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Running the long race of contraband control

June 16th, 2012

An important benefit of contraband control is safety for the public, staff, and offenders. That does not mean that it is easy. Not all searches are quick and uncomplicated sprints. The quest for safety through the search sometimes seems like running a series of marathons that you will never finish.

On occasion, while conducting a large-scale search of the library shelves, a song pops in my mind. It is about what goes through the mind of a long distance runner. The piece of music is appropriate, as it highlights a seemingly impossible task. Here are some truisms of the search that are brought to the fore by the song.

It seems futile – Imagine searching for a single needle in a thousand hay stacks and you are only at haystack number 498. When we look up from a long-term job and see that we are less than half way done, it can be disheartening. This is especially true if the search comes up empty. The danger in this is the feeling of futility. Hopelessness compromises the quality of the investigation. Because we have found nothing so far, we reason that nothing will be found and use shortcuts. Ultimately, nothing may be found. However, an important part of the process is in the comforting certainty of thoroughness.

The task never seems to end – The long distance runner may ask, “Who keeps moving the finish line back?” This reminds me of the Mackinac Bridge that joins the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan. That bridge spans five miles. You see crews painting it starting on the north end. It seems that when they finally reach the south end, the paint on the north side is worn and needs to be redone. This is like going through a large area with many hiding places. Once you complete the lengthy task, it needs to be restarted because of the time that has passed.

Determination is the driving force – Often, we will find nothing as the search progresses. Yet, if we skimp on the search, we compromise the process. It is like a thorough hunt through your house in pursuit of missing car keys. Looking in the obvious place is one strategy. If that fails, a systematic, complete search must follow. That is where determination comes in.

It is imperative to continue – Sometimes determination is buttressed by necessity. If you are trying to find your car keys at home, you know that you must succeed. Otherwise, you cannot use the vehicle and it simply becomes an expensive, immobile, three thousand pound weight on your driveway. In corrections, reports of a weapon in a certain area heralds necessity. For the sake of safety for all, it is necessary that the search be conducted.

We are all long distance runners in the search for contraband control. The track is long and the task never seems to be done. Unlike the marathoner, we never cross the final finish line until we retire. Contraband control is a series of long races. When we complete a race, there is another one to do. Stamina and persistence are tools that help us run the long race of safety.

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Contraband Control

The magic three rules of corrections

June 10th, 2012

A friend of mine reminded me of the magical balance of things that come in threes. You see, my friend is writing a book. She has three main characters. There is a good interplay between the trio. A fourth person is introduced into the story and the whole thing comes apart. The protagonist, number four in the equation, knocks down the whole structure.

Sometimes, two is too few and four is too many. For example, three legs are optimal on a stool. Also, three philosophical ideas seem to provide the right amount of ideas. For some reason, three is a good number for many things.

With that in mind, I looked at the number three and considered it in terms of corrections. I believe that there are many things that a departing corrections professional could tell a newly hired person. In this, two may be too few and four may be excessive. Here are my three bits of advice for the incoming professional.

1. Follow policy – Every part of our job is written in operating procedures and policy directives. In many agencies, the larger directives are also adapted to local circumstances. Policy is our outline for success. As long as we follow policy and procedure, we are doing the right thing.
2. Ask questions – If you do not understand a process, ask about it at an appropriate time. Although you may not necessarily find the answer immediately logical, you will at least have broader knowledge of the job.
3. Be firm but fair – Enforce the rules in a manner that treats everyone the same. Be consistently assertive – not a push over and not aggressive.

In the end, three may be just another number. But, like the three legs of a stool, the number seems to provide a nice balance between too much and too little.

What three bits of advice would you give to incoming colleagues?

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Impacts of coffeepot predators

May 18th, 2012

Dear Reader: Please note that the following collection of coffeepot predators is a composite based on 30 years of observation in the course of consuming caffeine. I am not currently in a coffee club and am in no way pointing fingers at any current colleagues.

At work do you ever wonder who leaves the last cup of coffee in the pot? In these instances, there is not quite enough in the pot for another full cup. However, there is too much of throw away. Because of the frequency of this, you suppose that cannot be pure coincidence. Even the most trusting soul would conclude that someone is jockeying to avoid making the next pot of coffee for the group. The coffeepot predator has struck once again.

Before we delve into this behavior, we might question the merit of this particular complaint. In other words, is such a little bad habit really worth the bother? The answer is that it could be. It depends on a number of factors including the duration and intensity of the problem. Also, we have to consider the tolerance of all people in the group.

First of all, in the stressful job such as corrections, staff unity is occasionally strained. In addition, because we depend on one another for safety, little acts of inconsideration can compound and produce fractures on this crucial working relationship. Third, offenders watch our moods and interactions. They see division, even if it is over who makes next pot of coffee. Given that and an enterprising handler, a point of departure into the set up is provided. And we all know that manipulation can lead to breaches of security, uneven enforcement of rules, introduction of contraband, and inter-collegial distrust.

In theory, a coffeepot fund is a wonderful thing. Colleagues donate money and or coffee and cream and sugar. In exchange, one can drink coffee throughout the entire workday. That is the theory. In practice, we often encounter some coffee oriented behavior the stresses the good relationship between coworkers.

Here are some irritating little behaviors connected to a coffeepot fund that can steadily erode staff relations:

Jockey – Described above, this is the person who times it so he or she never makes a pot of coffee. Although it seems like a lot of effort and observation to avoid work, this is a common coffeepot predator.

Coffees Czar – Sometimes when the coffee club is without leader, a strong figure is needed. This is a person who takes charge, the person who reminds colleagues to donate money and supplies as necessary. However, the Coffees Czar can become an autocratic, bullying and badgering figure.

Feigned failure – A passive way to avoid making coffee can be achieved when someone makes a horribly weak or incredibly strong pot of coffee. If it is bad enough, the rest of the coffee club will forbid another pot from this person. It seems unbelievable for someone to stoop to that. Still, I’ve seen many intelligent people over the years play dumb and sabotage a pot in order to avoid a task.

Flattery – Some in the coffee club will fawn over the coffee making ability of others in order to avoid making a pot themselves. Working the ego of a colleague in order to make a cheap gain seems like an act of low integrity. There are some out there who use this tactic.

El Cheapo – Most coffee clubs at one time or another have an el cheapo. These are the people who do not pay for the privilege of drinking coffee. They may promise, but they never pay nor do they bring in supplies. It’s also in the form of someone who steals coffee – waiting until it seems that no one is looking and taking a cup without donation.

It would be an empty exercise to simply identify staff dividers such as coffeepot predators. Incidentally, this is certainly not limited to corrections staff. You can find these archetypes in any number of occupational subgroups. However, since staff unity is so crucial in supporting our mission of safety, the coffeepot predator poses a more serious problem in corrections than in other vocations. Here are some solutions:

1. If there are chronic abusers but the identities are vague, a meeting can be called and this could be brought to the fore. Perhaps to avoid embarrassment, a few quick guidelines of conduct can be outlined by the coffee leader.

2. Charts or sign-up sheets can be created to fairly determine who will bring supplies and at what time.

3. Tact is important. Accusations should be proven before issued.

4. Check yourself. Be aware of your own flaws within the system before you attack others.

5. Lighten up. It is only a coffee club, after all.

6. Balance the importance of your appointment as Coffee Czar. Apply the least pressure possible when action is necessary.

It may seem strange to dissect behaviors in a group setting with a collective goal of providing coffee. However, big problems can be tied to little offenses such as undesired behavior in a coffee club. You could regard this as an awareness of potentially bigger problems. Understanding some of these behaviors and having solutions at hand is worthwhile in order to keep staff unity.

The steady drop of water through five heaping tablespoons of coffee produces a bitter brew. Much the same can be said of colleagues who maneuver to avoid little jobs and push them onto others. Like a rhythmic annoyance, the coffeepot predator never fails to irritate. Little things mean a lot. Positive staff relations can be strained through minute, steady applications of ill-will. But they can be repaired through awareness and action.

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Staff relations

The role of communication in contraband control

May 11th, 2012

Have you ever asked yourself, “What is the best contraband available to staff?” In various incarnations of the presentation that I deliver called Wake up and Smell the Contraband, I have asked participants their many opinions of what is the best contraband control tool. Some of offered these as top candidates: mirrors on telescoping handles, metal detectors, cell phone detectors, and drug sniffing dogs. These are just a few of the many answers offered.

All of those have somewhat specialized functions. Still, there is an answer that is consistently offer that is neither mechanical nor electronic. And I’ve heard these answers in formal and informal queries from jail and prison staff. This tool transcends all levels and agencies geographical limits. And it is an answer that has remained consistent over the years. The tool of choice for many corrections professionals is communications.

In the war against contraband where safety is our major goal, communications is useful for many reasons:
• It is already built into the system. There is an official chain of command which information flows. Also unofficial vines snake through our operations. When any contraband tip is uncovered, the staff body who communicates well will disseminate the information to all corners.
• Communications is not just conducted in verbal mode. It can also be done electronically. E-mail is nothing new to corrections. However, with digital cameras information flows from screen to screen with pictorial clarity. Clarity comes in different forms and in different potencies. Less is lost in translation with the written and picture communications.
• In addition, there is permanence with electronic record. It is something that can be reviewed long after it is initially sent.
• Communication opens up professional synapses. As information is conveyed, different parties can add stories and ideas. This is a sort of brainstorming and recollection that aids in the contraband control process. Staff benefit as the data travels. The more stories and information, the better store of tools.
• Staff communication has a wider potential than is normally employed. Communication should be expanded in those cases. We should always remember to disseminate two different shifts, different areas, and other institutions. Sometimes, news of something found in food services on midnights does not make it to for example, the library. This could be a critical error if materials from library are used for the enterprise in the kitchen. If all parties are not notified, preventative measures are less likely to occur. That example points to the interconnectedness of operations. In short there is never too much information about contraband between staff.

Of course, with all jobs there are certain tools that need to be employed. And while communications is a very important component in the toolbox is safety, it is not the only tool. However, when used in conjunction with crime mapping shared observations and various search tactics, our chances for enhancing safety in our facilities is increased.

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Contraband Control

Dear Reader

December 22nd, 2011

Dear Reader:

Please allow me to wish you and yours a happy holiday season and a safe and prosperous 2012.

I will be taking a little literary break for now. I hope that you have enjoyed Foundations thus far. Thanks for your support.

Very sincerely,

Joe Bouchard

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Dear Reader

Tale of the Model Citizen

December 16th, 2011

There are so many challenges for anyone employed as a corrections professional. But staff division is a very interesting issue in corrections. This is because of the impact of it bad and good potential. On the negative side, it can be the root of security problems. On the other side of that coin is the notion that the solutions are largely in our collective hands.

In general, there are two sorts of deeds done in corrections. One variety can be performed with the notion of earning some sort of credit. The other is done for the sake of doing the job right. In other words, there are climbers and true professionals.

A climber can be defined as someone who orchestrates their duties only when others are looking. They do a good job, but it is masked in insincerity and is slef-serving. Theirs is a world of positive messages of their deeds for those in de jure or de facto power. The climber will generally not do a less-than-desirable task unless it is observed by someone who can advance his or her career.

The true professional does not need an audience or Kudos in order to do a job well. It is certain that no one can act with truly altruistic motives at all times. However, the professional does not need the credit as much as the climber.

There are plenty of each kind. And each of us can range between these two poles. One small, self serving deed does not necessarily taint an otherwise professional record. Unfortunately, most of us remember the negative rather than the positive. If you are honest with yourself, it is probably easier to name more climbers that you know than the vocational heroes.

Climbers, through a long chain of possible events, pose a hazard to operations. They may, in the spirit of subtle self-promotion, spread malicious rumors about non-competing professionals. Tarnished reputations cause disillusion and lower productivity. Formerly committed staff become less security conscious. Those who see through the climber’s activities can become jaded if the climber promotes. The administration may lose authority and credibility if a climber rises in the ranks.

All of this diminishes security. Every little distraction from the main goal of safety for all chips away at the foundation of security. This may not be evident, but it is true.

Just like the prevalent issue of staff division, this problem is easy to identify. The hard part is to realize the solutions. Here are some thoughts about climbers and true professionals that may put the solutions within reach.

• Corrections staff can see through ruses. Climbers, no matter how cleverly they manipulate opinions, will eventually be discovered by colleagues. Climbers cannot hide in the long term.
• The true professional does not consciously seek to be visible.
• It is very easy to deride the overt climber. However, climber bashing exacerbates the balance of harmony in an institution.
• Self scrutiny is essential in this and all issues that surround staff relations.
• Humility is a key ingredient.
• Many aspirations are also beneficial to the mission. It is the negative examples that sometimes taint the image of promoting.
• Some climbers are effective leaders and should get the promotion based on skills rather than popularity.
• There is such a thing as too much pride in being altruistic – it is elitist. At the risk of defending the stance of the climber, anti-climbing sentiment can be so potent that it detracts from the mission.
• Each of us is a work in progress. No one adheres to the same role at all times.

Climbers and true professionals are just two of the many interesting archetypes we find in our challenging profession. We cannot all be model citizens all of the time. We are human. However, the lofty ideal is just a reach from the real. Solutions are within reach.

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Self Scrutiny, Staff relations

Rules are rules

December 7th, 2011

Just this morning, I heard a story on the news related to rule enforcement. It seems that a celebrity was instructed to turn off his electronic device prior to a transcontinental flight. According to the story, the celebrity did not comply with the instruction. Because of this, he was escorted off of the airplane.

Of course, the story will develop as the hours and days move forward. Messages on social media and on news and celebrity shows will certainly take this story in any number of interesting and bizarre directions. Though our point of departure is based in the alleged noncompliance rules by famous person, let’s apply this to our everyday work life. In consideration of the nature of rules, we can ask ourselves a few questions:

Do the rules apply to everyone?

The simple answer is: rules do apply to everyone. Staff, prisoners and the public are expected to follow posted rules and valid verbal instructions.

Let us modify the question. Does everyone believe that rules apply to them? With this, the answer is not cut and dry. Some offenders may be of the opinion that they are above the rules due to time served, a sense of entitlement, rebellion, or any number of factors. Some staff may thumb their nose at the rules for the same reasons.

Perhaps a celebrity puts faith in the cult of personality over the notion of uniform behavior. Thins of a big Hollywood name getting checked for a minor safety rule. We can easily imagine a Diva (or Divo?) say, “Don’t you know who I am? No one treats me this way!”Some would agree with the privileges of fame. Others expect compliance – no matter one’s status.

Are some rules unreasonable?

Most everyone at some time, staff and offender, believes that a certain rule is unreasonable. I once heard of a facility that declared solid-colored pens as contraband. Except for the tiny “segregation pens”, clear-bodied, transparent pens were all that staff and offenders could use. This was done in order to curtail smuggling through a small but effective contraband vessel. One staff member who was quite attached to his gold pen instantly took offense to this rule. However, when explained that this was for security sake and nothing personal, the rule was accepted by that staff person. In this case, the rule was seen by the staff person as initially unreasonable then valid when the mission came into focus.

Are rules enforced the same way?

Discretion is a strange tool. On one hand, it liberates us by giving us flexibility. No two sets of circumstances are completely identical, after all. For minor rules, a verbal reprimand may work better than a misconduct report. However, those who are less flexible will wrangle with uniformity. When someone does X, then Y should always follow as a consequence, they reason.

Decisions are not like binary language. It is not as simple as your basic either/or proposition. Certainly, there are circumstances that warrant absolutes in the world of rules. Still, other things are more prone to discretion. Clearly, consistency is the brass ring to grab. But the fact remains that it is an imperfect world.

The fact is that there will be differences in enforcement of almost all rules. This is true between shifts, between facilities, and in comparison to different areas of the institution. In fact, an individual may enforce the same rule in different ways during the same day.

Does enforcement change over time?

Sometimes, a new rule is issued in reaction to an event. For example, if hand soap is proven to be the new trading medium, the rule that governs the amount of soap an offender can carry will be likely to be strongly enforced. As time goes on, this enforcement may become lax to all but the most stringent rule enforcer. Event-driven rule enforcement has a way of moderating over time.

Just like the celebrity who refuses to comply with valid safety rules on an airline, not all will agree with rules and authority. But, in maintaining order, that is what corrections professionals face every day.

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Assessing the organization, Security, Self Scrutiny

Contraband – the rat and tiger question

December 1st, 2011

Here’s a question that I’m sure you don’t hear very often. Would you rather:

A. …be slowly eaten alive by rats?


B. …be torn apart by a tiger?

While both are not likely, the choice with the rats is more possible for most of us. Being torn apart by a tiger is not very likely because they are so rare. So, are rats more dangerous than tigers? If probabilities are accounted for, the danger lies with the rats

Let’s apply this to our ever-present problem of contraband control. Is a rare, technological wonder like a miniature recording device more dangerous than a gambling slip? Does a weapon of intricate design hold more peril for corrections professionals than a razor melted into a toothbrush handle?

Recently, someone outside of the corrections profession asked me about the most ingenious bit of bootleg that I have ever heard of. I will admit that the use of watches with cell phones and mini recorders came to mind first. The crossbow constructed from a chess set brought the notion of dangerous ingenuity to my mind. Other examples of these fiendishly clever items include the narcotic filled candy bar and a crayon drawing laced with controlled substances.

Those items, while rare, either directly or indirectly pose a great danger to staff, the public, and offenders.

Then I thought of smaller, common items found inside our facilities. In its own way, forbidden dice and tobacco may cause trading schemes or even be the tip of an iceberg to a gambling ring. Many dangers surround those ventures. And small, common items wielded by a enterprising prisoner, have their own perilous nature.

It is a question like the tiger and the rat. Certainly, and individual rat will do much less damage than a rare and obviously dangerous tiger. So it is a matter of frequencies, probabilities, and perhaps it being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One may never have to consider a plastic pistol smuggled into a lock up. However, when it is in your face, it is on the forefront of one’s mind.

It is easy to think of low level, nuisance contraband as the rat. The tiger is the exotic, rare thing that one may find only once in a career. In terms of numbers, knowing how to snare a tiger is less important than knowledge of rat trapping.

As luck would have it, however, trapping the tiger and trapping the rat can be done with the same methods. All of the tools that we employ in our normal contraband control procedures, if done right, will defeat or at least frightened both beasts. Of course, they are:
• Vigilance
• the overt search
• the covert search
• communication between staff
• documentation
• reading the signs
• listening to offenders with the “inside ear”
• persistence
• drawing upon your own experience and that of others
• research of the literature
• Internet searches

In the end, rare and ingenious contraband items and common bits of bootleg are the same in at least one respect. Both can be dangerous. The frequency in which we encounter any specific item is not as important as the idea that these items are the root of dangers. Whether an item is rare or not, the prisoner who wields it usually has an unfair advantage. With that they can dictate favors, arrange for unauthorized comforts, and build the power base. It is the duty of staff to eliminate or at least lessen the opportunities for enterprising inmates to create, trade, and use contraband. The safety of all inside depends on this.

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Contraband Control

The Contraband Nerd versus the Contrabandist

November 22nd, 2011

In late April of 2011, I published the article called “The Contraband Nerd”. This essay outlined the variety of enthusiastic, talented staff who excel at uncovering dangerous items in our correctional facilities.

Contraband Nerd was defined in that article in this way:
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.
Recently, a colleague outside of corrections asked me about the Contraband Nerd. Perhaps the idea wasn’t conveyed as well as it could have been. She mistakenly thought that the Contraband Nerd could be a prisoner. I suppose that they may be two side of a staff/prisoner coin. In the purest terms, both of these would have opposite aims.
This is not about name calling, nor is it about simple labeling. In fact you could call staff Contraband Nerd, Contraband Hound, or any number of terms. Objectively, a prisoner who excels in trading or finding different utilities for common items could be called the Contrabandist. I would simply like to expand the definition a bit.
For the sake of this piece, let us suppose that the term Contraband Nerd applies solely to staff. Also assume that the term Contrabandist applies strictly to offenders. Let’s take a quick look at some of the differing roles and goals of the Contraband Nerd and the Contrabandist:

Contraband Nerd is a staff person who:
• eliminating danger from the facility
• keeping safe staff, public, and prisoners
• searching appropriately – using the overt search to demonstrate that the area is regularly looked over and using the covert search to uncover bootleg while prisoners are not looking
• communicating finds with staff
• documenting finds
• collecting concealment tricks in order that contrabandist can be foiled in the future
• educating interested staff in the ways of contraband control
• analyzing trading trends to better maintain safety
• using crime mapping on contraband incidents where resources permit and philosophies insist
Contrabandist are prisoners who:
• making his or her stay as an incarcerated person as comfortable as possible – no matter the cost
• thwarting the efforts of staff to discover illicit trade
• using wherever means possible in order to maintain trading enterprise or contraband empire
• accepting whichever trading alliances are available, even if the philosophies of both affiliated groups or individuals seem diametrically opposed
• getting the highest price for each item
• bartering, negotiating, coercing, enforcing all avenues of trade

Looking at the two very different archetypes, they truly are like opposing sides of an argument. Members of both of these groups are in a constant tug-of-war for the safety of a facility and all those contained within. It is a struggle that will never end. Both parties have vested interests and are not likely to completely abandon their desired outcomes. I believe that it behooves staff to reflect on their inner Contraband Nerd. Your contribution to the battle against illicit trading may ultimately save your life.

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Contraband Control

Checkers, Chess and Contention

November 18th, 2011

The game boards are the same. There are 64 squares, arranged 8 x 8 in two different colors. Yet, chess and checkers are as different from each other as a flat screen television is to a coloring book. There are times when we are prepared to enjoy high definition and we are handed a book of simple drawing and a box of crayons.

When we are dealing with offenders, is no secret that some are very contentious. Their record seems to indicate that they retaliate to all defensive and punitive actions. For example, if you issue a verbal reprimand for violations of a minor rule, some inmates will complain all the way to the Supreme Court – very literally so. Perceptions of right and wrong are not important. Is just something of which staff should be aware.

It is prudent to prepare for the worst, of course. But is there such a thing as too much preparation? Might we anguish or squander resources on something that does not come to pass? We sometimes sit down for a game of chess only to discover that our “opponent” is looking for a game of checkers? Or is it the other way around? How do we prepare for contention?

• Preparation can be built into your routine. Logbooks and notes help jog the memory and are the basis of defense in any accusation.
• Following policy and procedure to the letter not only keeps the conscious clean, it also protects us. If you’re not one who operates in deviations and policy, accusations to the contrary are ridiculous.
• Remember the repeat offenders. If you encounter a contentious prisoner over and over through the years, you can take some solace in your growth as professional. Some prisoners are transferred often. If an argumentative prisoner transferred but is back to the institution after two years, this can be considered an opportunity for professional development. For you, that should count as two years of experience and skills accrued in his absence.
• Many people mellow. If a contentious inmate from your professional past resurfaces, stand on guard. But do not launch an offensive before the prisoner starts arguing. We have enough authority to see if the inmate has tempered argumentative ways.

• A reminder of the past may be warranted. But does not necessarily have to be use like a bludgeoning tool
• Play the game, but don’t be too absorbed in the details. It is good to have basic contingency plans. However, if you over-plan, you clutter the field with hypotheticals. Balance your planning with execution.
• Let others know if you are faced with constant contention. Chances are, highly argumentative individuals do not limit their complaints to one person. You may learn valuable coping skills or important information from colleagues.
• Do not get discouraged if a prisoner lies. In the course of disputes, this happens.
• Professionally speaking, assertion is better than aggression.

Like checkers and chess, each game of human interaction is different from the next. But the general principles of preparedness remain. And dealing with the contentious person in the past will not necessarily be identical to the next time you encounter someone of this nature.

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Security, Self Scrutiny, Staff relations