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"Did you tell them who you are?" Improving the Perceptions of Corrections Programming Staff
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 01/03/2011

Park bench No one really thinks about a bench when it is not used. Its utility is not usually heeded until it is needed. Perhaps prison programming staff are like a bench.

At times, programming staff suffer professional identity crises. On one hand, these people have been hired to perform specialties. (Librarians, Teachers, Athletic Directors, Chaplains, etc.) On the other hand, they work in a non-traditional professional framework, the paramilitary structure. This is a setting where security supersedes service. Therefore, the programs staff often feel vocationally unimportant in the institutional scheme of things.

This has a potentially detrimental, yet overlooked impact on the facility's operations. It leads to increased staff divisiveness, lower productivity, absenteeism, and a rapid turn over of staff that are difficult to recruit. Prisoners can capitalize on such weaknesses and compromise the security of any institution.

But, it is up to the non-custody staff to assail professional ambiguity. The foundation of the solution is simple: Program staff must work within the custody paradigm. Unfortunately, a significant number of programs staff forget this fundamental. Respect for programs staff is rooted in making programs appear more useful and promoting the professional value to custody, other programs staff, and the administration. This means, programs staff should wear many hats and subtly promote that fact.

There are three areas of tasks that the effective non-custody professional must master: Custody Assistance, Programs Specialty, and Inspector Assistance.

Custody Assistance is the foundation. Here, non-custody staff ensure a safe area of control for staff and prisoners through a frequent and active presence and fair and consistent rule enforcement. That will naturally lead to these benefits:
  • Increased custody cooperation. The reputation of the programs staff person as a firm but fair rule enforcer will rapidly disseminate through the officer's circles.
  • Prisoners will be less fearful of attending safer programs and will be less likely to bring their own protection.
  • Programs will be better attended because they will be deemed as well monitored.
  • There will be more time to develop programming in a safer, more predictable environment. This segues into the second component.

After the custody bedrock is firmly in place and the program area is riding the rhythmic waves of events, the Programs Specialty is the focus. The strong custody base has placed the programming area in a good position to be refined. The staff confidence gained from producing a secure area will be valuable to this end. It will just be a matter of program management in the framework of policy and procedure. Most programs staff are quite adept at managing and innovating their areas. But few will fully utilize custody-minded skills that fully enable program development.

Part three of this equation is Inspector Assistance. It is similar to the basic custody part, but more specialized. It is so named because the focus is on providing support to the facility's inspector(s). This is where the phrase of wearing many hats enters the scheme. Programs staff are positioned to offer many useful services to any busy inspector. These tasks will ultimately make the facility a safer place for staff to work and prisoners to live:
  • Recognizing or providing prisoner hand writing samples.
  • Translating prisoner correspondence written in different languages.
  • Assisting in decryption of correspondence.
  • Seeking and reporting callout patterns, noting both continuity and changes.
  • Performing diligent searches for contraband.

Talents such as these vanquish the persistent notion that programs staff only work in limited niches that offer prisoners opportunities to compromise security. Those three interrelated components will not work optimally if the employee does not engage in balanced reporting of deeds. This is not intended to be a shameless exercise in bragging. It is intended to be a moderate, informative self-assessment and a subtle advertisement of services.
  • This could be recorded in a monthly report.
  • Services and accomplishments could be expressed verbally at a staff meeting. For example, "While shaking down the library last week, I found an envelope full of tobacco and two betting slips. Evidence was secured in the inspectors' office."
  • It is the programs staff's responsibility to notify new employees of the different specialties and fortes that they can supply to enhance security.
  • Another way of self-promotion is through other staff. It is likely that custody staff, of their own initiative, will tell others of a good custody job done by programs staff. Know your facility's culture.
  • However, the burden of informing colleagues of one's vocational worth falls squarely on the shoulders of the individual. Doing this in a balanced manner will result in the program area being viewed in a more positive light. Programming will seem more pertinent and useful.

Honest reporting of deeds and services to other staff and the institution that is preceded by custody, programs, and inspector areas combine to become just one of the nuances that aid in maintaining a smooth running facility. Security becomes tightened, programs improve, staff become recharged and interdepartmental rapport reigns supreme. So, programs staff, "Did you tell them who you are?"

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

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  2. Librarian on 05/11/2011:

    Your article "Did you tell them who you are?" is extremely helpful to me as a librarian trying to understand the culture of corrections. I was told by a correctional officer that the reason (in Oregon) staff is called "security-plus" is because all staff is security PLUS also a... librarian. This did not go over well with me because I was never trained in security; I was hired as a librarian. However, I appreciate the triumvirate hologram you present as "Custody Assistance (security), Programs Specialty (librarian), and Inspector Assistance (searches)". After reading you article, I do not see them as a hierarchy, but rather like "Security" is the airplane, "Searches" is the safety check list and my "Program" as the actual flying.

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