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Combating Unprofessional Behavior in Corrections: 4 Signs of Trouble
By Gene Atherton, NLECTC - Rocky Mountain - Institutions Program Manager
Published: 05/02/2011

Correctionsofficer Part I of a 2-part article looking at how we can define and inspire professionalism

Of all the catchwords commonly used in corrections, "professionalism" (or being "professional") is probably the most worn out. It is used constantly in policy statements and speeches. It’s what we call someone who follows the rules, or someone who does the job well.

In corrections, when everyone is being "professional" and the work is being done effectively, it means safety and control are being achieved along with a variety of other positive outcomes for operating correctional institutions. People work better together and feel better about the job.

Fortunately, only a small percentage (less than 5%) of the correctional workforce exhibit behavior that is disruptive and unprofessional. When it does happen, however, we often fail to understand that the person’s behavior has a negative effect within the organization, contributing to a decline in safety and successful operations.

In this article, I’d like to define some common signs of unprofessional behavior in the corrections environment with the hope that you’ll be able to use them to snuff out problems at your facility before they start to spread.

The following examples of unprofessional conduct will be familiar to most experienced correctional staff:

Example #1: The aggressive officer
There has been a series of incidents brought about by an inmate or detainee that are particularly offensive and threatening to officers involved in managing that person. In response, an officer who is generally respected on the shift by other staff becomes verbally offensive and threatening towards the inmate. Some staff are comfortable with the events, others have a deep sense that the offending officer was out of line in retaliating against the inmate and may have created additional problems.

The major problem here is that, as these events continue to reoccur, a rift can begin to develop in the organization, dividing staff members into opposing camps defined by which side of the issue they support.

Example #2: The gossip crew
The staff in Unit A has a reputation in the institution for collecting and sharing the “lowdown” on staff and inmate gossip throughout the institution. Much of the information being shared is unverified, offensive, and of a personal nature to many. It has become a tradition. And anyone who wants to tap into the rumor mill knows they can talk with those staff to get their information.

Many staff will likely start to complain and become angered by this practice.

Example #3: The bully
Staff member X is a leader on a shift in living unit G. He is known to have a very aggressive point of view about his colleagues. In other words, he likes some and dislikes others. When he makes his rounds in the living unit, he clearly chooses his favorite staff to work with and is unkind, if not offensive, to the rest. He feels such decisions are his prerogative and his relationships with staff are part of his right to personal expression.

Those that are not favored by him find it unpleasant to report to work. He uses profanity frequently, including language that refers to race and gender. He views it as something all staff should get used to in a correctional environment.

Example #4: The slacker
Staff member Y is at an intake unit in a large urban jail. She has been reported as falling asleep or nodding off while at her duty assignment. She has been reproached for this behavior by her immediate supervisor without success. She does not admit to the sleeping or that there is any problem with her behavior at work.

She sees any expression of concern over her behavior as just another example of unlawful gender discrimination. There is a risk here that others will begin to model their behavior after hers. As events surrounding these kinds of examples lead to formal action, the behavior of the staff members involved is characterized as failing to be “professional” or “unprofessional conduct.” This should be directly combated.

Click here for the second part of this article, will discuss the impact of unprofessionalism on the organization and strategies to remain focused on the work.

Corrections.com author Gene Atherton is the Institutions Program Manager for the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center – NLECTC – Corrections Technology Center of Excellence. 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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