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Archive for April, 2011

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

The Contaband Nerd

April 21st, 2011

What is on your essential list of items needed for facility safety? Staff watchfulness, communications, and sufficient time to follow up are a few of these things. There are forgotten items, though. In pursuit of building a safer facility, we often omit the contraband nerd from the list of essentials.

What exactly is a contraband nerd? Let us try this definition.

Contraband nerd – noun –ˈkäntrə.band nərd –
1. A person who is enthusiastically and diligently engaged in discovering unusual uses for ordinary items,
2. A focused corrections professional who strives to understand contraband control methods and whose goal is to enhance safety,
3. A devoted corrections professional with a talent for discovering illegal schemes that utilize bootleg.
Generally, the word nerd is a pejorative term. Commonly, it means an inept or bumbling person. However, for the sake of this essay, a nerd is someone with the deep focus in a specialized area. If you have a colleague who questions the many uses of ordinary things, your colleague may be a contraband nerd.

Regarding the contraband nerd, here are some useful and necessary qualities:

• Inquisitiveness – The contraband nerd ponders questions about modified goods or those used in a way not originally intended by the manufacturer. They might question if a metal wire and an electrical outlet can produce enough spark to ignite cardboard. They might examine the charging cord of an authorized MP3 player and conclude that it could be used to charge many types of cell phones. Above all, the contraband nerd asks the question, “What else could this be used for?”
• Tenacity – This is the quality of following a lead as far as possible. The true contraband nerd will systematically turn over each stone to see what is underneath. Duties, frayed patience, and time constraints may temporarily halt the search. But the contraband nerd knows where he or she left off and will continue the search whenever possible. Tenacity means hanging on tightly to a goal and seeing it through to completion.
• Mechanical reasoning – A contraband nerd may hand-test metal for pliability, hollow out books, or compress envelopes to witness possibilities of smuggling firsthand. To some, this may seem a strange exercise in theoretical futility. But the contraband nerd performs creative experiments in order to test the limits of imagination. Without field tests, the understanding how offenders alter materials stagnates.
• Economic sense – How much would a cigarette fetch on the yard? What sorts of diet pills are most valuable to traders? How much above the value of a first-class stamp is a metered envelope? What is a quick manner in which an offender can earn economic power and therefore physical power? These are just a few of the questions in the economic vein that the contraband nerd will ponder. It’s crucial to think in terms of hot sales items. This provides us with something specific to search for.
• Identifying the players – The contraband nerd will try to find specific motivations of contrabandists. Optimally, through an informed network of colleagues, the contraband nerd builds an idea of who is associated with whom. Knowing who the movers and shakers are gives a sense of likely avenues of trade. There is an element of maintenance in this. The contraband nerd has to have a handle on shifting alliances and be aware of the existence of vengeful ex-trading partners.

It’s important to remember that the contraband nerd is a wonderful balance to the offenders skilled in the trade and manufacture of contraband. Contrabandists are dangerous and are motivated to make weapons and leverage economic and fiscal advantage. In short, without the contraband nerd corrections would be a much more dangerous place.

It behooves corrections administrators to develop and nurture the skills of contraband control. Many contend that there should be more training on theories, application and practice of the search. And even though corrections budgets are strained, the benefits of an informed staff body armed with additional contraband control training outweigh the cost. And the fundamentals of such training may come from the methods employed by one or any of the institution’s contraband nerds.

Contraband Control

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.


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