|The Road to Safety: Training Issues|
|By Joe Bouchard and Tracy Barnhart|
A conversation between Tracy Barnhart and Joe Bouchard
All of us in corrections have the same destination. We are charged with maintaining safety for staff, offenders, and the public. Our road to success means walking the path that leads to serving our stakeholders. However, the routes that we take are not identical. That is to say, as professionals, we will traverse different vocational trails. Despite our common goal, no one truly ends up in the same finishing position in corrections.
But, let us go but let us go back to the beginning of our journeys. All of us start of in pretty much the same manner. We can relate to the similar experiences of the first six months inside. Both authors of this essay work in different sub-professions. Yet, their initial experiences were quite similar. Here are some of their observations:
When I entered the profession, I thought that I was rather savvy. I had finished my degrees at a large university and had real experience in the work world as a steel worker. In other words, I thought that I was fully prepared for all of my experiences. I thought that I knew people. It was just a few hours inside that I knew how wrong I could be. The confidence that I strapped to my shoulder was barely enough to keep me from bolting. True, the agency training told me that I would be challenged as I had never been before. I was just surprised at how quickly this came. In my first six months inside, I felt like I was running in front of a tidal wave. And as I grew stronger through experience to outrun the wave, the wave of challenges increased in speed.
I never really considered the corrections career as my calling until I opened an invitation letter to test for a career in Juvenile corrections. A new super max facility was being built in my city that was state of the art technology as it pertains to safety, security and inmate management. I was intrigued by the career opportunity and getting in on the ground level of a new exciting challenge. I had been a police officer for some time now but the stability, financial enticement and the upward mobility of a new correctional institution led me down a road into corrections. I thought that my knowledge of law, working with violent and emotionally charged people would give me a heads up over the other officers in my academy class. The camaraderie and loyalty of the first wave of newly trained and wide eyed officers that not one of us had ever walked a pod filled with inmates was greater than any military unit I had ever belonged. However, was it going to be enough to keep us together and keep us focused on the big picture of rehabilitation?
I started in a new facility and there were many new staff, both treatment and custody. There was plenty of excitement and many new staff developed good habits from seasoned staff. There was no overt division. But there was a feeling that there were different goals. I knew that we all had the same goal of safety. However, I had to learn the dual and often conflicting roles of programs and security. So, there was not only the challenge of learning to deal with prisoners as a “fish”. I also had to walk the fine line and balance programming and security. Through the wise advice of custody, administrative and programs mentors, I learned that this balance can be achieved. What worked for me was to establish a secure environment first, then improve library services on that foundation. That balance is one that I maintain to this day.
Being a previous police officer I had received a lot of training to be a professional as well as how to stay alive and collect that pension after my career. After my initial ten weeks of newly prepared college directed correctional training I raised my hand with eyes wide open and needing further guidance. I asked the instructor this question, “when are we going to learn how to be correctional officers?” I guess the question took him aback as he fired back, “when you get on your post you will get your education.” This answer took me aback as I truly expected more training on topics and deficiencies that I knew we all had. I hoped that we were not being thrown into the fire without an extinguisher or sent into the job without a toolbox but that is truly what happened. So much of our career is left up to OJT and who teaches it is debatable. How often have you seen or heard INMATES teaching or advising new hires how to do their jobs?
That does exist. We do get a certain amount of coaching from inmates. Of course, not all of it is sound corrections advice. But it does happen to newbie’s to a degree. I think that staff must have relied much more on inmates for an unofficial OJT in the past. I guess in “the old days” corrections staff were handed the keys and told to “go to work” with little direction. I wasn’t there. It is just what I have heard.
I do remember in my initial training that the Institutional Training Officer advised us that we will be on a new learning curve when we leave the classroom. He went on to say that there is so much more that we will learn on the job. I feel fortunate that there were160 hours of training to complete even before we got our keys. And in my humble estimation, the key to your success lies in the foundation that is laid by your first ITO.
You have hit the nail on the head there Joe, it is all about the initial real world education that probationers get. When you look at stats about the retention rate among the correctional profession it seems that 75% of corrections officers do not make their one year probation period. As a police officer I had to complete a three and a half month live in academy and then a 3 month FTO period and yet correctional officers only get three weeks and then have to survive walking among the predators of society. I hear so often after a corrections officer makes a mistake and then the supervisor disciplines them and says they should have known they were wrong because they have finished the academy. We cannot just expect officers who only get three weeks worth of education to know all about the game they are about to play. We need to combine our knowledge and experience and take a stake in the success of all new hires. How often do you take a newbie aside and ask them about how they are doing or if they have any questions? How about working with them on last picks units and giving them your help and actually teach them to succeed?
New staff are important. They are our future. And training should not be selective. We need to incorporate all staff, not just those who are overtly willing to learn. Mentoring newbies is so important, as you point out. I know that I personally gained strengths from mentoring when I was young in the profession.
But it goes beyond the needs of new staff. Training should be perpetual. It keeps veterans fluid and fresh. It brings newer staff to a level of competence. The day that a corrections professional believes that they have seen it all is the day that dangerous complacency sets in. New topics in training crush the haunting menace of complacency.
Absolutely Joe, I also feel that yearly training needs to be individual to each institution. I know each year we have to retrain in CPR, yet I have never seen an officer have to do CPR on an inmate, ever. Training needs to evolve as to what the specific institution has going on. If your staff is being compromised then that is where you need training and if contraband is an issue then go down that road. Generalized yearly training that is the same every year is pointless. If you always do what you have always done; you will always get what you have always gotten. Stupidity in training is continually doing things the same way and expecting different results.
Use of force training needs to be done in my opinion monthly. That specific set of skills will die in your mind if you don’t keep it refreshed and practices. If your agency has 10 specific trained techniques then get in depth with one technique each month. Instead of 8 hours of recertification every year how about 3 hours each month training on each technique to keep fresh and understood. Joe, I think we have hit on some great points today and I hope that it puts out some comments from the readers. I hope to do this again real soon.
On the road to safety, we meet many sorts of professionals. The styles are varied and the experiences can run the gamut. However, we all tend to start off in the same way. This fact is important to consider in order maintaining our vocational unity.
The need for training is common to all. Quality training - official and unofficial – keeps corrections running smoothly. And it is the glue that binds us as we strive to complete the goal of safety for staff, offenders, and the public.
Other "Road to Safety" articles by Bouchard and Barnhart:
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