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Archive for July, 2011

The riddle of the lost feather

July 28th, 2011

Here is a question for you: Could something as seemingly harmless as a feather disrupt the operations of a prison? The bird probably would not give the loss of a feather it a second thought. But, it is a simple scenario that staff should ponder.

I saw it a few yards from the dining hall, on the grass next to the walk. It was a perfectly formed, seven inch long feather. The feather seemed out of place to me. It was just like seeing an archaic telephone booth in a desolate desert setting.

As I picked it up, I wondered what it could be made into. In other words, how could the feather be used against staff or prisoners? Could something as innocuous as this be transformed into an implement of danger?

A shank? – Admittedly, the feather’s quill could be easily sharpened. However, the hollow, stem-like shaft would not necessarily make a good shank. The material is simply too flexible to damage flesh. Of course with the right thrust, precision sharpening, and with a bit of surprise, a sharpened quill could pierce an eye.

A tool of self mutilation? – We know that some offenders will hurt themselves. Whatever the particular reason, it is a common enough occurrence. Almost all veteran corrections staff have heard a story of some offender who inserts some sharpened object into an uncomfortable part of themselves. Just as an inmate could obtain a wire or sharpened plastic and cut or insert into their flesh, a sharpened quill could be employed for this purpose.

A blow gun? – With patience and a paper clip, a quill could be completely hollowed to resemble a straw. A hollowed quill could be used as a blow gun. However, unless it is an ostrich or peacock feather the shaft opening would be too small to pose much of a danger. Though possible, it is not very probable.

A squirt gun? – Everyone had made a makeshift squirt gun in elementary school. Rather than open the small carton of milk, students simply pierce the top of the unopened container with a pencil and insert a straw. Inevitably, the student discovers that by squeezing a full container, a squirt gun is born.

In most institutions, containers are forbidden in certain areas, as they can be used to hurl noxious liquids at staff and other prisoners. This rule will not thwart a prisoner with a mission. Where there is a will, there is a way.

It does not take too much imagination to pair the straw-like remains of a feather shaft with squeezable plastic or even a paper sack. With the right material, patience, and a sealant, the feather can be adapted into a liquid gun.

The feather squirt gun needs not be completely leak proof in order to work. Still, with purloined plastic wrap, it would be reinforced and have a longer life. A seal between the feather shaft/straw and the container is easily contrived. Items that prisoners are permitted to possess can serve this function. Sealing agents include peanut butter or petroleum jelly. Less useful but still possible, fluids that humans naturally produce can seal, after a fashion.

So, what of the single plume? Why ponder unlikely uses? Is this an exercise in over-worry? Is this over-thinking the very simple? To answer these questions, I thought of the possibilities rather than the improbabilities. I admit that a single feather will not likely become a dangerous weapon. However, it is not beyond the realm of possibility.

Because of this, I retrieved the feather and discarded it. This feather would not reach inmate hands. The chief rationale for this lies in thwarting an opportunity. Why tempt fate? Why should I doubt the potency of inmate ingenuity? Why not remove a possible threat or item of trade? That action could have saved a colleague’s eye – or even my own.

Others may say, “Big deal! Who cares if a prisoner gets a hold of a feather?” My answer to that it probably does not make a difference. But, it certainly would not hurt anything to remove something that is not commonly permitted per the policy directive that governs personal property.

In any event, it is a fun exercise to ponder alternative uses for common items. This is how we stay vested in the job. New riddles stretch our brains a bit and keep us mentally flexible. Riddles like this can pull us out of thinking ruts. Even if the riddle has no answer, it is worthwhile to think outside of conventional areas.

Though I am no ornithologist, I am fairly certain that a bird would never consider how the loss of a feather may impact the thoughts of one corrections professional. In the end, something seemingly innocuous – like an errant feather may – may have more sinister uses than one initially supposes.

Contraband Control, What the...?!?

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.

Assessing the organization, Staff relations

The use of the word “guard”: malice or ignorance?

July 13th, 2011

Like nails on a chalkboard, the sound of the word pulled me out of relaxation and cast me into instant discomfort. While outlining Casey Anthony’s incarceration, one of the newscasters on a cable TV news show used the word “guards” to describe corrections officers. The world itself is not necessarily offensive until one considers the many responsibilities and dangers that corrections staff deal with on a daily basis. It is scarcely better than the outmoded and inaccurate term turnkey.

The word guard is offensive to the corrections profession. I do not pretend that this is a new topic. But the utterance of the G word to such a large audience irritated me, thus the article.

Before I go further, my colleague, allow me to point out that I am not a corrections officer. I’m not trying to portray myself as one. However, I believe I know a bit more about corrections than the general public. You see, I’m a security-oriented corrections librarian who has worked in the maximum-security setting for nearly 20 years. I readily admit that I do not directly know what it is to work as a corrections officer. However, my experience entitles me, I believe, to feel vexed when those outside the profession spewed word guard as readily as a pseudo intellectual misuses a thesaurus.

I think that the term is typically bandied about for one of two reasons – malice or ignorance.

It is safe to say that small but significant percentage of people who misuse the word guard do so to knock one off of one’s professional square. This is similar to someone who addresses correspondence to you as defendants rather than by your last name and or title. Quite simply, it is derision towards the corrections profession.

Perhaps many more misuse the G word out of honest ignorance. They simply do not know any better. They are unaware that the word hurls a lack of respect at our profession.

Here are a few reasons that the G word should not apply to anyone in the corrections profession:

It is outdated and clichéd – The word smacks of the 1930s gangster move. Behind the anachronistic word is an anachronistic thought.

It implies a passive watcher with little responsibility – Granted, the dictionary definition of guard describes a tiny fraction of what corrections officers perform – to watch over, to prevent escape, violence, or indecretion. However, the definition does not penetrate the whole nature of the profession. Quite simply, guard sounds like disinterested babysitter.

But, corrections is so much more than a watchful capacity. Everything we say or do (and that which we do not say or do) can be used against us. The great responsibility of knowing and correctly applying policy speaks to that point.

Also, corrections staff not just idly watch others. There is analysis, constant puzzle building, and interacting with so many different work niches. All of that is done with the commonly held mission statement – keeping safe staff, prisoners, and the public. That simply is not the description of a passive observer.

The shorthand, colloquial phrase for the vocation may miss the mark. For example, metallurgists often work in a factory setting that specializes in the complex process of heat treatment steel. The term factory rat is pejorative, especially when applied to metallurgists. Yet, this is something that goes on. Another example is when a head start teacher is labeled as a babysitter. Of course, both jobs are very important. However the former has to earn a degree in early childhood education and must understand curriculum. That is not necessarily true of the latter.

The term guard belittles the profession – Part of what makes any vocation a profession is the professional literature that surrounds it. Another component is the training program, including both initial and continuing training. Thirdly, one of the reasons that corrections is a profession is that most agencies require educational credentials within the field in order to enter. Guard does not capture the scope of the job.

Some may say, “Don’t be so sensitive.” They may contend that this is taking PC too far. I think not. The danger and responsibility of the profession are not really recognized by those outside the profession.

So, what is in a name? I imagine that the late George Carlin, comedian and verbivore, would have had a field day with the officer – guard discussion. However, this is not a matter of amusement. Perhaps this will not move those who use pejorative term for malicious reasons. Still, as we weigh our feelings about this particular invective, there are some who simply don’t know that corrections officer is proper – guard is inappropriate. How we educate people should be a matter professionalism, no matter how difficult this may be.

Dear Reader, Inside Out

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.

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