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What Works in Corrections: Deciding to Change
By Daniel Patrick Downen M.S. AJ/S
Published: 01/17/2011

Helping hands This is an introductory to a series of articles entitled WHAT WORKS IN CORRECTIONS. The premise here to create productive dialog and stimulate innovative thinking that explores strategies to address ineffective decision making in this money pit called Corrections. What I’m talking about is change. Change the way we think about our profession and change the way we do it.

Before we examine just what success is regarding facility corrections, it is a prerequisite we understand that there is in fact a need or a mandate that we must change the way we conduct business. It is in this vein we must hold ourselves accountable for all the inadequacies of public administration in corrections. Our stakeholders choose not to or don’t know how to enforce accountability but make no mistake, the time for it is now. Especially when every dollar allocated our way has never been so difficult to lobby for and acquire. Additionally, consider the fact we are incarcerating more offenders in our facilities than ever before with fewer staff and resources. As such, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that we produce the best, most efficient results possible ensuring high performance and cost effectiveness without compromising public safety.

We can not fix what we do not acknowledge is broken. To do this with as much precision as possible we must take a look at how we are presently doing. For the sake of this article I am not referring to the overall goal of recidivism reduction but rather to facility stewardship.

It is pertinent we can examine exactly what makes a correctional facility a successful one. What variables that can be measured will contribute to, cost effectiveness, creating a committed and reliable work force that produces high performance?

Administrators are tireless at achieving the best in moving inmates from one locale to another within the fences with the greatest of ease. They plan, schedule then modify their work to make sure all offenders arrive and depart at the dinning hall on time. They assess, re assess and screen offenders before placing them in a job assignment. They plan, examine then re examine to guarantee smoothness in operations. In short, they look at every minute function of facility ops to ensure a smooth running facility. However, they rarely achieve the results desired. Even with all this attention to detail, they are lacking. They miss the most obvious of all components. I certainly don’t mean to undermine the importance of organization; however, facility managers tend to focus all attention to operational planning but fail to identify their biggest and most valued asset that greatly determines success.

They fail to create a tactical plan for Commitment to Implementation.

The most important asset that will affect the degree of success of policy or procedural implementation are in fact those rank in file employees in the trenches doing the work, moving the lines, working the cell houses or working the property rooms. It is these individuals are the life’s blood and the agency. It is their work, the quality of it and their commitment to it that will determine procedural success. Facility managers that accurately identify these as assets will work to nurture, care for and development them to achieve maximum potential. Conversely, these assets unattended will be squandered away, be ineffective, not maximized and will not deliver optimal performance, which equates to lost efficiency. In many cases even become liabilities.

Staff, as a result are poorly trained and ill prepared for the difficult and complex jobs ahead of them. Consequentially, rates of incidents with inmates are high, there is a real lack of job commitment and or satisfaction, and the most costly variables that detracts effectiveness is, out of control number of call offs resulting in overtime, illness and employee discipline and resulting grievances. This is a usual result when employees do not feel they are a part of something bigger than themselves. When they do not believe they contribute significantly to what they do and their management structure does not promote their professional development.

I will concede there are other components at work in facility success; however, without a dedicated and competent work force, these components will no doubt fall very short.

Collectively, we are NOT in fact achieving the results we or our stakeholders want as depicted by recidivism rates and administrative concerns of overtime, health care costs and general ineffectiveness. To that end, we do not possess public confidence or the appropriate level of professional status among other criminal justice agencies and the public for whom their safety and trust we are accountable... It is for these reasons facility administrators must become competent problem solvers. We are on the front lines of public safety but our strategy or lack there of is a catastrophic failure.

For all those administrators who are learned, informed and practice these sound principles, “kudos” to you. For those who are not achieving the best you could out of your staff, I say open our mind and facility to create a culture of change. Educate yourself to understand human behavior in an organizational structure like DOC. Seek out “What Works,” based on proven results. After all, at the end of the day it’s about results. We can optimize employee performance. If you genuinely come to know what makes your employees tick and what motivates them to achieve, you will come closer to feeling the pulse of your work force and being in tune. You will increase job satisfaction and motivation which impacts performance. It’s really about changing administrative tactical strategy. Success is, employee driven.

If we always do what we have always done, we will always get what we always had. Doing the same things over and over and expecting different results is by definition, insanity. We stewards of public safety must break out of this cycle of inadequacy and expand our vision. We must explore and experiment with new and innovative strategies. We must not accept the status quo as ok or even acceptable. Let’s be self accountable and choose to develop and evolve corrections into an extremely effective and efficient vehicle of public safety. The first and most important step in the journey understands the need for change. Viability of our system of corrections, in these difficult economic dire straits is contingent on change. Collectively, we must agree and accept change is necessary.

Understand, we can and must do better. It is imperative that we embrace change as a professional reality. Administrators must take a proactive stance and make change happen based on education and proven theories. It is these policy makers that must facilitate meaningful change and lead the way by implementing what works and not what’s popular, what we want or what’s easy. Such change agents will push the envelope and challenge public opinion and when public pressure mounts, welcome the opportunity to speak out and advocate our new direction and clearly articulate future goals and objectives. When goals are attained and successes achieved, we begin the process of restoring confidence in corrections managers.

Future articles in this series will cover, OBM (Organization Behavior Management) in Corrections, Restorative Justice, Building an Effective Team, Bona fide Training & Learning Culture, Tactical vs. Strategic Planning, Defining Facility Success and Recruiting and Developing Talent.

Corrections.com author Daniel P Downen MS. AJ/S received an M.S. in the Administration of Justice and Security from the University of Phoenix and a B.S. in the Administration of Justice from Southern IL. University at Carbondale. He has served in the following capacities, Juvenile & Adult Probation Officer, Intensive Supervision Program Manager, and Agency Supervisor. He is currently a Corrections Counselor With the Illinois Dept. of Corrections.

Other articles by Downen:


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  3. kendwyer on 02/20/2011:

    but otherwise an insightful and compelling article. thanks for putting it up. having just retired from CorrectionsNSW (Australia) 1986 - 2010 I heartily concur and endorse your sentiments.

  4. kendwyer on 02/20/2011:

    rank in file? you may have meant 'rank and file' ie., those having no particular station title or status...

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