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Archive for October, 2011

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.

Assessing the organization, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

Someone painted the word “gullible” on the ceiling

October 19th, 2011

I don’t have the figures on this. In fact, I doubt that they even exist. I do wonder, however, how many people in one hundred would look up when you tell them that someone painted the word gullible on the ceiling.

Two questions arise when this point is applied to corrections.

1. What are the dynamics that come from staff who are naturally trusting and who believe most of what they are told?
2. What are the limits of staff jokes?

Staff dynamics and the trusting type – Please note that I am using the word trusting rather than gullible. The former is probably more applicable in most cases. The latter can only be used in a pejorative sense.

We all enter the corrections profession with our own personalities. Experience, training, and interactions with colleagues and prisoners temper our individual outlooks. Some of us come in as very trusting. Then we are trained in how to avoid manipulation. We eventually see examples of how unchecked facts and assumptions place us in embarrassing situations and also in peril. In other words, some of the trust gets knocked out of most of us.

In many cases, we develop and maintain a good sense of humor. We learn that jokes will happen and that they are not always a big deal.

Still, there are some trusting colleagues who take an extreme stance on reimaging their reputation. Often, these are staff who are burned by the jokes and lies of others too often. They go from over-trusting to meticulously double-checking and triple-checking all that they hear from staff and prisoners. In this extreme, paranoia is not far away. Benevolent staff may guide this type to a more moderate stance. Less scrupulous staff may make sport of this staff member.

Prisoners who would endeavor to manipulate may detect these types and target them. In these cases especially, members of team corrections must refrain from disenfranchising colleagues. Otherwise, compromised staff become puppets to manipulative offenders.

Limits of staff jokes – There is no specific answer for the question of “What is the lower limit of staff jokes?” It varies from work place to workplace. Some institutions may be naturally laid back while others are strictly business. One will even find variations between shifts in the same jail or prison.

There are so many factors to take into account. Some of them are:
• Facility history
• Agency’s emphasis on the harassment and discrimination policy
• General sense of humor of staff
• Interactions of key members of staff
• Tone of the current administration
Even if one believes he or she has a working knowledge of all of the above, it is not fool proof. Any variable can set a simple joke into a bitter war with collateral damage. Even if a colleague plays on the trusting nature of another in the spirit of breaking tension, it may not end well.

Perhaps the best advice, quite simply, is to act professionally. When in doubt about a joke, don’t do it. Besides, the humiliation of a colleague will last much longer than a cheap, quick laugh.

So, in consideration of all of this, who is it that we should trust? The answer is that we have to trust one another. There will always be over-trusting staff and there will always be those who test their patience with “humor”. Through it all, we have to remember that prisoners and staff watch these interactions.

One of my colleagues from a Louisiana Jail offered this maxim:
“Don’t believe everything that everyone says. But, don’t stop listening.” In an environment such as corrections where things are not always as they seem on the surface, this is sound advice.

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.

Assessing the organization, Security, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

Technology in corrections: Panacea or pariah?

October 5th, 2011

Once upon a time, it seems, that a common sentiment in corrections was, “Technology be damned!” However, two factors have made this exclamation as archaic as an eight track tape player. First, technological innovations have come rapidly and with great utility. In other words, the world is forcing us to adapt as a profession. Second, these innovations ultimately can save money. And this is important especially in times of economic uncertainty.

I am not condemning corrections as atavistic. Things have changed and corrections staff are not tied to the old ways. You are a case in point, if you are reading this online. This is a document that was created without paper and through electronic means. Certainly, later incarnations may be passed in paper form. But the first corrections professionals to read this do so on-screen.

Technology is neither a panacea nor a pariah. As with most things, there are benefits and there are pitfalls.

Now, let us consider electronic storage. Many prison law libraries are planning to utilize the technological magic of electronic storage. If done right, this can save a considerable amount of money over current print systems.

Is the general library next? Consider that today’s price of an electronic book reader is around $100 and falling. Just a few years ago the price was quadruple. Companies may offer versions pre-loaded with a variety of books at a reasonable price. Perhaps it is not a stretch to say that it will be possible to outfit an individual with a book with a small library at a reasonable cost. And it is a matter of agencies delimiting the collection through a restricted publications list as outlined per policy directives and operating procedures.

This will help with security. Consider the current policy where a prisoner is perhaps allowed 25 books in his or her possession. Think of all of the places that one could hide dangerous contraband. However, an inexpensive, preloaded electronic book reader nullifies this. There would be fewer opportunities to pass or hide things when one has a self-contained library.

The electronic storage of music illustrates the speed of innovation. Agencies jumped right past the CD from the cassette tape to the MP3 player. The danger is diminished in two ways. Obviously, the CD is no longer an issue or a possible weapon. Secondly the MP3 player offers a smaller number of options for concealing contraband. There are even fewer places to hide things than in the common cassette tape player. Agencies are developing a manner of how prisoners purchase and store music. This can be applied to electronic book collections.

Does miniaturization of electronics make the lives of corrections professionals instantly better without hazard? Not entirely. In fact the rise of the cell phone as contraband is evidence that technology is a two edge sword. Cell phones are evolving to become smaller and more useful. Therefore, huge amounts of information can be stored on these devices.

Agencies and their staff must stay ahead of the technological curve by setting and knowing the limits on each device. Unless electronic book readers and MP3s are monitored and sufficiently tailored toward safety, fears of electronic storage and transmitting information apply. These must be devoid of recording, filming, and wireless capacities.

The need is great to foolproof each device through testing and research. In other words, there’s nothing like tinkering with a complementary display device offered by companies. I believe that it behooves agencies to permit staff to trouble shoot these devises prior to wide implementation.

Of course, the new frontier of technology is really just building off of advances from the past. In other words it’s not like going from an arctic setting to a tropical coastline in one step. There are graduations. With that in mind, basic vigilance, corrections experience, and technological prowess in staff is a good combination for security. In the end, old tricks remain and new tricks are created. All the gadgets in the world are worthless without staff watchfulness.

Security, Training