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The professionalism and safety connection
By Gene Atherton, NLECTC - Rocky Mountain - Institutions Program Manager
Published: 05/27/2008

Smile suit2 Of all the words commonly used in corrections, “professionalism” or being “professional” is probably the most worn out catch word. It is used constantly in policy statements and speeches. It is commonly used to refer to someone who follows the rules and does the job well.

In corrections, when everyone is being “professional” the work is being done effectively; it means safety and control are being achieved along with a variety of other positive outcomes for the operating correctional institutions. People work better together and feel better about the job.

Fortunately, only a small percentage (less than 5 percent) of the correctional workface exhibit disruptive and unprofessional behavior. When it does happen, however, we often lose our understanding of the idea that one’s behavior has a negative effect within the organization, contributing to a decline in safety and successful operation.

Unprofessional conduct

The following examples may be familiar to all experienced correctional staff.

An inmate or detainee has brought about a series of incidents that are particularly offensive and threatening to officers involved in managing that person. In response, an officer, who is generally respected on the shift by other staff, begins to become verbally offensive and threatening towards the inmate. Some might be comfortable with the events, while others have a deep sense that the officer was out of line in retaliating against the offensive/dangerous inmate, and feel that he has created additional problems. As these events reoccur, there a rift develops in the organization, depending on which side of the issue staff support.

The staff in Unit A has a reputation in the institution as having and sharing all the juicy, “lowdown” on staff and inmates throughout the institution. Much of the information being shared is unverified, offensive, and of a personal nature to many. It has become a tradition, and anyone who wants to tap into the rumor mill knows they can talk with those staff to get their information. Many staff have complained and are angered by this practice.

Staff member X is a leader on a shift in living Unit G. He is known to have a very aggressive point of view about his colleagues. In other words, he likes some and dislikes others.

When he makes his rounds, he clearly chooses his favorite staff to work with and is unkind, if not offensive, to the rest. He feels such decisions are his prerogative, and that his relationships with staff is part of his right to personal expression.

Those that are not favored by him find it unpleasant to report to work. He uses profanity frequently, including language that refers to race and gender. He views it as something everyone should get used to in a correctional environment.

Staff person Y, a member of an intake unit in a large urban jail, has been reported as falling asleep or nodding off while on duty assignment. She has been addressed for this behavior by her immediate supervisor without success.

She does not admit to the sleeping, or that there is any problem with her behavior at work. She sees any expression of concern over her behavior as just another example of unlawful gender discrimination.

Particularly, as events surrounding these kinds of staff lead to formal action, the behavior is characterized as failing to be “professional” or as “unprofessional conduct.”

Organizational impact

In my experience, the most important impact of unprofessional conduct upon the operation of correctional institutions is how it directs staff attention away from the performance of the job. Because they only see personalities, many times, they may forget that the problematic or unprofessional staff person is making their job more difficult to perform.

Unfortunately, as a profession we tend to endure, or put up with, such people as much as we take effective action. This may result in work not getting done consistently and thoroughly, which may become the basis of crises in the form of injury, escape, or destruction of resources. Almost every major correctional crisis is preceded by systematic failure to perform the job.

Strategies to remain focused

The following strategies can help in achieving professionalism when managing correctional institutions.

In the best of all worlds, the institutional culture in the form of communication with peers and immediate supervisors is self-correcting, in that they influence those exhibiting problem behavior to improve and change their actions in a positive way. Sometimes a hand on the shoulder saying, “hey, we don’t do that here” is all it takes to correct the problem. Too often the early indicators are ignored.

Very often the problem employ is not listening to constructive advice. Carefully constructed, effective communication, verbally or in writing, make get that person’s attention. I have seen some behavior that has been extremely offensive, but hard to define. Once the right words were chosen, the person seemed to get the message and make positive adjustments.

In this day of performance standards, outcome measurements, and litigation review, I have often heard it said, “if it is not documented, it didn’t happen.” Whether we praise highly professional performance, address problematic conduct, or defend ourselves in court, the age of technology in the form of software, reporting mechanisms, and cameras can be our best resource. Those mechanisms can assure us that the job is being done in relation to inmate management while we address staff conduct that may have a negative impact on operations.

Problem solving mechanisms must be in place for staff having difficulty on the job, including the grievance mechanisms and policy that clearly give priority to issue resolution. Supervision must be trained to be accessible and effective in managing staff relationships such that early problems are detected and resolved informally.

On the job relationships among staff must be seen as a critical part of job performance. If someone does not relate well to others, it must be seen as failure to perform the mission of the correctional institution.

How the correctional institution reacts to problematic behavior gives a clear and distinct message to all involved. Those processes shape the culture of the institution, which determines the level of professionalism and how well the job is being performed.

Of course, it comes back full circle each day to safety and control on every shift. When future corrections representatives use the word “professional” in reference to the correctional world, I am hopeful everyone will view it in that context.

Gene Atherton is in his 30th year of service in the criminal justice field. He is currently Institutions Program Manager for the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center in Florence, Colorado. He served 27 years for the Colorado Department of Corrections, which included the assignment of Security Specialist from 1992 to 1997, where he developed security and emergency management policy; designed new prisons; established staffing analysis; and created a system for insuring standards in security technology. In 1997, he was Warden at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, and then became Director of Prisons for the Western Region in Colorado until retirement in 2004.

Atherton also is president of Correctional Consulting Services Group, and has served as a technical assistance consultant and trainer for the National Institute of Corrections> He is co-author of Use of Force –Current Practice and Policy, Supermax Prisons: Beyond the RockM, Guidelines for the Development of a Security Program, Third Edition, and The Evolution and Development of Security Technology. He can be reached at gatherton@wildblue.net

Other articles by Atherton


  1. jasletra on 05/15/2008:

    Gene's comments are well taken and helpful. I would add that the most important factor in determining professionalism is leadership. Correctional agencies, like police and other uniformed organizations, are uniquely sensitive to leadership issues. If the leader engages in or even condones the kinds of behaviors Gene describes,they will quickly become the norm. Conversely, if the leader is clear and consistent and specific about his or her values about professionalism, and if there is accountability about those values at all levels of the organization, unprofessional behavior will be minimized. Jeffrey A. Schwartz, Ph.D. LETRA, Inc. jasletra@aol.com

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