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Archive for September, 2011

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.

Assessing the organization, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations, Uncategorized

Three benefits from the law library

September 22nd, 2011

Most corrections professionals know that there should be a judicious balance between security and providing programming. Without programs such as chapel, work assignments, and recreation, institutions would be harder to manage. Programming provides useful activities that offer intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual growth for offenders.

Naturally, there are many instances of abuse of these programs. It is realistic to assume that not all who attend a program will adhere to the rules, play fair or even use the program for its intended purpose. Realistic corrections professionals know this and can minimize the damage done by programs abusers by administering the proper verbal reprimands or misconduct reports.

Programs professionals have the duty to maintain a safe program. This improves the program for those who wish to use it for legitimate purposes. But we realize that the world is not perfect and there are schemers in the prison population.

A key program is the law library. And the irony of a corrections agency providing resources to bring suit to corrections officials is often thrown at the civilian library staff by colleagues. Still, whether one agrees or not, there are constitutional rights to remember. And our best defenses against litigation are adherence to policy, professionalism, and good documentation.

Despite naysayers, the law library does offer positive points. Here are some of them:

Canary in the mine – Problems of any institution come to light when under the grievance procedure or litigation. The products of the library actually act as an indicator of problems. This is a repository for policies and procedures. And when deficiencies come to light, those can be remedied for the benefit of all.

Pressure relief – Law libraries also serve as a pressure release valve. Staff are safer when prisoners use legal rather than violent means to solve problems. Tensions are often diminished when offenders are productively engaged in research.

Legal remedies – Law libraries allow access for convicted persons to address conditions of confinement and seek post conviction remedies. We must remember that not all offenders are necessarily guilty of all charges.

The benefits of law libraries are certainly hard to deny. And like all programs, the law library is part of a complex system that makes an institution.


This is only a test: Trainer cells for contraband control

September 15th, 2011

Later this year, I will be publishing Icebreakers III. This is the 3rd in a series of corrections training books that I have written. Icebreakers III is produced and distributed by The International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP – Here is one of the classroom exercises that will be featured.

I believe that training in hands-on contraband control is essential for the safety of staff, offenders and the public. If time, space, and expense were no object, I would like to see this contraband search exercise implemented at as many correctional facilities as possible. It is called, “This is only a test”. It is a practical, hands-on learning exhibit for lessening contraband.

I know that the idea of a using a cell like structure for instruction is not strictly original. I believe that many worksites and academies employ training cells in some form or another. I imagine that the chief uses of trainer cells would be for extraction and slot safety. But I wonder just how fully utilize these trainer cells are for contraband control exercises.

Here’s how “This is only a test” works. In the training area of each facility, there’ll be built one each of the cell types used in the institution. In other words, if the facility in question has a segregation cell and minimum-security parts, each will be available as trainer cells in the training area. Optimally, these training cells are located outside the secure perimeter for user training and demonstration.

This will all staff to find the many hiding places that offenders may utilize. They would serve as a useful tool to instruct pre-professionals of many different contraband concealment methods that one can find within the prisoner’s area of control. The trainer cell also serves to hone the skills of experienced professionals.

Also, these trainer cells shall not house offenders. Trainer cells shall be stocked with goods and furniture that simulate a prisoner’s presence and should be as realistic as possible.

The institutional training officer can place any contraband item in its hiding places prior to each search exercise. Of course, we all have different perspectives. Therefore, it is wise to get other staff to help conceal the bootleg. And it is best to rotate staff in and out of that position in order to offer as many hiding scenarios as possible.

Whatever the hiding procedure, each training officer should note the nature and location of each item hidden. And in much the same way as a teacher will assess which questions are answered incorrectly; the trainer can determine which locations are typically left unsearched. This information will indicate points to be emphasized in future training.

In addition, the trainer cells can be used for emergency response team members. This is an excellent way to simulate cell rushes.

Lastly, a trainer cell is a good demonstration for members of the public that made tour the facility. This would give a pretty good idea of the physical conditions in which offenders are housed. Liability is lessened in this case. Granted, I believe that criminal justice students and pre-professionals should also witness and experience the inside of a facility in order to gain understanding of what goes on. But in many cases, members of the public who tour prisons would be able to gain enough of an understanding in a trainer cell.

Wouldn’t it be great if good ideas could be implemented immediately? However, brainstorms must be filtered through institutional needs, resources, space, and time. Still, one can dream. Just because an idea cannot be immediately put into play does not render it perpetually shelved. And creative thoughts are often modified and brought into every day practice, given time.

I believe that training in hands-on contraband control is essential for the safety of staff, offenders, and the public. The construction expense and vocational payroll to run such an exercise is an investment in a safer future.

Contraband Control, Security, Training

What a horrible way to go!

September 8th, 2011

Later this year, I will be publishing Icebreakers III. This is the 3rd in a series of corrections training books that I have written. Icebreakers III is produced and distributed by The International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP – Here is one of the classroom exercises that will be featured.

Many of us in corrections develop a gallows sense of humor. Perhaps we do this in order to cope with the seriousness of the job. This can be deemed as a general stress reliever.

Is there way to proactively harness this and place it into an icebreaker? I believe so. This can be done with simple introductions. As you start a module, you may write on the board or display on the computer screen these words:

1. Name
2. Current position
3. Time in corrections
4. The most horrible way to die is…

It is best to stack the words in four different lines for clarity. The facilitator simply states that everyone will give a very brief introduction of themselves. This will be done by stating your name and current position and the time that you have worked in corrections. The part that (ironically) enlivens participants is their opinion of the most horrible way to die.

In the spirit of teamwork and interest of instruction, the facilitator should go first. Mine would be like this:

Hi, my name is Joe.
I’m a corrections librarian.
I have been in corrections for 18 years.
I believe the most horrible way to die is being eaten by rats.

Naturally the facilitator will set the tone.

My thought is that creativity can flow if there are few constraints. I believe that the shock value at the start of the session may spark more active participation later. Then let the group go one by one. Here are a few notes.

• Remember that there’s a fine line between bizarre, yet effective instruction and creepy answers.
• There will be repeated answers. And this should be permitted. After all, if you think that drowning is a horrible fate, you should be able to agree with someone who answered that previously.
• Be compassionate as needed. Someone may render a heart-wrenching true story of how a loved one recently passed a terrible manner. The mood of the room can shift in a millisecond.
• Reel in the class and if things get too jovial. Remember the unique pull of gallows humor.
• There may be a string of answers designed to disgust others. Be prepared for a gross out/shock contest.
• Keep a sense of humor. Perhaps someone will list the most horrible way to die is “to be bored to death by this training”.
• Keep a lid on things. There may be some rough verbal camaraderie. Prepare for wild answers as the audience becomes more comfortable.

This is a true icebreaker. And nothing breaks the ice quite as easily sharing the universal fear of mortality. This can go well with an introduction to communications module. I also see this as a way to enliven (again ironically) and unarmed self-defense class. Perhaps one can use as a prelude to a retirement seminar.

Why not give this icebreaker try? After all, we only live once


9-11: A decade later

September 8th, 2011

Ten years have melted into the past since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This is a nice, round number from which we can reflect on how things are changed and how they’ve remain the same from that tumultuous event.

Unlike the general public, corrections staff continually have their eyes on security on all things. Most seasoned veterans of America’s toughest beat find that our vigilance follows us outside the gates as we leave work. 911 left us with plenty to digest. Let us look at 10 of the many lessons through the eyes of corrections.

1. Post-911 terror attacks have occurred. Not all of them were completed as planned by the agents of terror. Due to our attentiveness and shared communications we of thwarted nefarious plans and kept safe.
2. Uncertainty is our only certainty. True, our vigilance has mitigated lots of danger. However, our eyes remained open and our muscles tense out of necessity.
3. There was a well-deserved rise in the esteem in which we hold public safety staff. Heroism and the sense of duty arrived in time and in great measure.
4. Safety is relative, not absolute. Debates over civil liberties and security were sparked and have resurged, demonstrating the workings of our democracy.
5. Closure has not been total. The death of the architect of chaos may seem to close the door on the terror. However, the past cannot be undone. As a nation, we live in the legacy of 911. And some individuals face life without loved ones due to that incident.
6. Simplicity works. Concealment tricks, once revealed, seem easier or more possible than previously thought. Simple, uncomplicated plans are likely to be more dangerous, as there are fewer variables for the executioners orders to manage
7. Since 911, the public has been exposed to the likes of shoe bombings and has witnessed ordinary items turned into weapons. Therefore, at some level, the public gained greater awareness of the daily struggles of corrections staff.
8. Any guess is good. Some believe that 911 anniversaries will bring more destruction. Others contend that the next attack will be a surprise unrelated to an obvious date. In short, disaster will happen when it happens. Our preparedness level is up to us.
9. The quest for security never ends. With each find, we must continue to watch and react.
10. Life goes on. Though we live our lives a bit differently, we still live. Day-to-day living is still recognizable from the pre-911 times. With that, there is a spark of cautious hope for the future.
A decade later we are still stunned. Looking back, it still does not seem entirely real. Overall, we have lost our sense of security. It is clear that the terrorist attack on the United States marks a change in our nation. We must never forget the many lessons from the painful and unprecedented ordeal.