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Correctional Officers – “Old School”
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 12/09/2013

Backtobasics There is an old expression that many of us have heard for years and quite likely misunderstand in many ways as it might be the wrong word for dealing with the problems today. “Old school” is defined as a group of people favoring customs and traditions of the past along with ideas and conservative or concrete practices. “Old school” is based on multiple and generational knowledge and seems to have been lost, adapted or modified in order to meet today’s needs.

Some say that “old school” no longer exists. Some are saying we need to bring “old school” back but many know that it would be impossible to do that. One of the many things that has been lost in the trade of running correctional facilities is the ability and the knowledge of how to run a prison without the use of high tech or modern devices. The fact is that today, manufacturers have pretty much wiped out many of the old customs and practices and replaced them with high tech equipment and work related tools that have been enhanced and are either operated automatically or semi-automatically reducing the need for human intervention. Hence the focus is on learning technology and not how to better understand people.

Prisons and large jails have come a long way from the old days of the Yuma Territorial prison that was made of clay, large stones and mud reinforced with steel and heavy lumber. No longer are cells built by the prisoners themselves and chained to the stone on the floor. Looking at the “old school” ways we like to think we can still grow things, make things, and fix things and then share them with you through an informal technique of on the job training and a show and tell process – all with a nod to what’s realistically doable in your everyday tour of duty inside the prisons.

It was certainly a challenge in the prison world to do all those things and still be able to improve the way we run prisons as time goes by and how the prisoners are managed in today’s world. However, it seems we have overfilled prisons through mass incarceration and have been unable to keep up with this change causing more hardships for officers than ever anticipated. These hardships isn’t the technology for there are aplenty but the void of staffing vacancies that are needed to run the prison properly. Time has suggested that we can replace people with technology and the trend has been overwhelming. The posting of the prison guards [today called correctional officers] carrying weapons around the perimeters has been replaced with infrared beams and night and day surveillance technology. All technology requires an officer to do is shake the fence and see if it trips the alarms and sensors as designed. No longer are we required to walk an endless tour around the sand pits and razor wire to make sure nobody escapes from the grounds.

Look at the way we have improved the restraint equipment and how shackles that were once solid steel and heavy as well as very cumbersome to carry have been replaced with electronic bracelets and stun belts that are hidden but very effective when the need to incapacitate is required.

No longer are keys required to afford a secure ingress and egress. All can be done with electronic locks that can be scanned with a card or opened or closed remotely from a secure control center that maintains vigilance through the use of a closed circuit television system that covers square miles and never goes to sleep.

The list is endless but one thing hasn’t changed – People – people haven’t changed as they are still configured the same way as they were a hundred years ago but what has changed is the mindset and the way they think and do things on the job.

Time has brought us a lot of different generations that work inside these prisons and they are all capable of learning how to deal and manage their prisoners in a manner that resembles “old school” but in a manner that has been modified with new communication techniques and complex psychologically driven practices that makes them comply with existing rule of law and updated correctional practices that have been deemed safe and practical in such a setting.

Customs and practices have come a long way and some for the better and some for the worst. There appears to be a change in the mindset more now that before that creates hardships at the workplace as the “old school” way was to never get personal with the prisoner and just be fair, firm and consistent. It appears today there are less restrictions in how you treat the prisoners and how you are allowed to interact that is much more relaxed that years of before. It threatens the way of life inside of prisons and although change can be good, changing things to give the advantage to the prisoners or take a direction to make prisoners more important that the staff endangers the entire prison structure and defeats sound thinking, decision making and morale.

The challenge of “old school” versus the new school is based on how your see and do things on the job. One has to be aware the difference between sympathy and empathy. There has to be complete awareness that interaction does not mean intercourse and personal conduct or information should be refrained from while professionalism should flourish and be the rule of thumb that includes a method or procedure based on experience and common sense.

Generations’ interpretations of such standards have been difficult to understand and while nobody is perfect, inside a prison it is most important that whatever is required to get the job done, it must be done in concert with the rule of law and sound correctional practices. There is no room for adaptation or modification in the role of being a correctional officer as the only technology required for the job is to just do it the way you are trained and nothing more.

A correctional officer cannot and should not be used as a psychologist or a health provider. Those are specialized occupations and require special training and education. A correctional officer can train to be reliable and efficient on the job but must be given the right tools to get the job done. Short cuts are unacceptable practices and deviating from policies is strictly forbidden. Resources should be dedicated to ensure job stability and career building that allows an individual to grow and become better at what they do; manage people.

Experience, abilities and skills should be taken into considerations when promoting and although education and politically correct communication building is very important there should be a balance of how someone that can do the job effectively and more than satisfactorily has an equal chance to be promoted with those that have less administrations today.

At the same time, administrations should allocate sufficient resources whether human or logistic that enhances the job at a cost effective manner and take care of the correctional officers as they endure the war inside the trenches that many have endured and often been injured or killed doing while on duty.

Focusing on the workplace and how stress impacts character, personalities and attitudes is also very important. “Old school” had a way of dealing with many of these issues before they became major concerns. Suicides are becoming more common for officers than ever before.

Dealing with people should be emphasized and the “old school” way is to learn and know the names and positions of those you work with and learn to trust them and defend them so that they have the confidence to get the job done.

Avoiding the excessive use of the email & internet system and bringing back the face to face meetings can resolve so many different issues that are miscommunicated through the wireless world and technology. Being fair and giving someone the benefit of the doubt is more important than instilling harsh discipline and frequent sanctions.

“Old school” means going back to the basics and build your foundation on common sense and courage. We have learned to depend on machines and technology rather than depend on people. In many ways, “old school” isn’t such a bad idea but with all practicalities considered, almost an impossibility to say the least. It is fair to say that “old school” is a dying breed and that it will only fade away.

Corrections.com author, Carl ToersBijns, (retired), has worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Carl’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

Other articles by ToersBijns:


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  2. Parson on 11/21/2019:

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