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Prison Civility - Part I
By Billy S. Humphrey
Published: 11/08/2010

Handshake3 a When the title of this article was mentioned to several of my peers in the field of Corrections, many of them hesitated prior to offering a response. They remained silent with a puzzled look on their face as they processed the idea of civility in a prison, and then would typically state that the concept simply made no sense at all. We seem to only understand how civility is a necessary part of our role as correctional practitioners when we reflect upon our past experiences, the present, and our future as public servants responsible for incapacitation and positive change in human behavior.

We do not lie as much as we used to. We have learned from our past experiences that we must maintain our composure and avoid behaviors that would inevitably create situations where we would be compelled to lie. We also are not as vulgar as we once were 20, or even 10 years ago. This has proven to be a difficult norm within our culture to change, but we have made progress over the years. We no longer tolerate and encourage verbal abuse of people, and one rarely ever hears of systematic physical abuse being condoned within any correctional organization.

We are not indifferent when confronted with certain situations within the prison community which could otherwise cause disorder and chaos among the population if we failed to intervene. We implement, support and maintain numerous systems and practices necessary to minimize and prevent institutional violence, extortion and sexual abuse.

Despite the progress that we have made in the field of Corrections, there is one area that we must focus on in the future.

We have grown at an unprecedented rate to the point that we currently incarcerate approximately 2.3 million people within our local jails, private facilities, state prisons and federal institutions. The expansion of the early 1990’s required us to recruit and employ thousands of employees to staff our newly constructed facilities across the country. We continue to improve and enhance our recruitment processes and our hiring practices so as to address labor quality concerns in many jurisdictions, and we have also expanded and revised our training programs to target the unique needs of a less experienced, diverse, and multi-generational workforce. What we have not placed a sufficient amount of emphasis on in the past two decades is the need to establish and maintain healthy, functional relationships with one another. This is a critical area of concern that is relative to organizational productivity, prevention of negative outcomes, and everyone’s quality of life within our secure correctional institutions.

The study of ethics generally focuses on two broad areas. Our conduct as it relates to do’s and don’ts, and the manner in which we treat other people. If we are to continue to grow and evolve as a profession, we must incorporate a certain measure of civility into the culture or our correctional organizations.

For example, we ought not to be regarded as weak simply because we display a certain measure of basic respect towards members of our offender populations. It is not inappropriate for us to be decent and civil during our interactions with convicted felons who are confined within our secure institutions. It is understood that we must maintain certain boundaries between the ‘keepers and the kept’. We also agree that employees are necessarily taught to maintain a heightened level of security awareness while on duty in a correctional facility. However, we must agree in the future that it is not necessary for us to approach all situations with offenders in a cynical, disrespectful and condescending manner simply because we are interacting with a convicted felon. A large number of our offenders never create security problems for us, and approximately 95% of all offenders will eventually return to our communities. The simple point here is that there is never a reason for rude behavior, and we can be civil when faced with stressful and even emergent type circumstances. People are incarcerated as punishment. It is not appropriate for us to exact punishment upon an individual simply because of their status as an incarcerated person.

There is also a tremendous amount of animosity and controversy among our line staff employees. It has been said that the expansion caused us to lose that camaraderie we all once enjoyed because we grew too fast. Staff members who have worked in corrections for many years are oftentimes distrustful of newer officers. Less experienced staff members are oftentimes dissatisfied with their careers partially as a result of this disconnect with senior officers. Staff retention has consequently become a challenge for us to some extent because new recruits prematurely end their career when they realize how difficult it is to establish and maintain healthy relationships with their peers. Veteran officers frequently suggest that many new recruits are incompetent, unqualified and/or corrupt. They feel as if we have lowered our hiring standards over the years to the point that we will hire anyone just to have a living, breathing body to fill a position. We must address these perceptions and strive to resolve the interpersonal conflicts amongst our employees. Chaos and disorder are inevitable when our staff are not unified and supportive of one another.

Many of our first- line supervisors also struggle to connect with both new and experienced personnel. This is a cultural issue relative to our paramilitary approach to management. It is true that a significant amount of progress has been made in recent years with our efforts to prepare women and men for supervisory positions, but in any criminal justice organization, old habits are simply difficult to change. We continue to utilize written documentation, formal disciplinary and coercion to achieve the majority of our objectives and to address the many situations with our employees. It will be important in the future that we assist our front line supervisors understand how to maintain a necessary balance between structure, organizational goals, and consideration for their subordinates. It is important in many instances that we ensure that our facility administrators also understand the need to maintain such a balance.

A convicted felon recently made a comment to me that is worth mentioning at this point. He told me that he believed it was the Warden of the facility and their attitude that ultimately determined how people were treated within the institution. I concurred with his statement.

The responsibility of those in critical, executive positions is crucial if we are to continue to evolve as a profession. We can restore that camaraderie and bring civility to our work environment only if our administrators are truly committed to continuous improvement and our quality of life on the job. It is these women and men who are responsible for establishing and maintaining healthy environments where people can once again be truly connected and unified in support of our common objectives.

True professionals displaying this level of commitment are able to influence others simply because they are respectable. It is that ability to influence that makes the difference.

Part 2 of this documentary will define exactly what is meant by ‘Respectable Leadership’. We will discuss what sustains that status once a person is admired, held in high regard, and respected by others within the prison community. We will also specifically discuss civility, institutional culture and legitimacy as it relates to organizational success and our quality of life on the job. Suffice it to say for now that there is no substitute for effective, respectable supervision.

Editors Note:Corrections.com author, Billy S. Humphrey, began his career in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 1989. He has served as Warden and Director of Training / Staff Development in Adult Corrections, and as Deputy Director of Juvenile Corrections. He is currently a Parole Commissioner for the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole.

Click here for Part II

Other articles by Humphrey:


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