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A Hierarchy of Understanding
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 10/16/2010

Stone wall Like stratified rocks or rows of bricks, the higher levels are supported by the foundation of lower levels. But is it really so neat? Do all levels have equal importance? As we look at any hierarchy, we must understand that it is not necessarily a true hierarchy.

Ideally, there is the individual level, then the level that houses the culture of the institution. At the apex is the level that oversees the others – the agency level. These three should interact in a smooth fashion with no question about the authority of the other. There should be no blurred lines of distinction. There should be no ambiguity.

But that is in an ideal world. One must always be aware of poor transitions between levels. The authority of the agency level may be regarded by some local cultures as not binding. Some at the individual level may produce a strong reaction against the institutional level. In other words, no matter the official structure, harmony may not be easily had in the equation. It is not always neat and clean.

Perhaps we can apply a three level paradigm to any challenge in corrections. For example, imagine that a supervisor is faced with division in the ranks. Two staff do not get along and their animosities begin to spill over into the rest of the facility. Increasingly, others begin to focus on the soap opera. It is distracting and general attention is shifting further away from security. Something must be done.

Policies and procedures are in place. But one might need to consider the lowest level of the hierarchy. On the lowest level, we must seek to understand how the individual may react to a warning. The problem can possibly be nipped in the bud with a simple verbal warning. This, of course, depends on how the administrator understands the individuals in question.

On the second level up, we need to operate within the culture of an institution. A verbal warning may not work, as staff division has become rampant. If local practices force the fullest punishment for whatever reason, then the wise administrator will be wise to follow that course. Contrariwise, past practices may allow more discretion. All of this is balanced against past practices, the legacy of predecessors, and the flavor of the institution. Morale and past practices must not be considered in a vacuum.

Lastly, we need to adhere to the expectations of the larger agency. Quite simply, for some offenses, a mandated response is necessary. There may be no other course but one as handed from above. Mandatory language such as “shall”, “will” and “must” are more direct and binding than “should”, “could” and “might”.

The world is not comprised of neat levels of responsibilities. Perfection is fleeting and models of it exist almost exclusively in theory. Still, it is useful to understand the official stacking of the individual, the culture of an institution, and the dictates of policy and procedure as handed down from the greater agency. But we must always be aware that circumstances allow discretion and that a hierarchy is not always true.

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