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Rules are rules

December 7th, 2011

Just this morning, I heard a story on the news related to rule enforcement. It seems that a celebrity was instructed to turn off his electronic device prior to a transcontinental flight. According to the story, the celebrity did not comply with the instruction. Because of this, he was escorted off of the airplane.

Of course, the story will develop as the hours and days move forward. Messages on social media and on news and celebrity shows will certainly take this story in any number of interesting and bizarre directions. Though our point of departure is based in the alleged noncompliance rules by famous person, let’s apply this to our everyday work life. In consideration of the nature of rules, we can ask ourselves a few questions:

Do the rules apply to everyone?

The simple answer is: rules do apply to everyone. Staff, prisoners and the public are expected to follow posted rules and valid verbal instructions.

Let us modify the question. Does everyone believe that rules apply to them? With this, the answer is not cut and dry. Some offenders may be of the opinion that they are above the rules due to time served, a sense of entitlement, rebellion, or any number of factors. Some staff may thumb their nose at the rules for the same reasons.

Perhaps a celebrity puts faith in the cult of personality over the notion of uniform behavior. Thins of a big Hollywood name getting checked for a minor safety rule. We can easily imagine a Diva (or Divo?) say, “Don’t you know who I am? No one treats me this way!”Some would agree with the privileges of fame. Others expect compliance - no matter one’s status.

Are some rules unreasonable?

Most everyone at some time, staff and offender, believes that a certain rule is unreasonable. I once heard of a facility that declared solid-colored pens as contraband. Except for the tiny “segregation pens”, clear-bodied, transparent pens were all that staff and offenders could use. This was done in order to curtail smuggling through a small but effective contraband vessel. One staff member who was quite attached to his gold pen instantly took offense to this rule. However, when explained that this was for security sake and nothing personal, the rule was accepted by that staff person. In this case, the rule was seen by the staff person as initially unreasonable then valid when the mission came into focus.

Are rules enforced the same way?

Discretion is a strange tool. On one hand, it liberates us by giving us flexibility. No two sets of circumstances are completely identical, after all. For minor rules, a verbal reprimand may work better than a misconduct report. However, those who are less flexible will wrangle with uniformity. When someone does X, then Y should always follow as a consequence, they reason.

Decisions are not like binary language. It is not as simple as your basic either/or proposition. Certainly, there are circumstances that warrant absolutes in the world of rules. Still, other things are more prone to discretion. Clearly, consistency is the brass ring to grab. But the fact remains that it is an imperfect world.

The fact is that there will be differences in enforcement of almost all rules. This is true between shifts, between facilities, and in comparison to different areas of the institution. In fact, an individual may enforce the same rule in different ways during the same day.

Does enforcement change over time?

Sometimes, a new rule is issued in reaction to an event. For example, if hand soap is proven to be the new trading medium, the rule that governs the amount of soap an offender can carry will be likely to be strongly enforced. As time goes on, this enforcement may become lax to all but the most stringent rule enforcer. Event-driven rule enforcement has a way of moderating over time.

Just like the celebrity who refuses to comply with valid safety rules on an airline, not all will agree with rules and authority. But, in maintaining order, that is what corrections professionals face every day.

joebouchard Assessing the organization, Security, Self Scrutiny

Perspective on operations and change

November 10th, 2011

There’s nothing quite like a clear, starry night to make most people feel small and insignificant. The overwhelming size and complexity of the universe can pull routine thinking into a different mode. In other words, it is all about perspective.

Contemplating the cosmos relative to our own existence is one way to gain perspective. A more down to earth way, if you excuse the pun, is to ponder the many complexities of all operations as compared to your own area of responsibility.

Considering operations in the prison, it behooves us to maintain a broad perspective. It is often a matter of seeing how your work assignment fits into the larger picture. Here are some concepts that help achieve this:

Structure – Operations should flow with regularity. Schedules should be easy to remember. The rhythm of movement is like a heartbeat and circulation system. Almost all staff and prisoners like structure.

Flexibility – General operation should have a structure – but not a rigid one. There should be enough flex to accommodate deviations to the schedule. And aberrations are common enough. Some things that thwart activities starting on the dot are: fights and assaults, mistakes in meal preparation, equipment failure, weather events, and mobilizations.

Judicious corrections – Sometimes, circumstances call for radical rearrangements and rescheduling. However, as adjustments occur with staff and prisoners, we must be careful as we evaluate each new paradigm. Tweaking the schedules as necessary is important to do. But this should not be an exercise in wholesale reconstruction with many architects of varying opinions. Ideally, opinions can flow to a centralized location so unilateral, unfiltered modifications do not happen.

Interconnectedness – Usually, a new way of operating leaves us with a Rubik’s cube. When one thing is moved, there are visible ramifications that seem to further complicate the puzzle. Because of the interconnectedness of time, the intricacies of timing and the scarcity of resources, one little change can derail what was originally conceived as a smooth running operation.

Safety – Our mission statement place high priority on safety for staff, offenders, and the public. All considerations of operation should have this as a cornerstone.

Patience – A change in operations can be a stressful event for both staff and prisoners. But, time is a great equalizer. Often, we simply need more time to absorb the new changes. This is particularly true if the change supplanted an old, long-term paradigm.

I remember a lesson on perspective from my childhood. When my cousin and I were children, each of us thought that the full moon followed us. To test this, we stood back to back one night. As we walked in different directions, the moon appeared to follow each of the beholders. We both thought that the other was wrong and lying. Thus, an argument ensued. Realistically, change is not always unanimously agreed upon. It is not always welcome and is not always easy. But, larger perspective helps to make it easier and a little more welcome.

joebouchard Assessing the organization, Staff relations, Training

The parable of the fork lift

October 26th, 2011

There was once a high-low driver who enjoyed her job very much. She did her job well. On her forklift she was an artist on the move. As she hauled heavy loads from tangled piles to precarious points, she and her high-low personified poetry in motion.

She manipulate machine like a well-practiced violinist plays. The high-low was her instrument. Among her skills were her muscle memory and knowledge of the machine’s capabilities. She knew its quirks and its power. Above all, she knew the layout of the shop floor. To say that she could navigate blindfolded on the shop floor was not an understatement.

Little did she know that the way she had operated for years was about the change. First, in an effort to economize, the layout of the shop was reconfigured. The routes on which she effortlessly maneuvered her forklift were in no way like they had been.

Also, the older but comfortable forklift was replaced by a smaller one. She was rendered completely ham-handed because the controls were different than her well seasoned forklift. The play on the steering wheel and brake pedal were so different from what she was used to, she wondered if she would ever adjust.

In anticipation of change, she was given some new driver training. At first, she thought that this would be beneficial. After all, she had a new machine to acclimate to. But the trainer was unsure and gave contradicting orders while monitoring the practicum. She found that because of the tight controls and nervousness of the trainer, there was too much overcorrection as she drove.

In a word, the training was nerve-racking. She was, in effect, unlearning the finesse and pathways that she developed employed for nearly 2 decades. Matters were made worse by the many subsequent changes to the layout of shop floor. It seems that once the new configuration was in place, no one could go without suggesting a change.

She learned that the only constant in her work life was change itself. The anxiety of the ever morphing paradigms and are continually retooled skills led into her life home. She became irritable and unpleasant, contrary to her vivacious and gregarious attitude.

One day, she was moving an expensive load. It seemed rather well-balanced on the skids. However, her feeling of equilibrium was displaced by the trainer who yelled instructions contrary to her movements. Because of an over-correction that she made, the high-low lurched. Four things happened:

1. The load fell to the cement floor, breaking all the specialized, expensive parts.
2. During a second of panic, she collided with a support column. The shoddy, little new forklift, far from being the heavy metal model that she was still used to, was now out of commission.
3. She fell during the collision and landed wrong. Trying to brace her fall, she broke her left wrist. Adding insult to this injury, her left hand was her dominant hand.
4. She felt that she was suddenly useless at something which she did so well for so many years.

The high-low driver was hit with many changes from the different angles. Her old, familiar fork lift - her critical tool - was replaced by something unfamiliar and of a light duty design. It is almost like when staff are thrown blind into a new computer system with no instruction. Her training was not comfortable. The map of the workplace was literally transformed into something alien – sometimes changed twice a week.

Of course, in uncertain economic times, change is more likely to occur. There’s no question that this causes stress, especially in an anxiety prone vocation such as corrections. How do we lower the stress and increase safety in the meantime? Here are some things for all of us to reflect on during tumultuous times.

• Immediate change may be necessary. But it takes time for prisoners and staff to absorb these changes.
• Old habits die hard. Long-term, engraved task patterns are hard to undo.
• Shortcuts can make long delays.
• Patient and well-conceived training will go a long way in fostering the success of new changes.
• Safety is always the most important component in corrections.
• When suggestions for change are sought, some may forward ideas in order to make a mark on the process. The suggestion may be based on ego rather than the benefit of overall operations.
• Anxiety is common in times of uncertainty. It is up to the individual to refrain from adding to it.

There were so many dimensions to change. In the end, we are all small parts to large, interconnected whole programs and safety machine. Change is not comfortable – but it is inevitable. Because of this, we must cope in the best way possible.

joebouchard Assessing the organization, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

A drive down the road to Change

October 14th, 2011

Buckle up! It may be a bumpy ride! Our destination is Change.

A drive down a street is not necessarily the same experience for all. Imagine that we are traveling to a destination called Change. Some will want to drive full steam ahead, anxious for some new scenery. Others will dig their fingernails deep into the upholstery, resistant to the new paradigm. Between those two extremes is where most of us lie, cautiously apprehensive – but not necessarily full of trepidation.

It is amazing how the same journey can evoke different emotions.

Still, not all drives down the road to change are the same. Sometimes there are quick, difficult curves to negotiate. At other times the road is direct and unwavering. And the speed at which circumstances forces us to travel is often indifferent if the road is straight or convoluted. We might anticipate bumps and potholes and find none. Conversely, a well-plotted path may prove unexpectedly perilous. One never knows.

There are so many dimensions to the concept of change. Many books have been written on the topic. Here some just a few thoughts about change:

• Change is uncomfortable. In much the same way that a twisted road or fast acceleration in a car can bring on motion sickness, with change we feel vulnerable from the speed of events. But just because this is so, does not mean that we should not take a walk around the concept change from time to time. In fact, in times of economic uncertainty when everything is on the table, it behooves us to assess modified operations.

• Some people look at the changes only in their immediate area. Others have the ability to view the wider panorama. Operations are interconnected. A small ripple in one area may magically develop into large waves elsewhere.

• Often, change requires time for staff and prisoners to adjust. For example, if newly implemented changes do not appear to be running smoothly on day one or day two, this is not cause to rally for a complete overhaul. Rather, it is a time to make notes and to plan for possible modifications at a later date.

• A calm demeanor of staff while speaking to prisoners during times of change is crucial. Prisoners will look to staff for cues about how the change is progressing. If staff seemed tense, prisoners may become tense. If staff appear to lose faith in the leadership, prisoners may do the same. And that makes conditions conducive for tumultuous events in any facility.

• WIIFM or what’s in it for me is something that we all seek during times of change. Of course not everything is entirely bad. And even with radical changes, we may be able to find some benefit in it all.

• Some people actually enjoy change. They may become bored easily and want to experience different operations. Change for the sake of change is not necessarily done for the correct reason – ensuring smoother operations.

Years ago, one of my friends and colleagues stated, “I don’t mind change as long as I can control it.” She said this in a wry, sarcastic manner. From what I remember about her professionalism, she took the larger view and considered the mission statement of the agency. Despite her tongue-in-cheek admission about how things may not stay the same and how little control we may have over them, she was a realist. No matter how much change is uncomfortable, it is something that we face time to time.

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

Contemplating courtesy in corrections

September 29th, 2011

The cards seem stacked against me that day. Not only was Monday, but I was also scheduled to get a flu shot. I realize that a quick second of discomfort outweighs the potential of long-term upper respiratory misery. Still, it was early on a Monday morning and that hold its own challenge.

I did not see this coming. After the shot, I was offered a homemade oatmeal raisin cookie. It was delicious. And that unexpected courtesy instantly changed my outlook on the day. Maybe Mondays are over touted as the worst day of the week.

I cannot help to wonder about the possible positive impacts of a small act of kindness at work. Like the concept of “pay forward”, any courtesy can spin into many benefits - sometimes unpredictable. Among them are:
1. Increased camaraderie
2. Improved outlooks and positive attitudes
3. Reciprocal kind acts
4. The feeling of community that ultimately increases safety.
Of course, we are very careful in corrections. When a good deed is done to us, we might cynically ask what is in it for the person who performs a good deed. We ponder the motive rather than enjoy goodwill.

However, that sort of cynicism is detrimental for staff unity. It’s unfortunate that questions of indebtedness will often arise. Yet, that is the reality of the work environment in corrections.

Favors of all shapes and sizes should not automatically fall in the crosshairs of scrutiny. If our difficult to defuse skepticism cannot be turned down, then it can be softened. For example, rather than question the motive, one might assess if the person is normally the giving type. If so, then suspicions can be laid to rest. If not, then there may or may not be something afoot.

Here are some random thoughts about courtesies in corrections:
• People often use the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished”. That’s just an expression. It is not an inevitable occurrence.
• In corrections, we work with the job that quickly squelches any optimism. Unsolicited good will between colleagues keeps alive this rare commodity of positive thoughts.
• Most people eventually will shed skepticism over good deeds.
• Some colleagues, however, will never accept kindness at face value. They are few and far between. Their existence should be acknowledged though not validated. Still, they should not be ostracized, as this contributes to staff division.
• On the other side of the coin, some people are validated by excelling in giving. Unfortunately, this may become an annoyance to most. As in anything, balance is necessary.
• Sometimes, good deeds are sabotaged by jealousy. In some cases, the saboteur may not be stealthy, wishing for any type of attention – even if it is negative.
• Forced courtesy is of no value. One of the gifts that we often gain in this vocation is the ability to assess real and feigned actions. Therefore, it behooves us to avoid ruses dressed in nice deeds.
• Competitive courtesy it is another version of staff division. It is not unheard of for two staff to battle for the title of the nicest person in the facility. This breeds contempt and fosters division.
• All of us have a job to do. Courtesy is nice. However, in excess, it can obscure the job at hand. It is safe, for example, to hold the door for a colleague in the distance when prisoner traffic may pose a hazard? Safety first.
• Above all, follow policy. All random acts of kindness should be done within the bounds of policy and procedure. For example, distribution of candy canes in late December is nice. But is it sanctioned by the facility? Is it safe if one of the candy canes becomes missing and is later sharpened to be used as a weapon?

I once saw friend of mine perform an unexpected favor at the Mackinac Bridge toll booth. The Mackinac Bridge is the five-mile span that connects the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. He paid his own toll to cross into Lower Michigan and also gave toll for the person behind them. In the middle of this four-lane bridge, a car pulled up to our car and waved to my friend in gratitude.

I do realize that what happened at the toll booth in St. Ignace, Michigan is not some earth-shattering, unprecedented act of benevolence. Still, it is clear to me that it is sometimes the little things that fuel good days. This is neither childlike nor naïve to appreciate an unexpected homemade cookie. It is human nature.

joebouchard Assessing the organization, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations, Uncategorized

Brainstorming – the other side of the coin

July 19th, 2011

The brainstorming process can be intellectually stimulating and professionally satisfying. Building from the ideas of colleagues provides us with solutions for many vexing problems. Whoever said that two (or more) are heads better than one understood the importance of the successful brainstorming session.

More than ever, corrections needs productive brainstorming. Tight budgets, changing policies, and shifting priorities demand dynamic problem-solving. What better way to tear down and impeding wall than with collective brainpower?

Of course, as with any endeavor that involves human interaction, personalities can get in the way of the goal. If the brainstorming process is coin, consider that there are two sides to it. Optimistically, I believe that brainstorming coin lands as heads much more often than tails. However we find ourselves faced with the other side of the coin more often than we would like. It is true that “heads we win in tails we lose”.

Corrections staff can help a committee’s progress by recognizing common pit falls of brainstorming. Here are six of them:

Theft – Granted, good ideas developed by group should be credited as from the group. Sometimes shared ideas do not always mean shared credit. It is not uncommon for someone to offer key suggestions towards a solution and have the credit pirated away. Those who purloin ideas and wrongfully take credit contribute to feelings of mistrust between colleagues. In corrections, this is difficult to rectify.

Paralysis – When committee members treat each other as adversaries, paralysis is not far away. When this occurs, the committee hits a wall and cannot proceed. This is because members take their own ideas too seriously and fail to acknowledge the thoughts of others. This lack of compromise halts progress for necessary ideas.

Committee kidnapping – Some staff are valued members to brainstorming sessions because they deliver a wide variety of solutions. As a reputation for creativity spreads, their demand rises. In short, some people are naturals at creative thinking.
When we introduce unwieldy egos to this, a Prima Donna is born. When an ego-driven ideas person does not get his or her way, there may a withholding of further help until certain concessions are met. The demand may be for an addition of their choosing to the committee. The Prima Donna may also insist on greater recognition and wider autonomy in exchange for ideas. If the committee depends too much on one person, a figurative hostage situation may arise. In terms of playground behavior, this is like the child who threatens to take the ball home so others can no longer play.

Personalities over ideas– Clearly, good ideas should be developed and not-so-good ideas tabled. However, the cult of personality is sometimes a factor. If the committee is swayed by charisma or moved by bullying, mediocre ideas are likely to flourish. The idea is not judged by its merit in this process, but by its origin.

The conventional wisdom that begs us to consider the source should not apply to brainstorming. Ego driven committees suppress new thoughts from original any contributor who just might not happen to be a popular figure.

Lies – Some ideas are openly supported in the official meeting. Later, however, the same idea can often be sacrificed in the unofficial meeting after the meeting. Like idea theft, false promises breed mistrust.

Stagnation – When the same people meet to solve problems, the dynamics might be too stable to be effective. Safe and comfortable do not necessarily make a creative environment. An introduction of new brainstormers should make members sufficiently uncomfortable enough to inspire creativity. Someone with a new perspective can wield the figurative power of removing a keystone from seemingly immovable wall.

Here are a few things to remember when battling the six pitfalls of brainstorming:

• Share your ideas. Don’t hoard them.
• Support ideas over egos.
• Concentrate on solving the problem rather than lining one’s nest with credit.
• Share responsibility so one person does not hijack the brainstorming process.
• Be honest and forthright with all committee members.
• Let your guard down a bit and don’t be afraid to brainstorm wild ideas. These may become the foundation for something new and important.
• Mix it up. Introduce new people and ideas when stagnation sets in.

Brainstorming is not always neat or kind. The tails side of the committee coin lands upward on occasion. Good leadership, good followership, and professional maturity are factors necessary to flip over the coin. Brainstorming should be about solving the problem at hand. Too often becomes an exercise in wading through the quagmire of interpersonal relations. With the many problems that corrections has to face, brainstorming sessions are more important now than ever.

joebouchard Assessing the organization, Staff relations

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.

joebouchard 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.

joebouchard 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.

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

The end? Not again! - Assessing rumors

June 2nd, 2011

One of my colleagues once said, “You do not have to believe everything that a prisoner says to you. Just because someone says something with unshakable certainty does not mean that it will come to pass. But, you should continue to listen.”

As staff, we should continue to develop filters, learn to share intelligence, and assess sources. That is how we remain safe.

A recent news story brings this maxim to mind. Just when you thought it was safe to sit back and ponder the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar, someone slipped in another end of times date. Now, according to some, the new date that the rapture was to have occurred was on May 21, 2011. Please note, Dear Reader, I’m writing this on May 22, 2011, one day after that proposed end of times.

Perhaps one the striking features of this assertion is that it was made with such certainty. There are lessons from this beyond dubious timing and group psychology. Corrections staff can learn plenty while assessing absolute statements. When someone says something will absolutely happen a certain time, it could mean one of a few things:

1. The person has inside information. For example, an offender declares that there will be a hit on staff and it occurs on an appointed time. From that time forward, the offender should not be discounted as a poor source of information. Of course, some prophets have a track record of only one right prediction in a body of numerous incorrect forecasts. As we consider the source, we need to weigh the record with facts and circumstances.
2. The person will be wrong but they really believes it to be true. Some offenders may indicate that there will be violence in the summer. Many of us have heard the phrase “It is going to be a hot summer”. As staff, we consider the source and watch the signs. If a dire, though vague, prophecy is proven wrong through time, it is all the better for staff.
3. The person believes it without question. Unshakable beliefs range from everyday scenarios to what many would consider absurd. A belief that a certain team will win the final four could be a common belief. A less likely belief is that aliens will land and imposing order. In all of this, we need to consider the rigidity of broadcaster. Self-fulfilling prophecies can manifest if the person pushes hard enough. For example, suppose that a prisoner makes it clear that he will be placed in segregation in the near future. We notice that the prisoner has neatly packed his belongings and has them waiting for staff to cart away. It’s important to note these signs, as the fulfillment of the prophecy could contain violence.
4. The broadcasts are tests. If an offender is testing the gullibility of staff, he simply can drop a far-fetched fact while wearing a straight face. The offender can learn a lot from staff by declaring that the world will end a certain time. Staff who seriously engage in conversations about end times may wear their beliefs and fears to prominently on their sleeve. This is dangerous if the prisoner is an adept handler.

So, whether it is a forecast of the apocalypse or who will fight with whom, we need to be on our vocational toes. Whenever rumors circulate – up to and including the end of the world – our profession teaches us to investigate and prepare. Above all, we don’t have to believe what is said to us – but we need to continue to listen.

joebouchard Assessing the organization