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Archive for the ‘Self Scrutiny’ Category

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

Do you speak jargonese?

May 25th, 2011

It was a stirring contest of the wills. Two people sought control of a situation in order to further their goals. One, an authority figure battled for quiet and respect. The other, a would-be de facto leader, sought to overthrow the power wielded by his nemesis.

At first glance, this seems like a contest for minds between a staff member and an insolent and ambitious offender. However, this example comes from the classroom.

You see, I teach corrections and criminal justice classes for a community college. And I find that talking with pre-professionals is both gratifying and interesting. And under most circumstances, there is a peaceful and fun interchange. Yet, early in my teaching career, one student seemed to make it a crusade to disrupt the class and challenge my authority. To grab back this control, I often use a certain tactic that worked rather well – for a while. I “volunteered” the disrupter for demonstrations whenever I could. And this was not done to belittle the student. It was designed to utilize his apparent energy and need for attention.

For one visual exercise, I was demonstrating the elusive nature of contraband. I had prepared a book with hollowed areas and taped pages. I also hid a computer disc, a tooth brush and money inside the book.

When I selected the “volunteer”, the mistake that I committed was in my phrasing. I said, “Who wants to shake down this book?”

The student in question grabbed the book a bit too eagerly and abused the book with a series of violent shakes. Like a shoddily constructed high-rise on a fault line, the book did not survive. There was an almost imperceptible trace of a smirk. To this day, I am not certain if this was intentional.

Intentional or accidental, my simple error of using verbal short hand resulted in the loss of a teaching tool. How many times are meanings lost when we use jargon? How many times do we need to clarify and rectify mistakes due to our unintentional obscuring language use?
Do we overuse alphabet soup when we talk? I recall a recent conversation with a professional who worked in a Federal agency. We could compare stories rather well through context. But our chat was halted by the use of initials. This, of course, did not result in a horrible mistake. It just reminded me of the sensitive nature of meaning.

Another example is our colloquial use of the phrase “front street”. If it is taken literally, there is bound to be confusion, as there are rarely streets within most institutions.

So it behooves us to remember if the recipient might know our professional jargon and colloquialisms. We also need to exclude these linguistic short cuts from official documents, unless the phrase is a direct quote. That should help to promote clarity in our correspondences and verbal interactions.

The student who shook the book so effectively and I are on good terms. And I believe that we benefited from each other in the education process. Perhaps the resolution came slowly. But it remains one of the best examples of jargonese that I have ever experienced.

Self Scrutiny, 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

Focus on the Extremes of the Programs Perspective Continuum

April 28th, 2011

In corrections we do not always understand our colleagues’ perspectives. We may ask ourselves a series of questions: Are we well understood by others? Do we understand ourselves? Why don’t professionals in the same vocational niche operate uniformly to our personal standards? Why do corrections professionals, seemingly performing the same tasks, have different working relationships with their administrations?

Add to this mix the many lives that we impact as a profession. Between state and federal prison, there are around 1,650 correctional facilities in the United States.i In addition, there are over 3,300 locally operated jails and nearly 3,000 juvenile facilities.ii Programs are provided in some form for many of the approximately 2,000,000 inmates in the United States.iii

With the variety of sizes, locations, levels of confinement and local variances of what programs shall be provided, naturally there are many different perspectives that program staff have concerning their place in the institution. Consider how corrections program professionals view their goals as measured with the facility’s goals. Conceptually, there are only three outlooks. Two of them are diametrically opposed extremes on the programs perspective continuum. They are the Nested Perspective and the Separatist Perspective. The third group is the largest. It consists of anything between the Nested and Separatist poles. By analyzing those extremes, we can better understand the many in the middle.

The intent of the following article is to facilitate cooperation between all work areas in correctional facilities. This is meant as a springboard for discussion into understanding programming perspectives in your institution. It does not matter if you are employed to perform your professional duties in housing, custody, administration, program or any other area. Through a larger perspective, the occasional contention between areas can be lessened. Therefore, the awareness that one can gain from analyzing perspectives of programming is useful to all.

This article will examine:
* the benefits of programs in a correctional setting
* programmers’ perceptions of themselves in the framework of the whole institution
* the programs perspective continuum
* the strengths and weaknesses of the Nested programming perspective
* the Separatist perspective and its pros and cons
* factors that impact on those perspectives
* and a guide on how to cope with some of the discord that comes from contrary programming perspectives.

The benefits of programs in a correctional setting

The utility of programming in correctional facilities has been stated numerous times and in many forums in various manners. Very few corrections professionals would seriously doubt the many benefits of well-conceived diversion and education programs for prisoners. Meaningful programs in prisons are a crucial part of successful facility management. At the optimum, security is enhanced through a less restive and more manageable client population for institutional and public safety. This generally leads to lower complaints about other areas to administrators. The grievances become dispersed and in some cases lessened. And, fiscal responsibility through efficiency increases, alleviating some of the public burden of financing the industry. The taxpayer and society ultimately benefit from a healthier, more stable work force in the institutions. The public also wants that programming to transform prisoners into skilled and productive citizens. Pre-release and life skills can be offered for prisoners to aim for a more successful reintegration. Society’s most direct benefit comes through the potential of lowered recidivism. Programming allows prisoners to find intellectual, spiritual, physical and introspective spots within themselves. That places everyone at an advantage. Put simply, prisoners that participate in programming are the true candidates for successful reintegration.

Programmers’ perceptions of themselves in the framework of the whole institution

Certainly, jail and prison programming offers benefits to all groups. But, do all program staff operate with the same philosophical approach? Are you aware of the many places on the continuum of programming framework? I have considered the many outlooks of program staff. One should consider how programmers see themselves fitting into (or even at odds with) the overall facility operation. It seems to me that there are two extremes in this. The opposing ends of the programming perspective continuum are the Nested perspective and the Separatist perspective.

The extremes are highlighted to better illustrate that there are elements of both camps in all programming perspectives. Between the two is a wide array of work styles. But, the extremes suggest exaggerated possibilities so that we can understand the more common realities within.

The ( in the Nested camp represents all of the goals of the institution. The c on the Nested side represents the goals of the individual program. Note how the programs component is nested in the overall goals of the institution. It is a smaller version of it. Both sets of goals, like the figure that symbolize them, are formed in the same way and facing the same direction.

The ) on the Separatist side represents the programmer’s perception of the direction and size of the program in the prison. The c on the Separatist side is how the programmer views the prison goals. In this extreme, programs and administration face in different directions. There is no nesting here, but rather separation. The programmer sees the administration as smaller and opposed to its objectives.

The Nested programming perspective

* The programmer considers its area of control as a smaller part of the entire prison. The program’s mission statement is a miniature version of the institution’s vision.
* Therefore, the program’s goals are nested into larger goals of the institution.
* Administrative and program goals run in the same direction and fit like puzzle pieces. They are in concert.

The Nested programming perspective in the extreme – The Strengths

* Since goals are unanimous, less dissension is likely between administration and program staff. The strength is that they are not in opposition to each other.
* Both entities are on the same page of music, moving in the same direction
* The Nested perspective works best when there are many mandates and guidelines to fulfill. These professionals generally prefer strong administrative structure.
* There is a comfort factor for some program professionals. They feel more secure in the position of taking direction from above.
* The Nested perspective tends to work well in an institution where programs tend to be unobtrusive. This can work in some situations and work well. For example, it flourishes in higher security levels where the program person wants no discretion and the administration insists on complete control with no input from those that they hired to form programs.

The Nested programming perspective in the extreme – The Weaknesses

* Separatists and others commonly label Nested perspective programmers as ‘administrative lapdogs.’
* The Nested professional wastes time waiting for minor decisions to be made by administration. And, in the absolute extreme, even the simplest discretion is defaulted to the administration. That may lead to professional stagnation and dependency on the part of the programmer.
* Will not deviate from guidelines and adheres strictly to mandates.
* They are often rigid when new administration comes in. Many adapt poorly to hands-off management styles.
* Ideas often are delivered to them by someone who has not necessarily had any specific specialty training in the programming area.
* Prisoner base may bear more animus, as programmers are viewed as ‘administrative puppets.’
* Possible decision paralysis if no administration present.
Innovative programming may not usually come from the Nested perspective, unless the administration orders it. There is no burden on the programmer in this paradigm to perform with innovation. There is often a homogenization of ideas.

The Separatist perspective

In the extreme, the Separatist programmer considers its goals as separate from the administration. This kind considers its objectives to be of more importance than the goals of the administration. That often leads to antagonisms inherent between programming and the rest of the institution.

The separatist perspective in the extreme – The Strengths

* Creativity may flow from contention. Innovative programming will usually come from the separatist perspective.
* Positive friction may be an impetus for stimulation followed by innovation.
* There may exist a sense of urgency for the Separatist programmer to prove their worth. Such a situation exerts positive pressure that allows a programmer to excel under pressure.
* The Separatist perspective works best when there is ‘carte blanche’ given to programmers by the governing body.
* This may be more fulfilling to the professional if there is an inherent ‘thrill to the chase’ mentality.
* May have a better rapport with prisoner body, as they are less likely to judge as ‘administrative puppet.’

The separatist perspective in the extreme – The Weaknesses

* Separatists are typically labeled by Nested personnel as mavericks.
* Although Separatists can be free thinkers (in the extreme), they may also be labeled radical dissenters. Innovation is good in the corrections setting, but not blatant defiance to the governing board.
* Separatists often send the message of elitism.
* May alienate all staff. Ironically, those that are also Separatists in different areas may not feel camaraderie. The philosophy is the same, but the individual goals are not.
* The rest of the institution’s staff may disfavor Separatism. That could lead to sabotage.
* Antagonism is possible from many coworkers. Separatists are often viewed as a wrench in the works for the institution.

In sum, a program is less likely to be successful if there is an underlying battle of wills. It can be conceded that competition is stimulating and it is often helpful as a catalyst for innovation. However, there is a possible loss of potential. Unnecessary energy is squandered. Administration and programs expend effort in fighting each other, rather than concentrating on job duties. Animosity often springs from extreme Separatists programmers. In the worst version of this, sabotage can occur on both sides. Some prisoners that are astute at reading staff nuances detect the discord. Consequently, those inclined to seize the opportunity can hinder both sides through ruse and manipulation. Often, this is done in a subtlety-crafted manner.

Impacting factors on perspectives

No matter where any given programmer is found on the continuum, there are many influencing factors to consider. So many forces shape the face of corrections and the perspectives of those working in the industry. Perhaps the most potent mover is the culture of the institution. The overall culture of the facility is important in how each perspective can develop and perpetuate. What is culture? It is the road map of the institution that is not published. It is a guide that staff members learn through traversing the thoroughfares. The most successful staff understand this unwritten map.

In other words, ‘…culture is the personality of the organization. Culture is comprised of the assumptions, values, norms and tangible signs (artifacts) of organization members and their behaviors. Members of an organization soon come to sense the particular culture of an organization. Culture is one of those terms that’s difficult to express distinctly, but everyone knows it when they sense it.’ iv

Furthermore, in many organizations, ‘Those people who violate cultural norms are quickly reminded of the error, and are watched to make sure it is not repeated. Those who continue to violate norms are never allowed to become full participants in the culture.”v

But, even if the program professional feels exempt from the potency of culture, there are other impacting factors. Consider these questions:
* What is the strength of the warden/administration relative to programs? How much cooperation exists? How much overt or covert animosity is present?
* How much autonomy is allowed by governing body? How much latitude do those in programming take?
* What is the legacy of the institution and preceding administrations? What is the traditional relationship between administration and programming?
* What is the legacy of programming? Had the profile of the programming been largely useful to all in the institution?
* What is the current perception of programs by administration, custody and the business office?
* Is there stamina? Do the programming and administration segments choose battles carefully? How long will each side concentrate on each new battle?
* Are these battles hidden or overt?
* Which is the preferred method, sabotage or cooperation? Is either side vengeful?
* Are the work areas political, diplomatic or antagonistic?
* How strictly is the hierarchy of obligations followed? (This is the obligation of all corrections staff to professionally serve the following entities in the normal course of duties; prisoners as clients, to custody and security, to the sub profession, to the profession, to the administration, to the department, to the taxpayer, the criminal justice system and to society.)vi


Though obviously not as important in the minds of many as are security issues, programming is a complex concept that needs addressing. Corrections would be different without the impact of programs professionals. A big step in understanding programming is to know where it fits into the facility and how staff feel about that. Where is your programming perspective?

End Notes

i Bureau of Justice Statistics. Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional facilities 2000. Washington, DC, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
ii Bureau of Justice Statistics. Census of Jails 1999. Washington, DC, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
iii Bureau of Justice Statistics. Census of Jails 1999. Washington, DC, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
iv McNamara, Ph.D., Carter. ‘ Organizational Culture’
May 31, 2002.
v Sannwald, William. ‘Understanding Organizational Culture.’ Library Administration & Management 14.1 (2000): 12.
vi Bouchard, Joseph. ‘The Many Obligations of Programs Staff: From Concept to Practice.’ The Corrections Professional 5.21 (2000): 3.
vii Bouchard, Joseph. ‘Solutions to staff division: Seek Shelter Under Corrections Umbrella.’ The Corrections Professional 7.1 (2001): 3.

Assessing the organization, Self Scrutiny

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

Taming the “untamable”: a set up scenario

March 9th, 2011


Almost all of us mellow with age. In corrections, the trend is seen in many offender’s files. Normally, there’s a large chunk misconduct reports issued early on in the incarceration. As the offender spends time in the system, the tickets typically (though not necessarily always) diminish.


Perhaps the same is true of most staff. We tend to write fewer tickets as our careers proceed. There are many reasons for this. We develop other valid manners of gaining compliance.  Of course, the natural course of aging is also an agent of change.


But there are some offenders who seemed to earn copious misconduct reports no matter the place in their incarceration. Read more…

Security, Self Scrutiny, Training

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