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Preventing your unit from becoming the next Chernobyl
By Charles Stoy
Published: 12/01/2008

Wheels Editor’s note: This story comes to us from Desert Waters Correctional Outreach. The non-profit organization and its newsletter, Correctional Oasis, are dedicated to the well being of correctional staff and their families.

You enter into your unit and walk the tier checking to ensure that your reports are maintaining the area and monitoring activity in the housing unit. Things look fine, things are where they are supposed to be. The living unit looks clean, a few dust bunnies here and there, but in general it looks very good.

You enter the office where the sergeant and the rest of the crew are relaxing while most of the housing unit is at the gym for rec. The conversation is light and easy - no tension is felt.

There is a round of hello’s and general chit chat. After checking with the crew, asking if there are any problems to take up front to administration, maintenance or elsewhere, you head back to your office feeling comfortable with what your crew is achieving.

But should you? The members of your team are experts in their areas. They have busted several inmate “stores” in the last year.

They found some drugs that could have caused significant problems in the unit. The number of grievances being filed by inmates is approximately the same as those filed in any other unit.

The crew has been together for so long they know each other pretty well and can anticipate each other’s actions.

Now let’s take a little trip down memory lane to a land far from here. The time is 1986.

The area is a small town to the southeast of Kiev in the Ukraine. A small nuclear power plant is getting ready to run a test of operational procedures.

The crew is highly trained, experts in their field, graduates of some of the best engineering schools in the world. They have worked together so long they know what each other will do before they do it.

As experts they know the operations so well, they dream about them. This crew knows the system so well, they take shortcuts, little deviations from procedure that make the job a little easier, a little faster to accomplish. But things are not right.

Operations run smoothly for the first 70% of the test. Then the nightmare happens.

In a matter of seconds the core has drained of water. The dampening rods designed to contain a nuclear reaction are almost totally removed. Within minutes, a small nuclear explosion occurs with repercussions felt around the world.

While a prison is not a nuclear reactor, in the same amount of time it took for Chernobyl to move beyond the control of the engineers, a correctional facility can slide out of control of the staff who operate it.

Just like reactors, prisons are complex and dynamic systems. Parts of a prison interact with each other in dynamic, complex ways that defy simple linear planning.

First line supervisors see how the different parts can interact with one another when they affect their unit, such as if the heat is too high, if the food is not good, if services are not being delivered. Each one of these aspects impacts a unit. When more than one are off at the same time, the environment can become chaotic in a hurry.

Is your team cutting corners because of problems in other parts of the facility? Are they doing little things that slowly erode operating procedures? Are they becoming so comfortable with the job and each other that they no longer see what is really happening?

Building a team is a challenging task, and keeping the team on target is the most challenging task there is. Add to that the fact that each level of management in a prison has different priorities and responsibilities, and you can see how the complexity of operations and requirements skyrockets.

There are several issues, however, that are relevant to all teams — whether on the tier, front-line supervisors or senior management. You need to visit and re-visit these issues regularly to make sure your team is staying sharp. Here they are.
    1. Encourage your team members to continually challenge each other to do the right thing, regardless of the amount of time involved.

    2. Encourage your team members to ask questions, in order to continually improve what they do.

    3. Encourage your team members to keep records and to track their performance to know whether or not they are on task, and not just think they are.

    4. Rotate your team members jobs to keep them from getting “stale.” That helps them stay familiar with different tasks. This does not mean they cannot have permanent jobs. It just means that they periodically change assignments to get a fresh set of eyes looking at things.

    5. Involve them in planning their performance reviews. Agree upon a set of physical standards that must be accomplished and work with them to ensure that they meet those standards. Your staff will appreciate your assistance. Keep them apprised of their performance on a monthly basis so that they have time to correct their performance. Give them every chance to succeed.


  1. oneknight55 on 02/11/2009:

    This is a very thought provoking article. Sometimes, Detention Staff can get stuck filling in all of the time, and not knowing who is on the wing, who the bad apples are. Staff are viewed forever as "the new guy" (FNG) even when they aren't new. This is the flip side of this article...lack of consistency, which can be equally as detrimental as complacency.

  2. cinnamon on 12/04/2008:

    an excellent article.

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