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Foundations - Lurking beneath the surface
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 10/01/2007

Joe Bouchard is a librarian at Baraga Maximum Correctional Facility within the Michigan Department of Corrections. He is also a member of the Board of Experts for “The Corrections Professional” and an instructor of Corrections and Psychology for Gogebic Community College.




Ah! It could not have been more perfect. Without a doubt that was the best cappuccino I have ever had. The texture, the taste, the aroma, it was all optimal. Little did I know that floating in a cavalier manner on my dream drink was a gnat. So much for perfection!

So often, we are absorbed by the rightness of a moment only to find some flaw that totally alters our perceptions of wellbeing. It is true that we corrections professionals are trained to look beyond what we see with the naked eye. Still, we are human and we can be fooled.

Are things always as they seem? The appearance of superficial surprises can mask horrifying dangers. There often is something lurking beneath the surface.

I once had a beautiful stay at a particular hotel. The amenities were pleasant. The grounds were seemingly flawless. Yet, during the perfect sunset, a rat shattered the façade of perfection. Although a rat is more in tune with nature than a hotel, that was of no consequence to me. The rat was simply out of place in my mind. More importantly, its sudden appearance on the courtyard wiped away any feeling of safety and comfort that I had.

We often take smooth operations for granted until something uncomfortable or unexpected surfaces. What are some of the corrections work experience that parallel this feeling of discomfort? Uprisings are a good example. Boring is good in our business. And we may experience routine days 98 percent of the time. Yet a few seconds of violence can erupt without warning. There are times when we earn our entire annual wage in the space of a minute. Physical violence can come at any time, violating a tranquil background in a intense explosion.

Division is another. On the surface, colleagues may seem to coexist peacefully. Yet underneath it all, there may be feuds, counter-feuds, sabotage, revenge, and a lack of teamwork. Like a carefully hidden family secret, this, too, will quietly fester until it blows up. And while the problems are percolating, some enterprising inmates may stoke the fires of discontent for their own advantage and the detriment of security.

Contraband is a classic example of a small, unnoticed cancer that grows into an aggressive adversary. The illicit movement of goods is the gateway to physical and legal dangers. Bootleg traffic left unchecked can also lead to humiliation for staff and an entire agency. Small contraband trade is like a genetically enhanced weed that grows geometrically if not curtailed. And it is always just beneath the surface.

Corrections does not exist in a vacuum, so unseen factors on the outside that dictate our operations, like budgets, political winds of change, public opinion, and societal changes, can force adjustment upon us and alter our daily operations too. Unnoticed flaws in our physical plant can develop into expensive problems too. Yet, we do not think of a water main until it bursts. Electricity is taken for granted until it is unexpectedly gone.

Our own mistakes are a catalyst for change; high profile mistakes are often the impetus for new procedures. These errors that plunge us into change are usually viewed as standard operation when things run smoothly. At times, we fail to see the potential problems because we have done things the same way for so long.

Seasoned staff may stay the same, but the world changes. As new staff and inmates enter the system, we might be suddenly surprised that things are not the same compared to when we hired in. Yet, what we consider a paradigm shift may just be a simple and gradual development.

So, how do we cope with these things? How can we combat the danger of the “shark” that surfaces on hitherto placid water? We can deal with them with positive attitudes and strategies. These include:

Change and grow – Staff need to see signs of change as they come. This can be done by speaking with proactive staff, seeking the input of a variety of colleagues, and by delving into professional literature. Talk to others about that which is beneath the surface.

Look beyond your zone of comfort – Nothing is in a vacuum. If corrections seems sealed off from the outside world, it is only a physical perception. News, trends, opinions, and ideas transcend the walls. It is up to all of us to ponder how political and societal changes on the outside can impact the events of the inside.

Look for flaws – Effortless operations are not perpetual. Facilities and agencies experience peaks and valleys as a natural course. Troubleshooting is never a futile exercise.

Think in hypothetical terms - Pose these questions to yourself: What if all hell breaks loose? How could events in the capitol modify my work day? What could division do to diminish safety for all? How are newly committed offenders different from those who entered the system ten years ago?

Accept surprise – No one can predict everything. If an unpleasant surprise comes to your attention, accept it and deal with it. There is no shame in being caught unaware. The dishonor lies in failure to digest and react to the change.

Think of the caveats of over analysis – Moderation is key. When looking beneath the surface, it is crucial to stave off paranoia. That is the element on the other side of the continuum from complacency. That could lead to a mis-focus, leaving you blind to all but the one area that you view under a microscope. Over analysis is easily detected by those who watch staff. This could cause undue tension in the facility.

Your workplace can be thought of as the perfect cup of coffee. But is it as it seems? This is not an invitation to tear down genuinely good operations in search of a tiny flaw. However, searching just beneath the surface can reveal a problem that can be fixed when it is still small.

Joe Bouchard can be reached at (906) 353-7070 ext 1321. These are the opinions of Joe Bouchard, and not of the MIDOC or Corrections.com.

Other articles by Joe Bouchard

Do I creep you out?, 8/26/07

Micromanagement - A view from the other side, 7/30/07

Micromanagement myths, 6/21/07



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