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Archive for the ‘Training’ Category

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

Destination Intimidation – The R & R Bully

June 8th, 2011

Often, when we unravel a complex issue and place all the parts in order, it is gratifying. Imagine the relief that you get as a professional when an offender finally seems to understand your explanation about policy. Later, the issue comes alive again. The offender rehashes the issue as though you had never explained it.

There are few things more frustrating than someone resurrecting complains that you thought you clearly outlined and resolved earlier. One such manipulator does this. It is a sort of passive aggressive bullying. This tactic is called the retreat and rehash bully. (R & R bully). When you explain, they retreat. Later, they rehash.

The R&R bully presents his case in a generally complex way. For example, suppose that this is a offender who’s not eligible for a certain service. The R&R will bring up every exception that he can conceive of. Often, they repeat the case over and over.

Only when the staff member closes the argument will be R&R bully seemed to retreat. However, correspondence or verbal requests come very soon after. Thus, the issues were never resolved, they were merely forestalled.

In the most excessive case, the R&R bully is never stated. If, for example, discretionary power allows for you to make an exception, the R&R bully records this event as the norm. If similar circumstance is denied, the R&R bully will rehash as though the non-mandated service is now and forever a right not to be denied.

Perhaps the R&R bully is not as obvious a danger to corrections professionals as it seems. Still, one can seem diminished and flustered by the unwavering insistence contrary to the facts of policy. In another sense, the R&R bully can be a pawn in the form of a diversion in a larger plan.

So, how does one derail the R&R bully? Here are a few tips:

• Know policy.
• Photocopy policy and highlight the part that best explains to the denial. Present it to the R&R bully when the need arises. As keen observers of detail and those able to ascertain patterns, we can generally tell when a person is likely to bring up an issue again.
• Forestall a bit. Tell the aggrieved party to sit and take up the issue when there’s a better time. You decide the time.
• Have person write down exactly what the problem is. Instruct that the issue should be written in a clear, succinct manner. Tell the person to focus on the issue not on tangential matters.
• Don’t get knocked off your square when you hear the same issue over and over again. Arguers gain strength when you lose your composure.
• Do not let the argument against your policy driven denial become a shouting match.
• Recognize patterns and have your denial points ready in advance.
• Always be prepared for new rehashings.
• Remind the R&R bully that the issue is closed. Record the event in your log book. If and when they rehash, refer to your log book or your sharp memory to tell the arguer on which date the denial was initially issued.

No one really likes to be told “no”. Yet, that is a big part of corrections. Simply, many things are restricted for a good reason. Despite that, the retreat and rehash bully will return again and again. The million-dollar question in all of this is: will you be prepared to professionally deal with the retreat and rehash bully?

Security, 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

Destruction or misuse – Classroom exercise

May 17th, 2011

Later this year, Icebreakers III will be published by the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP). This is the 3rd in a series of classroom exercises for corrections and criminal justice staff written by corrections and criminal justice professionals. For more information on the first two Icebreaker books, please go to This is a sneak peek of what is to come. “Destruction or misuse with value over $10” is one of the 25 icebreakers that will appear in Icebreakers III.

It should come as no surprise that some prisoners will risk major misconducts reports written on them in order to achieve their goal of comfort. That is to say, most contraband traders are aware they may suffer a “ticket” by misusing or destroying state property. Still, they take the risk in order to reap the rewards.

There are many contraband trading vessels. Consider the law book – a ubiquitous part of any prison library. Many of which are over 1000 pages and have ample hiding places when one thinks about it.

This icebreaker is a hands-on contraband control endeavor.

1. The object is to learn as much as possible about the different ways that prisoners modify books in order to move contraband.
2. Divide the class into groups of four. All participants in each team will play the role of a prisoner trying to alter a book in order to move tobacco.
3. Each team will be given an old, used book. Optimally, this will be a law book that is no longer usable. Facilitators can find law books from the institutional librarians discards. Old books can also be obtained from garage sales, used bookstores, and from local library discards. My preference is for law books, as these are common in jails and prisons. Also, law books are generally over 1000 pages. There would be more places to hide contraband such a large vessel.
4. For added authenticity, the facilitator can provide each team with a pile of pencil shavings and one business sized envelope or a blank sheet of paper. The objective can be specific to concealing “tobacco” and moving it with the law book/vessel.
5. Teams shall be instructed that they may only use items that a prisoner in that facility would legitimately possess. For example if the team elects to hollow out a portion of the book, they may only use a pen if prisoners are permitted to use pens in that facility. They may not use a pair of scissors that may be in the training room, as is likely that prisoners are not permitted to possess scissors.
6. For even more authenticity, the facilitator can appoint a person to “make rounds” and observe the progress. In similar exercises such as shank making from a metal candy container, I use this method. I tell the participants up front that if I am not within 3 feet of anyone in the team, then I or the appointed rover are not able to observe what the team is doing.
7. I would further instruct that the team is to be discreet. When a rover is within range, the team may utilize ruses, diversions or deception. This is done to keep the observer from witnessing their progress.
8. Teams are given a reasonable amount of time to conceal the faux tobacco in the books. 15 min. may work well for this purpose.
9. Observe the team and make notes. Ask these questions: Do some teams plan or talk it out? Or does the team dive right in? Are there members who are dominant on the team who will take all initiative? Or is team rather equally utilized?
10. At the end of the appointed time, each team will elect a spokesperson. Each spokesperson in turn will report how they could conceal the faux tobacco in the law book.
11. The rover or the facilitator can note on a whiteboard where each team concealed the tobacco.

Of course, as this exercise is used over the years, the facilitator will find common answers as to where tobacco can be hidden. Most will opt immediately for the pocket part or the binding. Others will try to make a hollow in an unobtrusive part of the book. Others still will try to construct a hidden pocket with the back pages in the back cover. The facilitator can tell the participants after the exercise places that they may have missed that are commonly occurring hiding spots. Of course, if one of the teams comes up with something that is not usually used as a hiding place, that should be noted as new and unique to the exercise.

As we know some prisoners are very clever in how they move contraband. And the law book is just one of many vessels. It pays for us to role-play and to try to think like a smuggler. With some pencil shavings, and envelope, discarded law books, and some ingenuity there is no telling what hiding places can be conceived. The end result is an awareness among staff that increases safety within the facility.

IACTP is an international professional association of trainers, training administrators, and educators representing all aspects of the field of adult and juvenile justice. IACTP was established in 1974 and provides its members with:
• An Annual Trainers’ Conference
• A quarterly journal, “The Correctional Trainer”
• A member’s only listserv providing global access to criminal justice professionals
• And a voluntary trainer’s certification program.

Contraband Control, Training

Stage fright? Not tonight!

April 14th, 2011

As corrections trainers, we tend to be extroverts. If not, we develop effective public speaking skills. Sometimes, it is inherent. Others will have to learn it, as one would adapt to swimming when thrown in the water. Whatever the route we take, the destination is the same – conveying information to a large group of people.

Still, there are times that we freeze and cannot deliver the materials. Stage fright can strike the most confident speaker at any time. Of course, experience tempers this phenomenon. Yet, on the other side of the coin, the longer the career, the more likely trepidation is to occur. It is simply a numbers game.

It could come in any form from quiet desperation or as cascading flop sweat. Whatever the manifestation, a lack of confidence for the next module is left in the mind of the professional. How do we mitigate this occasional yet stifling specter? Here are some ways that I have overcome the speaking jitters.

• Take a breath. Slow things down and get some oxygen to your brain.
• Poke a little bit of fun at yourself. Lighten the mood a touch (depending on the gravity of the subject).
• Ask a question. Get others to talk a bit. Of course, use this with care, as the audience is sometimes eerily quiet.
• Start over. Restate the importance of the topic. Refocus with the light shining on the topic and not on you.
• Tell a story that has a corrections slant or delivers a message akin to the training. All instructors should compile many stories that they can pull out on a whim or as needed.
• Have a useful, related DVD handy.
• Remember that this does not happen all of the time and it will pass.
• Think later of the variables that may have stalled your presentation and work toward eliminating them.

Sometimes when we deliver the information to our colleagues we are very hard on ourselves as performers. And while this could lead to anxiety, it also can serve as a point of reflection. And that can make you into a better speaker than before. Just as you endeavor to educate others, you can learn from your own temporary stage fright.


Graffiti, snowffiti, and unauthorized communications

March 16th, 2011


Officially, agencies communicate through memoranda, operating procedures, policy directions and the chain of command.  Unofficially, we exchange information through less than formal communications vines.  Word of mouth is a very common manner.  Communications of all sorts drive our actions.  Of the many things that safety is contingent on, communications should never be overlooked.


Of course, staff are not the only group in our institution that exchange information.  Offenders drive the engines of their unofficial economies with information.  Code, graffiti, and snowffiti are some ways that they do this.



One of my custody mentors told me a story of a green thumbed individual.  My mentor related the tale of horticultural handiwork of a convicted gardener extraordinaire. Read more…

Contraband Control, Training

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

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

A cornucopia of corrections catchphrases – part 2

February 3rd, 2011

(Author’s note:  These and other corrections truisms can be found in “Wake up and Smell the Contraband” 2nd edition by LRP Press.)


Just like job philosophies, with truisms you do not have to agree whole-heartedly with every aspect.  Where those with diametrically opposed viewpoints debate, they can often nod comfortably on individual points of wisdom. Corrections truisms transcend vocational philosophies. When at the vocational buffet of advice, you have choices.  Read more…

Assessing the organization, Staff relations, Training