|Correctional Force in the Form of Effective Relationships|
|By Gene Atherton, NLECTC - Rocky Mountain - Institutions Program Manager|
David committed some very violent acts that got him into administrative segregation. From that point on he waged a war with staff. He remained at war continuously while in administrative segregation for 12 years. He worked out in his cell and was full of hate and violence to the extent that he almost seemed to look forward to every forced cell entry to see if he could defeat the team of officers. Then, as he explained to me, one day it was apparent to him that somebody had changed the rules of the game.
Suddenly, the new officers were more like kids to him, rather than the warriors he had known during those years. The new officers insisted on talking and having purposeful conversations before resorting to physical force. Even as we talked several years later, David seemed confused about the new rules. It was at this same time that David gave up fighting. He was released from segregation, reclassified to a lower security level, allowed to pursue his exceptional talent in art, and, within a few short years, was paroled to the community. Seven years later, I talked with David by phone. He is doing well and thoroughly committed to maintaining his new direction in life.
Physical force capability forms an important — and necessary — context in which we do business in corrections. However, if the truth be known, most all successes in corrections are managed through successful relationships among staff and inmates.
Although all would agree that the circumstances in corrections are vastly different than those in the free world, a level of trust must exist between staff and inmates for those relationships to occur. In fact, trust and accountability is probably more important in prison than any other place in the world. Dr. Stephen Covey has described trust as the crowning achievement that enables effective, successful relationships. It is my opinion that this principle applies to the world of corrections.
In corrections, we vacillate continually from times that we use physical force and authority to times in which we manage issues through dialogue and verbal problem solving. Far too often staff divide themselves as being supportive of one of these approaches. Correctional professionals continually prepare themselves as warriors, to protect themselves and to be the strongest in physical conflict. It is my opinion that correctional professionals need to possess effective skills in both areas. Just as they are physical force warriors, it is equally important for them to be relationship warriors. The positive force in effective relationships is as important as any physical force.
I suggested that, at times, good relationships can be as effective, if not more so, than the use of physical force. In order to be a relationship warrior in corrections, officers must develop and refine skills and attitudes that contribute to successful relationships. Some of those skills and attitudes are:
Perseverance, 2010, page 63, Margaret J. Wheatley, Barrett-Kohler Publishers, 235 Montgomery Street, Suite 650, San Francisco, CA 94104-2916.
Dialogue and The Art of Thinking Together, 1999, page 9, William Isaacs, Doubleday, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.
The Thin Book of Trust – An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work, 2009, Charles Feltman, Thin Book Publishing Co., 86 SW Century Dr #446, Bend, OR 97702.
The Speed of Trust –The One Thing That Changes Everything, 2006, Stephen Covey, Free Press, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020
Corrections.com author Gene Atherton is the Institutions Program Manager for the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center – Rocky Mountain Region. He served 27 years for the Colorado Department of Corrections. After promoting through the ranks, he became Director of Prisons for the Western Region in Colorado until retirement in 2004. For the last fifteen years Mr. Atherton has served as a technical assistance consultant and trainer for the National Institute of Corrections on a variety of topics related to corrections. He has served as an author of numerous ACA publications. He has provided evidence in Federal Court as an expert witness on a variety of correctional issues, including conditions of confinement, use of force, unlawful discrimination, and management of high risk offenders. He currently serves as a member of several committees for the American Correctional Association.
Other articles by Atherton
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I agree that forming relationships is far superior to physical force. Force only changes behavior until the force is gone. Relationships change more than behavior but change the attitudes and thinking paterns that cause the behavior. I recently worked with an inmate that did not trust anyone. The only time he would talk was to tell other inmates to get out of his way. He talked to no one and no one talked to him. After about 12 weeks I had to warn this inmate about losing his temper. I was concerned about everyones safety: mine, other inmates, and even his own. I could have stood at a safe distance and in an authoritative stance suggested that his job was a stake if he didn't control himself. But I knew that would have no positive effect on him. so I took a bit of a chance and sat right next to this guy and I quitely told him my concern and that I just could not have someone like that work in my area because of the danger it caused. I expected a wall of silence or maybe resentment or anger but instead he readily acknowledged his problem. When I asked him why he let little things get under his skin he said he didn't know and said he was trying, he was trying real hard. I noticed his eyes getting watery fast. That all really surprised me. He had portrayed himself as such a tough guy. Suddeny I realized I needed to protect his dignity so I quickly told him just to do the best that he could and I got up and left before one dropped out of his eye. After that he started to trust me with bits of information about himself. He started to come out of the wall he had built up and talked to his fellow work inmates. Eventually he told me that I was the only officer he ever talked to. After a few months he had a new personality. He would greet people and have positive interactions and made inmate friends. The inmate that I thought had no personality ended up with a pretty good one. After he left my prison for a minimum prison, one of his friends told me that when this guy first entered the prison system he had planned to just do his time and change nothing. But in the midst of this he changed his mind and decided he would use his time in prison to get serious about changing his drug habbit and start his life over. This was the most satisfying thing I had ever experianced in corrections. I was in correctoions 17 years before this happened. It took a long time before I decided to take my own path instead of following the tough guys approach in everything. The only thing is that you run the danger of getting too friendly so you have to know that if you want them to respect you and you want them to succeed, you must remain professional. That wall of separation must remain in tact but that doesn't mean that we need to throw away our humanity. I started doing this a few years ago and I like my job a lot better now.
Gene Atherton is a great link for our professional growth from the methods of a time where odds are injuries and lawsuits to skilled methods of communications to put the reactionary choices on the person being corrected for negative behavior. A sound relationship with those under our supervision is a good key to allow for dialogue and also to provide a mirror of positive inter action for others to mirror.
After retiring from the BOP (21-years), I have to say that this sad story is shared by nearly each one of us. This "knee jerk" reaction is the result of incompetent managers and administrators. Yes, they think they have it together, but generally, without the SMEs working within a facility, these people would not have a clue, outside of custody, as to how to manage people and a facility. A recent presentation that I made at the ACJS annual meeting in Toronto last month addressed the evolutionary process of management styles in corrections (specifically, using the SES model and the BOP as an example). There is a lot of work to be done, and number of problems experienced at the federal level to avoid, but the need is quite clear. There is a need to write about these problems with greater frequency by practitioners. There is also a need to be more vigilant in contacting the representatives who have your life in their hands, and make clear as to the needs in this field. Anything less is a mistake....