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Unconscious Bias in Prisons
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 12/15/2014

Different outnumbered To be honest with you, I believe this bull about Eric Holder believing cops are affected by an “unconscious bias” goes a little too far over the blurred lines but it does give us some food to think about. The Attorney General feels police officers in the case of Eric Garner’s death need to be examined for this type of bias inside their heads because he feels they are infected with a decision making process that may predict poor police interactions that are associated with race and social class biases as well as the traditional lines of police work in general.

One has to be aware that with some level of certainly, this kind of a bias may appear to be true in some cases but keeping it in content and context, so that these assessments are not skewed or taken out of context. This value of unconscious biases has been underrated and overrated by many studies and must be kept in the parameters and environments that are real and within logical and rational expectations and desired outcomes.

If such studies do not take into account community demographics, culture, training and roles provided, it can lead someone down the wrong path and draw the wrong conclusions. It has been said that police have better results and less violence in their interactions with those of a higher social class than those belonging to a middle or lower social class.

Perhaps there is a preference for cops to work in good neighborhood rather than working in poor neighborhoods. It does seem to affect their perception to a degree. If this perception guides their decision making, then what can be said about correctional officers working in a criminal element and putting their own conscious biases towards those they manage or supervise and what does that do to institutional enforcement levels and use of force situations? The questions are real but rarely assessed or researched.

We know there is a distinct preference what custody levels officers prefer to work or engage in with convicted felons. There is also reasonable grounds to believe officers would rather work with those of a higher intelligence and better communication skills than those who are slow at mental processing and speech. Their patience wears thin and often results in frustration.

It may not be based on race or other inequalities but it could trigger a modal response that is hard to deny to exist and create a conflict in actions and interactions based on their own perceptions and preferences. Thus it is reasonable to suggest that a conscious bias may impair or place an effective barrier to the desire to produce effective and safer solutions especially when some of these inequalities are misunderstood.

Recent and past work experiences have shown that implicit biases also exist among police officers and correctional officers and are associated with perceptions and beliefs about persons considered to be suspected criminals or convicted criminals. One just has to inject a bias towards the nature of crime committed or accused of to change the perception or outcome.

Together, such a finding may suggest that the relationship between law and criminal may be an important contributing factor to racial and social disparities in law enforcement either on the streets or inside a jail or prison. Additionally, there are reasonable conclusions drawn from anecdotal experiences such biases may be generated or reinforced during formal, informal, on the job training as well as educational resources and may enable the design of interventions to address disparities in such enforcement of law and rules.

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:



Comments:

  1. stevelarsc on 05/22/2019:

    Knowing more about these kind of cases and case diaries really help the public know in a better way. I am a regular reader to this site as I am very interested in reading such case histories. sculptra I am glad that you have shared this.

  2. swagner on 12/16/2014:

    Thank you for the article, Mr. ToersBijns. I appreciate you bringing up this point, especially at this moment in our history, There are many good steps available in the accepted literature that one can take to address the racial and other biases that are a part of all of us. We live in a time when information is exploding on this subject. It's so important to get it right among those who need to understand it the most. Probably the most important points to get across about racial and the dozens of other common biases we share is that 1) everyone has them, without exceptions, and 2) simply talking and thinking for a minute about our biases one time, in a class, has been shown in studies to have a very significant affect in reducing the unhealthy affects of bias in our lives. Because bias is unconscious, we can't ever see it, but it turns out that we can begin to recognize it in ourselves and others simply by recognizing it exists, and thinking about how it might play out in our lives. This is wonderful news, actually, because it's so simple, and because this simple intervention has a powerful effect that isn't permanent, but can have an effect in the short- and medium-term. Whereupon it's incumbent to- do it again. In other words, taking bias seriously occasionally, is itself probably the most important tool for reducing our biases. A correctional officer can, for example, guess when racial bias might come up for him, thinking through scenarios that stress him or her out (high levels of bias usually appear under stress). The whole process is a little like using two or three mirrors to see a mole on your back; you can't ever see bias directly, but if you try hard, you may see the evidence of it in your life. Or in your co-workers: being able to see it in others helps you to identify it in yourself. You can pay attention to language and attitude clues in those around you. It doesn't have to be talk about "niggers"; it could be just the way a person says "black" or "convict" that hints of possible unhealthy bias. One of the real issues in research that has come up is that our pre-judgments, or as they are less nicely known, our stereotypes and prejudices, tend to be accurate and useful in life. This is the opposite of what most people think, but it makes sense right away- that's how we can deal with a teenager properly, or take proper care with someone who could be violent, or even have a great date happen. We work with the little information we have about the particular situation, and then mix that in with things we've heard, or remember, or guess, or been frightened by. All of that stored information is accessed in a mysterious way by our subconscious mind. One reason why unhealthy bias is so tough to deal with is that we're saying that most of the 'gut feelings' you use on your job are hard-won and essential skills, and others are dangerous and unhealthy. To our mind, they both look the same All we can do is keep scanning with our conscious mind to see if what we're doing really makes sense, given what you know and what you're not sure of. Most of the time in life, your pre-judgements are right; paying attention to the possibility of bias helps them be right more often.


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