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Focus on the Extremes of the Programs Perspective Continuum
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 05/16/2011

Teacher 4 In corrections we do not always understand our colleagues’ perspectives. We may ask ourselves a series of questions: Are we well understood by others? Do we understand ourselves? Why don’t professionals in the same vocational niche operate uniformly to our personal standards? Why do corrections professionals, seemingly performing the same tasks, have different working relationships with their administrations?

Add to this mix the many lives that we impact as a profession. Between state and federal prison, there are around 1,650 correctional facilities in the United States.(i) In addition, there are over 3,300 locally operated jails and nearly 3,000 juvenile facilities.(ii) Programs are provided in some form for many of the approximately 2,000,000 inmates in the United States.(iii)

With the variety of sizes, locations, levels of confinement and local variances of what programs shall be provided, naturally there are many different perspectives that program staff have concerning their place in the institution. Consider how corrections program professionals view their goals as measured with the facility’s goals. Conceptually, there are only three outlooks. Two of them are diametrically opposed extremes on the programs perspective continuum. They are the Nested Perspective and the Separatist Perspective. The third group is the largest. It consists of anything between the Nested and Separatist poles. By analyzing those extremes, we can better understand the many in the middle.

The intent of the following article is to facilitate cooperation between all work areas in correctional facilities. This is meant as a springboard for discussion into understanding programming perspectives in your institution. It does not matter if you are employed to perform your professional duties in housing, custody, administration, program or any other area. Through a larger perspective, the occasional contention between areas can be lessened. Therefore, the awareness that one can gain from analyzing perspectives of programming is useful to all.

This article will examine:
  • the benefits of programs in a correctional setting
  • programmers’ perceptions of themselves in the framework of the whole institution
  • the programs perspective continuum
  • the strengths and weaknesses of the Nested programming perspective
  • the Separatist perspective and its pros and cons
  • factors that impact on those perspectives
  • and a guide on how to cope with some of the discord that comes from contrary programming perspectives.

The benefits of programs in a correctional setting

The utility of programming in correctional facilities has been stated numerous times and in many forums in various manners. Very few corrections professionals would seriously doubt the many benefits of well-conceived diversion and education programs for prisoners. Meaningful programs in prisons are a crucial part of successful facility management. At the optimum, security is enhanced through a less restive and more manageable client population for institutional and public safety. This generally leads to lower complaints about other areas to administrators. The grievances become dispersed and in some cases lessened. And, fiscal responsibility through efficiency increases, alleviating some of the public burden of financing the industry. The taxpayer and society ultimately benefit from a healthier, more stable work force in the institutions. The public also wants that programming to transform prisoners into skilled and productive citizens. Pre-release and life skills can be offered for prisoners to aim for a more successful reintegration. Society’s most direct benefit comes through the potential of lowered recidivism. Programming allows prisoners to find intellectual, spiritual, physical and introspective spots within themselves. That places everyone at an advantage. Put simply, prisoners that participate in programming are the true candidates for successful reintegration.

Programmers’ perceptions of themselves in the framework of the whole institution

Certainly, jail and prison programming offers benefits to all groups. But, do all program staff operate with the same philosophical approach? Are you aware of the many places on the continuum of programming framework? I have considered the many outlooks of program staff. One should consider how programmers see themselves fitting into (or even at odds with) the overall facility operation. It seems to me that there are two extremes in this. The opposing ends of the programming perspective continuum are the Nested perspective and the Separatist perspective.

The extremes are highlighted to better illustrate that there are elements of both camps in all programming perspectives. Between the two is a wide array of work styles. But, the extremes suggest exaggerated possibilities so that we can understand the more common realities within.

The ( in the Nested camp represents all of the goals of the institution. The c on the Nested side represents the goals of the individual program. Note how the programs component is nested in the overall goals of the institution. It is a smaller version of it. Both sets of goals, like the figure that symbolize them, are formed in the same way and facing the same direction.

The ) on the Separatist side represents the programmer’s perception of the direction and size of the program in the prison. The c on the Separatist side is how the programmer views the prison goals. In this extreme, programs and administration face in different directions. There is no nesting here, but rather separation. The programmer sees the administration as smaller and opposed to its objectives.

The Nested programming perspective
  • The programmer considers its area of control as a smaller part of the entire prison. The program’s mission statement is a miniature version of the institution’s vision.
  • Therefore, the program’s goals are nested into larger goals of the institution.
  • Administrative and program goals run in the same direction and fit like puzzle pieces. They are in concert.

The Nested programming perspective in the extreme - The Strengths
  • Since goals are unanimous, less dissension is likely between administration and program staff. The strength is that they are not in opposition to each other.
  • Both entities are on the same page of music, moving in the same direction
  • The Nested perspective works best when there are many mandates and guidelines to fulfill. These professionals generally prefer strong administrative structure.
  • There is a comfort factor for some program professionals. They feel more secure in the position of taking direction from above.
  • The Nested perspective tends to work well in an institution where programs tend to be unobtrusive. This can work in some situations and work well. For example, it flourishes in higher security levels where the program person wants no discretion and the administration insists on complete control with no input from those that they hired to form programs.

The Nested programming perspective in the extreme - The Weaknesses
  • Separatists and others commonly label Nested perspective programmers as ‘administrative lapdogs.’
  • The Nested professional wastes time waiting for minor decisions to be made by administration. And, in the absolute extreme, even the simplest discretion is defaulted to the administration. That may lead to professional stagnation and dependency on the part of the programmer.
  • Will not deviate from guidelines and adheres strictly to mandates.
  • They are often rigid when new administration comes in. Many adapt poorly to hands-off management styles.
  • Ideas often are delivered to them by someone who has not necessarily had any specific specialty training in the programming area.
  • Prisoner base may bear more animus, as programmers are viewed as ‘administrative puppets.’
  • Possible decision paralysis if no administration present.

Innovative programming may not usually come from the Nested perspective, unless the administration orders it. There is no burden on the programmer in this paradigm to perform with innovation. There is often a homogenization of ideas.

The Separatist perspective

In the extreme, the Separatist programmer considers its goals as separate from the administration. This kind considers its objectives to be of more importance than the goals of the administration. That often leads to antagonisms inherent between programming and the rest of the institution.

The separatist perspective in the extreme - The Strengths
  • Creativity may flow from contention. Innovative programming will usually come from the separatist perspective.
  • Positive friction may be an impetus for stimulation followed by innovation.
  • There may exist a sense of urgency for the Separatist programmer to prove their worth. Such a situation exerts positive pressure that allows a programmer to excel under pressure.
  • The Separatist perspective works best when there is ‘carte blanche’ given to programmers by the governing body.
  • This may be more fulfilling to the professional if there is an inherent ‘thrill to the chase’ mentality.
  • May have a better rapport with prisoner body, as they are less likely to judge as ‘administrative puppet.’

The separatist perspective in the extreme - The Weaknesses
  • Separatists are typically labeled by Nested personnel as mavericks.
  • Although Separatists can be free thinkers (in the extreme), they may also be labeled radical dissenters. Innovation is good in the corrections setting, but not blatant defiance to the governing board.
  • Separatists often send the message of elitism.
  • May alienate all staff. Ironically, those that are also Separatists in different areas may not feel camaraderie. The philosophy is the same, but the individual goals are not.
  • The rest of the institution’s staff may disfavor Separatism. That could lead to sabotage.
  • Antagonism is possible from many coworkers. Separatists are often viewed as a wrench in the works for the institution.

In sum, a program is less likely to be successful if there is an underlying battle of wills. It can be conceded that competition is stimulating and it is often helpful as a catalyst for innovation. However, there is a possible loss of potential. Unnecessary energy is squandered. Administration and programs expend effort in fighting each other, rather than concentrating on job duties. Animosity often springs from extreme Separatists programmers. In the worst version of this, sabotage can occur on both sides. Some prisoners that are astute at reading staff nuances detect the discord. Consequently, those inclined to seize the opportunity can hinder both sides through ruse and manipulation. Often, this is done in a subtlety-crafted manner.

Impacting factors on perspectives

No matter where any given programmer is found on the continuum, there are many influencing factors to consider. So many forces shape the face of corrections and the perspectives of those working in the industry. Perhaps the most potent mover is the culture of the institution. The overall culture of the facility is important in how each perspective can develop and perpetuate. What is culture? It is the road map of the institution that is not published. It is a guide that staff members learn through traversing the thoroughfares. The most successful staff understand this unwritten map.

In other words, ‘…culture is the personality of the organization. Culture is comprised of the assumptions, values, norms and tangible signs (artifacts) of organization members and their behaviors. Members of an organization soon come to sense the particular culture of an organization. Culture is one of those terms that’s difficult to express distinctly, but everyone knows it when they sense it.’ (iv)

Furthermore, in many organizations, ‘Those people who violate cultural norms are quickly reminded of the error, and are watched to make sure it is not repeated. Those who continue to violate norms are never allowed to become full participants in the culture.”(v)

But, even if the program professional feels exempt from the potency of culture, there are other impacting factors. Consider these questions:
  • What is the strength of the warden/administration relative to programs? How much cooperation exists? How much overt or covert animosity is present?
  • How much autonomy is allowed by governing body? How much latitude do those in programming take?
  • What is the legacy of the institution and preceding administrations? What is the traditional relationship between administration and programming?
  • What is the legacy of programming? Had the profile of the programming been largely useful to all in the institution?
  • What is the current perception of programs by administration, custody and the business office?
  • Is there stamina? Do the programming and administration segments choose battles carefully? How long will each side concentrate on each new battle?
  • Are these battles hidden or overt?
  • Which is the preferred method, sabotage or cooperation? Is either side vengeful?
  • Are the work areas political, diplomatic or antagonistic?
  • How strictly is the hierarchy of obligations followed? (This is the obligation of all corrections staff to professionally serve the following entities in the normal course of duties; prisoners as clients, to custody and security, to the sub profession, to the profession, to the administration, to the department, to the taxpayer, the criminal justice system and to society.)(vi)


Though obviously not as important in the minds of many as are security issues, programming is a complex concept that needs addressing. Corrections would be different without the impact of programs professionals. A big step in understanding programming is to know where it fits into the facility and how staff feel about that. Where is your programming perspective?

End Notes

i Bureau of Justice Statistics. Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional facilities 2000. Washington, DC, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
ii Bureau of Justice Statistics. Census of Jails 1999. Washington, DC, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
iii Bureau of Justice Statistics. Census of Jails 1999. Washington, DC, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
iv McNamara, Ph.D., Carter. ‘ Organizational Culture’ May 31, 2002.
v Sannwald, William. ‘Understanding Organizational Culture.’ Library Administration & Management 14.1 (2000): 12.
vi Bouchard, Joseph. ‘The Many Obligations of Programs Staff: From Concept to Practice.’ The Corrections Professional 5.21 (2000): 3.
vii Bouchard, Joseph. ‘Solutions to staff division: Seek Shelter Under Corrections Umbrella.’ The Corrections Professional 7.1 (2001): 3.

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  23. Librarian on 05/12/2011:

    In case your readers would like more updated references for paragraph 2 concerning the number of correctional institutions, I got these statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics: "Between state and federal prison, there were 1,821 correctional facilities in operation in the United States on December 31, 2005. In addition, there were nearly 3,300 locally operated jails and nearly 2,700 juvenile facilities." i Bureau of Justice Statistics. Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional facilities 2005. Washington, DC, US Department of Justice. ii Bureau of Justice Statistics. Census of Jail Facilities, 2006. Washington, DC, US Department of Justice. iii Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Juvenile Residential Facility Census, 2006: Selected Findings. US Department of Justice. Information on the number of state correctional facilities that offered programs to inmates is available in the BJS report, Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities, 2005,can be found on this web site- http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=530, in spreadsheet tables csfcf05at18.csv and csfcf05at19.csv. Data on the availability of general reading libraries was not reported separately.

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