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Cultural Competence
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 12/08/2014

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Cultural competence refers to an ability to interact effectively with people of different cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, particularly in the context of penal compliance issues, whether it is situated in a setting related to human behaviors and thoughts within for-profit private prison organizations, and local, state or federal government agencies whose employees work with persons from different cultural/ethnic backgrounds.

In corrections, this goes deeper as it is not only impacted by different cultures within other establishments but also by deep rooted customs and practices often left unchallenged and hardly even spoken of out loud. In this case, ignorance is not bliss, it is a hurdle for effective human resource management styles and should be addressed to avoid hostilities.

Prisons are becoming increasingly culturally diverse. Today, we need correctional officers with better skill sets in communicating, understanding and carrying out the various attitudes, traditions or other customs to put value to the diversity established by the incarceration of various races, ethnic groups and demographics either regionally or geographically.

In other words, cultural competence is a necessary key to enable prison officers to be more effective in supervising and managing inmates coming from different cultures than their own. The key to bring an awareness to the environment resolves many misunderstandings and reduces tension. To be culturally competent the prison /detention officer needs to understand his/her own domain [world] views and those of the prisoners, while avoiding stereotyping and misapplication of different people. It’s a balance very badly needed today.

It allows relationships to effectively exist to learn and build new empathies never experienced before. Basically, this key or competence closes the communication gaps as well as the argumentative posture of the officers assigned. It closes the empathy gap between group variations of people not used to our own customs and traditions.

Such better understandings could result in an expanded attempt or practice to become more culturally sensitive and build positive relationships rather than a controversial or confrontational approach. Reaching out rather than reaching in will bring a better climate of compliance and resistance to change as well as directions.

It would be most beneficial for correctional managers to seek an expansion of cultural awareness or diversity training. Such a course should be set up to explain why it is important to reach out and understand the environment better while fostering respect, and to some degree reciprocate or exchange a set of ideas or practices belonging to different groups or values.

Indirectly, you would see an improvement in compliance, less use of force situations created by misunderstandings and a successful communications link between employees and prisoners. Closing gaps of misinterpretations often results in better behaviors or less confrontations.

One can recognize the different outcomes whenever cultural competence suffers compared to an effective or improved cultural competence acquired to incorporate a better empathic method rather than the traditional disciplinarian approach often misunderstood for aggression. The impact could improve the environment and institutional desires or outcomes.

According to the national center for cultural competence there needs to be at least five elements in place to understand this concept. They are:
  1. Valuing diversity (shapes earnestness and respect)
  2. Having the capacity for cultural self-assessment (reveals being open-minded and flexibility)
  3. Being conscious of the dynamics inherent when cultures interact (situational awareness)
  4. Having institutionalized culture knowledge (fosters experience, builds bridges)
  5. Having developed adaptations to service delivery reflecting an understanding of cultural diversity (reduces challenges, obstacles and barriers of communications)
Finally, we need to see this as a moral and ethical responsibility to create a better institutional environment so people can better understand the environmental challenges and how different populations perceive the system and those enforcing their rules. In the long run, if implemented with the right attitudes, it is a win-win situation for all involved.

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:


  1. Sekhmet on 12/18/2014:

    Very nice article, too bad CURRENT law enforcement staff don't see this as applying to them as well. This article would do well in public media sector so that more law enforcement personnel could read it as well.

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