in fear of litigation and physical attack. My personal worries hindered my view of the greater, interconnected picture. Gaining perspective tempered my trepidation.
 Balance is key. Obsessive fear of attack can paralyze. Complacency can make one a target. Cool vigilance is the best moderation.
 Things will improve if you keep working at it. In the early stages of my career, the stress and anxiety from each day led me to want to quit my job daily. I dreaded going into work each day.

Eventually, I discovered that, as a staff member, I could exercise considerable control of my area and of my career. I could be the architect of my own vocational fate. I merely had to apply those lessons.

For example, I realized that it is no big deal that I am tested from all sides. I simply had to pass the tests with the plain application of policy and procedure in a firm but fair manner. Also, moderation helped temper the fear and change it to respect for my environment. I learned to think ahead, yet not tire myself out on contingency plans. With all of this, the stress declined. I actually grew to like my job very much. Balance, balance, and balance.

I learned that those and other lessons are fundamental for success in corrections. I was not the only one who has ever felt “the six month jitters”. It was a common occurrence. So, in sum, Newbies are not alone. All of your colleagues have gone through the same as you.

Assessing the organization, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations, Training

A solution to staff division: The rock of integrity

May 12th, 2011

Recognizing staff division is easy. Repairing it is difficult, tedious and typically takes more than just one encounter. But the answer to many of our interpersonal woes lies in the strength of the individual.

When we ponder the impact of the individual, we should look not only to the negative, but also in the positive direction. Certainly, we notice individuals who engage in staff division quite easily, we must never forget those who face division in a steady, un-intimidated manner. These individuals are like rocks of integrity.

In a recent article for, I outlined various staff dividers in corrections. (See “Ten Dividers in Corrections” published on January 17, 2011) one of our colleagues later commented about the lack of solutions in the piece. In essence, I outlined many dividers, but offered just a few words about how the key to solving staff division is in our hands.

A kernel of the answer lies in the second to last paragraph of the Dividers article: “There are many other problems that we have very little control over such as budget, public opinion, and cycles of crime. Of all of the challenges that face our vocation, how we treat each other is largely in our hands.” I mean by that, each of us as individuals control how we act and react. Of course, we cannot directly control others. But we can take steps to limit the control others have over us.

Let’s take a run of the mill divider like the obnoxious bully. This type, of course, uses sarcasm, belittlement and out and out rudeness to control others (and to fulfill whatever emptiness that nags at their inner self.)

The obnoxious bully runs into a colleague who is a rock of integrity. The rock is not scared of the ramblings, does not yield, and is steadfast in professionalism. The rock engages the bully in an assertive (not aggressive) manner. The obnoxious bully, used to no opposition, is frustrated and has to make a decision before losing face. How do bullies deal with a rock? They either have to climb it, go around it, try to move it, or turn around and walk away.

Climb the rock- Dividers will use tactics that are direct hits to the solid, immovable rock. These can include ridicule, loud demonstrations, or lies. In this option, it is a drive up the middle.

Go around rock- Cutting the losses and after assessing the resolve of integrity, the divider simply disengages and circumvents the rough spot. Once clear, the divider resumes the reign of workplace terror.

Try to move the rock – This can be done directly with forward tactics as outlined in “climb the rock”. Or, more subtle ways can be used. Through influence or behind the scenes coercion, the divider can have the rock of integrity exiled from their normal areas of influence. Of course, all of this depends on the abilities and connections of the divider.

Walk away from the rock- In the best case scenarios, the divider gets bruised on the hard rock and turns from the path. If the bully is a realist and recognizes the resolve of the rock, a guarded retreat is possible. This may result in some introspection. It does not happen often. But an example of firm integrity can sometimes change the actions of others. And the example that it serves for victims of division is heartening.

It is not always pretty, of course. But it is always interesting to see the resolve of both parties. Progress may not be notable, but it can be slow and steady. And it may even be in the form of a slowing of a divisive individual. That is the specialty of the rock of integrity.

I admit that it is a small consolation. But, it is something. We control our own person. And when it works, it is priceless. And in some cases, it could have a ripple effect for other good things. Naturally, I know that this is hard. It is almost like contraband control – no matter how diligent we may be, our efforts will likely produce few positive results. The task is just too large to completely control. But, as a positive-realist, I say that every little bit helps.

Mountains are thrown up in slow and steady movements over time. Change does not have to be dramatic to happen. In fact, it may even be imperceptible. And the same may be true of repairing staff division in correction. A simple rock of integrity may force change upon the thinking of a would-be divider.

Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

People storm

May 4th, 2011

People storm – pee-puh stawrm – noun – an explosive, human driven disruption – including yelling, fits of anger, and occasional violence.

The snow is receding in the Northern Hemisphere. Birds that I have not seen since Fall reappear. The buds are in the trees, the grass starts to green, and there is more daylight and warmth. Still, even with pleasant weather ahead, we cannot forget the lessons we learn from the winter.

There’s nothing quite like an uncomfortable event to prepare one for the next time. For example, what we learn during massive snow storm can be applied to the next storm. Through experience we learn to purchase food supplies, fill gas tanks, and arrange snow removal. With these things in place, we weather the storm. Those who ignore the signs are likely to feel more discomfort.

In many ways, the discomfort that stormy personalities bring can be looked at like hunkering down for huge weather event. Whether you hear rants and abusive language or blizzard winds, reading the signs and basic preparedness helps to cope for the onslaught to come.

What are some strategies to deal with disagreeable sorts?

Look for triggers – Does the offender explode when reminded of rule violations? Are colleagues likely to squawk when assigned to something that is not their preference? Triggers are found in many forms and occur at different frequencies.

Discern patterns – Patterns are like triggers that come at a regular and predictable time. Pay cycles, for example, may indicate probable behavior of some people. There may be crabbiness prior to pay day and elation afterwards. An offender may become disruptive as the end of a callout approaches, though the offender was calm up until then. A simple pattern analysis may be as useful a predictor of behavior as weather modeling. Just as a wind from the North or Northwest over Lake Erie in November will dump snow on Buffalo, certain times will cause certain behaviors.

Played a game “What if…” – When the weather calls for a foot of snow, you place a shovel near the exit door. The same is true of a people storm. Think of what you might say if the people storm arrives. Know your escape routes. Know your defensive postures.

Call for backup in advance – Winter weather warnings usually prompt extra plows, sand, and salt to be on the ready. If a potential disruption is on the horizon as read by the patterns and triggers, let colleagues know in advance.

Accept false alarms – Sometimes, despite all triggers and patterns, the predicted storm will pass by. We must be professionally able to step down from a high alert when threatening conditions have passed. Otherwise, we set ourselves up for stress that we do not need in this often vexing vocation of hours. Our flexibility in this may determine our vocational usefulness.

In certain latitudes, upon us all a little snow was all. And for those of us who deal with many different personalities, not every moment will be pleasant. Still, with advance planning and good reading of patterns, we can mitigate many human relations headaches. People storms do not have to paralyze operations. Just as the snows will fall, we know that certain events may challenge the harmony of an institution.

Staff relations

Seven thoughts about rumors

April 7th, 2011

I’m confident that you have never heard this question before:

“What does the existence of Bigfoot and rumors in corrections have in common?”

1. A sighting of the creature and a juicy rumor are intriguing. Either will break the monotony, sometimes causing pandemonium.
2. Some people will analyze and investigate until the truth is found. They declare rumors as reality only when presented with ample evidence.
3. A vocal minority will run with the rumor. This sort is fueled by the excitement of possibilities, but unencumbered by hard data.

Regarding the creature, I am not coming down on either side of its existence. This is not the place for it. It is a matter best addressed by crypto-zoologists and Sasquatch enthusiasts. However, this is an interesting, if not quirky, backdrop to this notion. Rumors in agencies can grow and mutate in unpredictable ways. And this is important to consider as the rumor mill turns and new theories are churned.

Here are some thoughts to consider about rumors:

1. Certain topics are near and dear to some and not so important to others. In other words, the tolerance to and interest in rumors are quite individual.
2. During times of change, rumors generally become large and unwieldy. One simply needs to compare good times to bad. When agencies have no economic woes, rumors about reductions in force typically do not come to the fore. By comparison, during budgetary crises, rumors abound. Imagination is fueled by controversy.
3. Some rumormongers spread gossip almost as if by instinct. As soon as they hear a tidbit, they disseminate the news without thought. This is done in much the same way as a bee pollinates flowers. There usually is no malice in this.
4. Some mischievous or nefarious types like rumors. They appeciate nothing better than the anxiety of others while they create and perpetuate rumors. Rumormongers prefer to bask in the warm and turbulent winds of controversy. Ironically part of their joy comes from the misery of others. And there is no better time to witness the rumormonger in full glory as times of turbulent change. Like a tapeworm, the rumormonger is really a parasite that saps the strength of the normally vibrant.
5. Levelheaded individuals, who do well under stress, generally consider each rumor. They do not take them as gospel without further analysis. This means that they do not immediately dismiss possibilities. They consider the ramifications before they perpetuate rumors. It’s the sort of calm dependability that corrections needs most in times of uncertainty.
6. Sometimes saying a little is better than saying too much. When you speak of potentials, some staff and prisoners will run with a kernel of the gossip and expand on it. I do not advocate keeping others in the dark about possibilities. However, dispensing of radical possibilities should be done cautiously and with ample preface.
7. Rumors can cause real danger in our facilities. When prisoners and staff are nervous, tensions elevate. Lower staff morale decreases our watchfulness. It is crucial to increase vigilance during times of rampant rumors.

Ours is a vocation where we deal with stress with firm resolve, policy and procedure, and general calm. Certainly, all agencies experience uptimes and downtimes. Is simply a part of the cycle. As a matter of course, we should always filter out conspiracy theories from valid possibilities. Without the ability to do this we find ourselves trapped. Though we are uncertain about future times, we run the risk of inattention to our surroundings. And that, of course, makes for a potentially dangerous environment.

Again, I neither advocate nor disavow the existence of the deep forest icon that I mentioned earlier. But just as controversy swirls around the possibility of the existence of the species, we find ourselves faced with unproven ideas in our agencies and at our worksite. And whatever our beliefs on a certain theory, it behooves us to consider that there are many different approaches.

Assessing the organization, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

Assessing less desirable tasks

April 1st, 2011

“Why was I given this task?” On the face of it, this seems like a simple, straight forward question. But there may be more than meets the eye. Let’s delve deeper.

Let us assume that this question is posed by a hard-working grateful civil servant who knows the reality of shrinking budgets. Someone just happened to dump extra work on a solid, productive individual that gives cause to pause.

For some agencies, doing more with less has been a mantra for over a decade. With tightening budgets and fewer staff, unplanned extra work is more difficult to complete. Certainly, special projects crop up and need completion. But, it is very distressing when someone drops a vocational mess of their own on your desk. Inevitably, by accident or very deliberately, sometime soon, someone will dump on you.

The following example may seem less than professional, but I believe that it is apt. Recently, I saw a neighbor linger in the street in front of my house. I thought nothing of it until an hour or so later. Three bits of evidence indicated to me that I had literally been dumped on. In the snow I saw his foot prints, the foot prints of his dog, and the end result of dog food digestion in a malodorous pile.

I admit that I contemplated not picking up the offending matter and confronting him right away. Pragmatism prevailed. I buried the canine ‘present’ and tabled the issue for another time. True, it was an undesirable job to be done. But, it turned out to be a productive use of frustration.

At the risk of sounding too scatological, this example superimposed on a work model has some authentic roots and, incidentally, inspires some puns. With this sort of ‘dirty job’ let’s look at this from three different angles. We can get a more complete answer by exploring aspects of the task, possible motivations by the assigner, and your overall thoughts and feelings.

Nature of the task – Not all tasks are created equally. An added task may be imminent and necessary, such as a tedious records search for crucial information or for litigation purposes. The job that others will not do is a different kind of task. Another unwanted task is one that you performed well previously and others are all too willing to re-delegate it back to you.

Motivation to assign to you – Why were you given the special project, even though your desk is overflowing? The answers vary. Perhaps your work skills best fit the need. You, quite simply, are the best person for the project. Perhaps it is a test of your tolerance and patience. You might even feel that it is a bit of passive punishment.

In some cases, the task is a mess left by an unauthorized part, which makes the work less palatable. Whatever the case, I believe that it is best to perform the task well and inquire later if necessary. Still, it is important to separate the actual job from the motivation to assign the task to you.

Self assessment – You cannot generally control which tasks are give to you. You have no real handle on the motivations others have for giving you a task. However, you are in the Captain’s seat when you assess your reactions to both of these. I believe that it is best to be honest with yourself. Sometimes, personal feelings are in the way of completing a ‘dirty job’ and helping with the larger picture.

In any work setting, there is an ebb and flow of less desirable tasks. Some are necessary and are assigned in a fair and consistent manner. Others are unfairly heaped on unsuspecting hard workers. Hard feelings may result in either case. In corrections, it is especially important that we remain professional in the face of all eventualities. When we appear to interact positively with colleagues, we enhance safety. Harmonious work relationships are important in the face of doing more with less.

Assessing the organization, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

Sore winners, sore losers, and vengeance

March 24th, 2011

 Nose to nose with her adversary she screamed, “That’s not fair! You are a cheater!” Her fair skin tone blazed tomato red as she issued infinite invectives through torrent of tears. The source of all this emotion was game concerning a dry bone from a turkey.


The screamer lost, and her frustration was exacerbated by the winners smirk. I was amazed as I watched this. I search for the best time to intervene, but tempers flared early.


Of course, the game of wishbone almost always results in one clear winner and one definite loser. And with any contest there may be sore winners and sore losers.


Most of us have seen contests like this on the job. These go beyond friendly competitions. Each contestant wants to win more than anything. It can be in the form of a weight loss contest, who can quit a vice for the longest time, or even who scores highest on an exam. Read more…

Assessing the organization, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

De facto and respected authority

March 3rd, 2011

Someone who wears formal clothing or an official uniform usually commands respect, correct? Would a person who wears a knit polo shirt look more authoritative than someone in a T-shirt? Most would answer these questions with yes. Of course, the question of authority runs much deeper than that.





A friend and colleague of mine (in fact, the one and only Gary Cornelius) posed the question to me that put me on that track of thinking. Do custody staff in general have to overcome an obstacle when they are trained by programs or support staff person? In Gary’s words, would they ask, “why should I listen to you if you don’t wear a badge?” Read more…

Self Scrutiny, Staff relations, Training

Technology – Friend or Foe?

February 24th, 2011


Without a doubt, it was one of the strangest greetings that I have ever experienced. Clearly, she was transformed. Her large gray/green eyes shone brightly and her face was glowing. Her expression reminded me of the face of a child who had just opened history’s best birthday present. In a voice laden with unmistakable enthusiasm, she exclaimed, “Look at my new robot!” Her smile was

an enigmatic twist, a mingling of pride, wonder, and jubilation. 




What I saw was a gray disc methodically traversing every square inch of my carpet.  This 24 inch motorized vacuum was no thicker than a 1,200 page book and probably lighter. No, this was not a humaniform robot as depicted in an Isaac

Asimov novel. But, it certainly was a useful tool.



New tools can be wonderful. Their very existence allows us to save labor and even enjoy an otherwise mundane day. But is the future always brighter? Will the new wonders break down? Will we take for granted what was previously marvelous?

Will everyone welcome changes with open minds and arms? Read more…

Assessing the organization, Staff relations, Training