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Archive for May, 2011

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

A solution to staff division: The rock of integrity

May 12th, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

People storm

May 4th, 2011

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

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

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

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

What are some strategies to deal with disagreeable sorts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staff relations