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When Unprofessionalism Undermines Safety and Security
By Gene Atherton, NLECTC - Rocky Mountain - Institutions Program Manager
Published: 05/09/2011

Jail doors Part 2 of a 2-part article looking at how we can define and inspire professionalism ( Part I)

In my experience, the most important impact of unprofessional conduct upon the operation of correctional institutions is that it directs staff attention AWAY from the performance of the job. Because we often only see personalities, we may forget that problematic or unprofessional staffers actually make our jobs more difficult to perform.

Unfortunately, as a profession we tend to put up with such people as often as we take effective action. The result may be that the work does not get done consistently and thoroughly, which may become the basis of crises in the form of injury, escape, or destruction of property. Almost every major correctional crisis is preceded by systematic failure to perform the job.

Strategies to remain focused on the work The following strategies help in achieving professionalism in managing correctional institutions:
  • In the best of all worlds, the form of communication among peers and immediate supervisors is self-correcting in that correctional professionals will take the initiative to point out the problem behavior and guide the employee toward positive change. Sometimes a hand on the shoulder saying, “Hey, we don’t do that here,” is all it takes to correct the problem. Too often the early indicators are ignored.
  • Very often the problem employee does not listen to constructive advice. Carefully constructed communication, verbally or in writing, may get that employee’s attention. I have seen some behavior that has been extremely offensive, but hard to define. Once the right words were chosen, the person seemed to get the message and make positive adjustments.
  • In this day of performance standards, outcome measurements, and litigation review, I have often heard it said, “If it is not documented, it didn’t happen.” Whether we praise highly-professional performance, address problematic conduct, or defend ourselves in court, the age of technology in the form of software, reporting mechanisms and cameras can be our best resource. Those mechanisms can assure us that the job is being done in relation to inmate management while we address staff conduct that may have a negative impact on operations.
  • Problem-solving mechanisms must be in place for staff that are having difficulties on the job, including grievance mechanisms and policy that clearly gives priority to resolution of issues among staff. Supervisors must be trained to be accessible and effective in managing staff relationships so that early problems are detected and resolved informally.
  • On-the-job relationships among staff must be seen as a critical part of job performance. If a staff person does not relate well to others, it must be seen as failure to perform the mission of the correctional institution.

Setting the tone

How correctional institution management reacts to problematic behavior on the job by staff gives a clear and distinct message to all involved. Those processes shape the culture of the institution which determines the level of professionalism and how well the job is being performed. Of course, it comes full circle back to safety and control each day on every shift.

When future corrections representatives use the word “professional” in reference to the correctional world, I am hopeful everyone will view it in that context.

Click here for part I "Combating Unprofessional Behavior in Corrections: 4 Signs of Trouble".

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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