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Thin Gray Line
By Billy S. Humphrey
Published: 03/04/2002

One day when I was child, I went to visit my grandfather while he was crushing aluminum cans to sell later that day. Once he explained to me what exactly he was doing, I made a suggestion to him. I told him that we should put a rock inside each can and then crush it so we could receive a larger amount of money. My grandfather told me we could not do this. When I inquired as to why not, he replied, 'Because it's not right.' This experience I remember as if it occurred just yesterday.

The development of ones sense of self is impacted by those experiences and conditions in life. This is true regardless of what arena of life you examine. The purpose of this article is to discuss conditions in the profession of Corrections. A recent interaction I had with a retired executive is worth mentioning.

He talked of the 'old days,' specifically a group that was referred to as 'high riders.' Their purpose was similar to that of the tenders who were utilized prior to the reform era. Both groups were charged with overseeing and controlling other members of the population. The 'high riders' this man spoke of were armed and supervised outside work squads. He talked about an incentive program where a high rider automatically received a holiday pass if he quelled an escape attempt. The man also stated that it was later discovered many of the escapees who were shot had been encouraged to flee by the high riders who had promised to 'look the other way.' The man would run, be shot, and the high rider would receive his holiday pass. The most disturbing part of the story was when the man stated that many people were well aware of what was happening, yet failed to act.

I chose to mention this experience prior to the discussion of what we refer to as culture. It has been said, 'we are what we are, because of what we have been in the past! Our history cannot be changed but it is relative to our understanding of what we mean by work subculture.

Blanchard defines culture as the set of important understandings (often unstated) that members in a society or organization have in common. It consists of basic beliefs, values, and norms that prescribe how to behave under different circumstances and defines what is right and what is wrong. O'Toole writes about culture as the systems of beliefs and actions that characterize a particular group. Culture as the unique whole is shared ideas, customs, assumptions, expectation, philosophies, traditions, morals, and values that determine how a group of people will behave under different circumstances. Bennis reports that culture is part of the organizations social system in which people have norms, values, shared beliefs, and paradigms of what is right and what is wrong, what is legitimate and what is not, and how things are done.

Despite the changes, which have taken place in the field over the past decades, one must force themselves to ask the question: Have we systematically reached an acceptable level in reference to our work culture, and if not are we each as practitioners doing everything within our power to enhance and upgrade the social conditions of our institutions? My answer to both questions is 'No.'

I am not pessimistic nor a critic, I simply suggest that we do not do enough to professionalize and develop our human resources or constantly improve our work environment. People are our business. In order for us to be the best that we can be, we must provide systems and practices that continuously support the internalization and reinforcement of values to them.

We define values as those basic beliefs that help us determine what to do and what not to do. These beliefs guide us on how things 'ought' to be accomplished. 

In every training seminar I have ever facilitated, we discuss these values and culture, which leads to an exchange about the value of the truth. I offer a hypothetical situation to fellow employees, which describes an incident where an employee fails to report a Use of Force and later has to formally respond to a complaint. Inevitably someone suggests that they would simply state, 'I have no knowledge of this incident.'

This is not taught to our cadets. It is not written in any manual. This is learned behavior that is by and large a product of our culture.

I do not suggest that all correctional staff engage in deviant behavior. On the contrary most corrections professionals are honest and unaffected by external influences from their environment. However, there are those who continue to engage in unprofessional behavior that is detrimental to our image and overall mission.

I must at this point ask additional questions. Is culture important? Can it be changed, and if so how do we facilitate the transformation?

Culture is to an organization like character is to the individual. Culture is our 'corporate character.' It is basically who we are and what we are about. Culture represents that which is sacred to a group of people. Culture is 'us.' It illustrates what we are about, and is of the utmost importance.

The necessary prerequisite of change is understanding. This understanding first requires us to be honest. I hope my candor is not misinterpreted for negativity. I enjoy what I do. My intentions are simply an attempt to be open about our areas in need of improvement. Once we find the courage to be honest with ourselves about such issues we will be better able to understand and bring about appropriate change.

Cultural Change

Exactly how to facilitate cultural change is difficult to prescribe. Regardless of status, in order to make a difference, a person must first be committed. Leaders must understand and commit to the common good. Any person willing to make this commitment can be successful.

There is a secret prescription for effective leadership. It requires the ability to influence. To influence a change in conditions or behavior requires first and foremost - respect. In order for a person to be respected, they must be ethical and decent to other people. The sina qua non of effective leadership is respect for others. Leaders must be positive examples, and they must care.

Generally speaking, we can do one of two things. We can accept the status quo and mediocre conditions, or we can strive to make improvements. If we choose the latter we must provide an environment that eliminates confusion. People in corrections should be educated and well aware of professional expectations. We must teach each other and wholeheartedly commit to the continuous improvement of our work environment. Even we as public servants can learn to be moral during the performance of our official duties. One becomes more just simply by doing just things.

My favorite definition of ethics is the practice of goodness. This is not to suggest that we must be weaker or passive employees. We simply can learn to be correct in our words and actions, just as we learn how to tactically respond to emergency situations. We as individuals should work together to create a culture where everyone is encouraged not to be dishonest, vulgar, and/or abusive. Correctness should be the universal rule. Our effectiveness should be a result of the respect we receive from other people. 

Regardless of whether you examine ethics in terms of the rightness or wrongness of an action, or the treatment of others, the words of Thomas Jefferson illustrate a point:

'When you are to do a thing though it can only be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act if the whole world was looking at you - and act accordingly.'

New recruits will often times approach a supervisor and literally cry. They doubt whether or not they are suited for the type of work they've chosen. Initially, the supervisor assumes that the shock of trying to supervise convicted felons has upset the individual. Often times the cadet rejects this notion and indicates that their struggles are not a result of offender management issues at all. Rather, it is the dilemmas they encounter from our culture, the norms, and certain behaviors engaged in by some of their co-workers.

I've had many of these encounters over the years. It is disturbing and simply not right for people to enter our profession and be made to feel this way. At any point in time there is always a better way.

Vision is defined as an ideal and unique image of the future for the common good. We must pursue a work culture that educates and utterly expects people to do what one ought, and refrain from doing what one ought not do.

There is a difference between a professional and true professional. A true professional is incorruptible. The truth has become second nature to them. A true professional is not only good at what they do; they are just plain good. True professionalism is the art of being good, regardless of the circumstances or situation.

We are proficient in the maintaining of social order in our chosen field. Our challenge for the future will depend upon whether we are willing to pursue that moral order in our profession that has been, and continues to be, somewhat neglected.

Victor Frankl put it very well in his book titled 'Mans search for meaning.' We have the capacity to take a stand toward any condition. We do not simply exist but always decide what our existence will be and what we will become in the next moment.

Every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. One of the main features of human existence is the capacity to rise above conditions and grow beyond them. Man is capable of changing the world and himself for the better.

Let us each love our correctional world as it is and consider it our duty to try and improve it. We must address the worst among us by the noblest means possible. Education is the art of convincing. If we are indeed convinced, we must act. By our actions we show that we are capable of positive change, and demonstrate to the world that we truly care.

'The 21st century pursuit of both social and moral order in the profession of corrections.'
Noblisse Oblige


Ethics in Criminal justice: In Search of the Truth,
Sam Souryel, c1998.
Leading Change, James O'Toole, c1996.
The Leadership Challenge, Hershey & Blanchard, c1998.
Why Leaders Can't Lead, Warren Bennis, c1989.

*Billy S. Humphrey is the Director of Correctional Training and Staff Development for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He began his career with TDCJ in 1989 and has held positions ranging from Sergeant to Assistant Warden. He received both a BS and MS from Sam Houston State University with his graduate work focusing on Criminal Justice Management/Leadership. He is married and the father of five children. He can be reached at Ethikosbsh@aol.com

Other articles by Humphrey:


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