Public Workforce

The Training Line

States are under pressure to update the way they prepare prison guards for their job--and what they prepare them to do.
by | December 2004
 

"Be proud of this uniform. Not many people get to wear it." That's what Lieutenant Bill Melanson tells the men and women he's training to become correctional officers at Connecticut state prisons. During their 10-week course, the cadets have been pepper-sprayed and lectured on interpersonal communication skills. They have been taught to treat inmates with respect and shown how to search for contraband. They have learned how much force to apply to control "non-complying" inmates and received pointers on conflict resolution.

Now, before they assume full-time posts in prisons all around the state, Melanson wants them to integrate these seemingly contradictory skills. And that brings him to his single, unifying theme. "You are all professionals," he tells the trainees.

It's an uplifting, if sobering, message. But it is not exactly in keeping with the training that many corrections officers have received over the years. Despite calls dating back to the 1950s to "professionalize" the job of prison guard, corrections officers in many, if not most, states and localities have remained the forgotten step-children of the law enforcement world--hired cheap, trained minimally and left to do a thankless, dead-end job in dangerous and squalid conditions.

That situation may be changing, though. Periodic reports about inmate abuse at the hands of correctional officers, mounting concern about the high cost of prisons that don't turn inmates away from lives of crime, and a looming manpower crisis in corrections departments across the country have put a spotlight on how states recruit, train and compensate people for what Martin Horn, New York City's correction and probation commissioner, calls "one of the most difficult jobs in government."

Prime exhibits in the case for more and better training are the American-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the fact that acts of sexual humiliation, beatings and other abuses occur with unsettling regularity at prisons here at home. In 1998, for instance, 12 guards at the State Correctional Institution in Greene County, Pennsylvania, lost their jobs after reports surfaced that prisoners had been beaten and sodomized. In the past four years, at least five U.S. inmates have died in custody after being shackled to restraint chairs for hours. And earlier this year, after two guards at California's Pelican Bay State Prison were convicted on federal civil rights charges for assaulting inmates, a special court master reported that the guards' union, a powerful force in California politics, systematically shuns whistleblowers, supports rogue officers and enforces a "code of silence" designed to cover up wrongdoing.

Such aberrant behavior frequently reflects poor training. Without guidance, decent people can and do go astray in the prison environment, where stress is high and one group has both tremendous authority over another and the opportunity to exercise it largely outside the public eye. A famous 1971 experiment at Stanford University showed just how easy it is for guards to cross the line. Researchers randomly assigned student volunteers to play the roles of guards and prisoners in a simulated prison. Within days, the ersatz guards began stripping their prisoners naked, chaining them, denying them food or bedding and forcing them to simulate sodomy--an eerie precursor to the Abu Ghraib scandal.

"Human behavior is much more under the control of situational forces than most of us recognize or want to acknowledge," says psychologist Philip Zimbardo, who had to pull the plug on the experiment after just six days because the guards' behavior was getting out of hand. "In a situation that gives permission for suspending moral values, many of us can be morphed into creatures alien to our usual natures."

Most corrections officers don't lose their moral compasses, but they often pay a high price for internalizing the volatile mix of fear and resentment that spurs other guards to act out. "Not a week goes by that we don't see evidence of alcoholism, stress leading to divorce and other symptoms of a troubled workforce," notes Horn. "That is why good training and supervision are so important."

THE SOFT SKILLS

If the harshness of working behind prison walls isn't reason enough for intensive training, the changing nature of corrections officers' jobs should be. For one thing, the workload is getting bigger and bigger. Between 1982 and 1999, the U.S. prison population more than tripled, while the number of correctional officers rose only half as much. What's more, prison populations have become more diverse, with more mentally ill inmates, geriatric patients, substance abusers and violent youthful offenders than there were a few decades ago. All these groups require special handling.

On top of that, the latest approaches to managing prison populations require an increasingly skilled corrections officer corps. In the typical prison of the past, inmates were housed in long corridors. Guards spent most of their time outside these wings, which often were closed off from the rest of the prison entirely. In the newer approach, called "direct supervision jailing," inmate cells and public areas are arrayed around a central guard station so that the correctional officers have direct contact with all inmates at all times. This arrangement enables the officers to detect and act on potential problems--simmering conflicts or inmates starting to fall into depression, for instance--before they escalate into dangerous situations. While corrections experts say this formation has made prisons safer and calmer, it requires corrections officers who are adept at interpersonal relations--ones who can read body language, look for signs of trouble, know how to head off problems and communicate effectively.

Unfortunately, such "softer skills" get short shrift in many training programs today, says Jeanne Stinchcomb, professor of criminology at Florida Atlantic University. The American Correctional Association, which accredits prisons, says corrections officers should receive a minimum of 160 hours of training before assuming their posts. But much of that training time must be devoted to subjects that are mandated by law. Many jurisdictions, for example, require firearms training, even though the vast majority of corrections officers don't carry guns. More training hours are eaten up teaching skills that require periodic recertification, such as CPR, or that involve activities in which prison operators face potential legal liability, such as the use of force, first responder skills and even defensive driving.

"What I consider the most important skills, such as interpersonal communication, tend to get cut out," says Stinchcomb, who ran corrections-officer training programs for Dade County, Florida, in the early 1980s. At the time, the county required its corrections officers to receive 640 hours of pre-service training--four times the minimum recommended by the ACA. "You'd have to be abysmal not to meet the ACA standards," says Stinchcomb.

The ACA is trying to address the problem. It has developed its own Internet-based curriculum that leads to certification for corrections officers. But the program, which is less than a year old, so far has only reached about 800 people out of a workforce of more than 750,000. And it's unclear how much of a dent it can make in a system where state and local authorities operate their own training academies and zealously defend their control over training. This monopoly might not be a bad thing, but state and local governments in many cases have scrimped on training--especially during recent years of fiscal stress. In Maryland, where officers don't even have to meet a physical fitness requirement, "just the cost of giving each corrections officer a physical would be more than you could get out of the legislature," says William Sondervan, a former corrections commissioner for Maryland who now serves as director for professional development at ACA.

THE RIGHT STUFF

Such penny-pinching may be self defeating if it undercuts corrections officers' prospects of success in their jobs. In fact, turnover has become a major problem in the corrections business, averaging over 16 percent a year nationwide and ranging as high as 41 percent (in Louisiana), according to a survey by Workforce Associates Inc. In addition, 72 percent of correctional administrators report having difficulty recruiting officers and 64 percent say they have problems retaining those they have hired. With baby boom retirements looming, some 490,000 corrections positions will become available in this decade, while the pool of 25- to 44-year-olds from which corrections officers are drawn will shrink by more than 4 million people.

Part of the recruitment and retention problems stem from inadequate compensation. In some states, pay for corrections officers starts below $20,000 a year. (In New Mexico it is $15,943.) By comparison, luggage screeners at airports earn $23,600, and some private security guards pull down as much as $100,000.

But pay differentials may not tell the whole story. In Connecticut, where correctional officers are paid from $28,000 to $41,000, the annual turnover rate is just 6 percent. Colorado pays slightly better- -from $30,000 to $42,000--but has an 11 percent turnover rate.

There is other evidence that financial considerations don't necessarily turn away recruits. Corrections departments typically hire new officers first, put them on salary and then train them. But in the early 1990s, Dade County reversed the pattern, allowing some students at Miami Dade Community College to receive training without being hired first--and with no guarantee they ever would be hired. The experiment was a smashing success. The regular college students were more motivated. And because they were pursuing associate degrees at the same time, they felt they had more opportunities than if they were merely taking courses required for specific jobs. Others saw the value of these highly motivated students as well: At one point, a county sheriff tried to hire an entire class in one fell swoop.

Expecting aspiring correctional officers to pay for their own training would represent a huge stride toward professionalization. After all, doctors, lawyers, social workers, nurses and virtually all other professionals have to pay for their own education. But the idea has never caught on in the corrections field, and even the Dade County experiment withered after a few years.

Some states are moving in other ways to make professionalism more of a reality, though. Ohio's Department of Correction and Rehabilitation, for instance, is raising its hiring standards. In addition to the usual criteria, the department assesses job applicants' psychological make-up. It shows them a video that presents 66 scenarios in which corrections department employees act out real-life prison situations. One scene might depict inmates behaving badly, for instance, while another might show a prisoner who is despondent after being denied parole. For each scene, job candidates must answer questions about how they would handle the situation. Answers demonstrate, among other things, whether applicants tend to follow or bend rules. The "wrong" answers to questions that gauge whether applicants might be intolerant or overly aggressive are automatically "fatal" to being hired.

Kimberly Rowe, who runs the state's Corrections Assessment Center in Orient, Ohio, says the new assessments have raised the quality of new hires and thus helped reduce turnover among correctional officers from 15 percent a year in the mid-1990s to 9 percent currently. "Wardens tell us the new correctional officers are more professional," she says.

Massachusetts, meanwhile, has sought to put its guards on a more professional footing by scrapping its paramilitary approach to training and replacing it with a system that combines classroom work with simulations of prison life. The traditional boot-camp approach, complete with drill sergeants and a heavy emphasis on discipline and following orders, was based on the theory that prisons are dangerous places and that guards, like soldiers, must learn discipline, group cohesion and how to follow instructions without asking questions. But that tended to pigeonhole inmates as enemies, according to Terry Kingman, director of the division of staff development for the Massachusetts Department of Correction. Many of the trainees, he says, "took on the same traits as the instructors who were ranting and raving at them. They were coming into their jobs all jacked up."

Such an aggressive, authoritarian attitude conveys exactly the wrong message, according to Kingman. He says correctional officers should be taught to model the kind of behavior inmates must learn to become productive members of society. "Our job is to create a moral order for the incarcerated," he explains. "We teach. We lead by example. We don't cut corners. We are respectful and honest. We do things the right way whether somebody is watching or not."

Describing correctional officers as teachers or role models sounds a lot like bringing back the old idea that prisons should rehabilitate criminals, not just punish them. A few corrections leaders unabashedly embrace that idea. "Correctional officers need to be adept at ensuring that the system is safe on a day-to-day basis, but they also need to develop the skill sets that create an environment in which the offender population is held accountable for their civility and productivity when they get released," says Dora Schriro, director of the Arizona Department of Corrections. The rehabilitation half of that equation is essential, she notes, since 96 percent of Arizona's 32,000 inmates eventually will be released from prison to return to society at large.

To encourage a sense of professionalism among its corrections officers, the Arizona department has established a system of peer reviews, in which officers periodically are relieved from their line jobs to review and critique operations at other facilities. The reviews were launched after a special panel assigned to investigate circumstances surrounding a hostage-taking incident at the state prison in Lewis last January found 500 lapses at the facility, many of them attributable to poor training. "Working peer to peer creates a psychologically safe environment," explains Schriro. "When you can ask a peer how to do something, work becomes a very collaborative process."

Few would argue with Schriro's efforts to professionalize Arizona's correctional guards, but her ideas about rehabilitation are politically risky. On the one hand, states are recoiling at the huge costs of maintaining a prison system that has grown to include more than 1.2 million state inmates. Many are taking a new look at the tough sentencing policies that fueled the prison-building boom of recent decades, and legislatures are putting increasing pressure on prison authorities to take steps to reduce recidivism. But few politicians or bureaucrats are willing to risk acting in ways that might be labeled as soft on crime.

THE PRIDE FACTOR

The tension between punishment and rehabilitation is readily apparent at the Connecticut Department of Correction's training center in Cheshire. On one recent day, trainers in a large gymnasium were having controlled fights with cadets, teaching them the ungentle procedure for forcibly removing inmates who refuse to come out of their cells. Just across a quad, counselor supervisor Jerry Wagner was lecturing a group of counselors on what causes relapses among people recovering from addiction.

Traditionally, the "custody" and "treatment" aspects of the department's work have been separate tracks, but the distinction is becoming blurred. In Wagner's class sat three "correctional treatment officers"--guards who have decided to get extra training to become counselors. But mainline guards, too, are taught skills such as active listening and effective interpersonal communication, which are not typically associated with running a lock-up.

Connecticut's corrections commissioner, Theresa Lantz, sees the shift as part of an evolution in corrections philosophy. In the 1950s and 1960s, the emphasis was on rehabilitation, but subsequent decades saw the ascendancy of a "just-desserts" or "confinement" model. Now, she says, the pendulum has swung again--this time, to a "professional" model. "We're trying to be smarter, and see what we can do that is evidence-based," Lantz says. But she says the new goal shouldn't be described as "rehabilitation." Rather, it is to teach "responsibility."

That may be a fine distinction, but it is an important one. The new model doesn't require getting inside inmates' heads and changing them. Nor does it require forgiving or explaining away their transgressions. But it does require setting a high standard, having guards live by it and expecting inmates to do the same.

The key to having high expectations is respect, Lantz says. She doesn't promise that treating inmates with respect will magically turn them into law-abiding citizens. But it may help. And in the meantime, it will make prisons safer and improve the lives of correctional officers. "We are not light switches," she says. "If you shut off compassion, love, respect and care when you go to work, you'll find you will not be able to turn them on when you come home."

Back in the classroom, Melanson explains how to put Lantz's vision into practice. Above all, he says, correctional officers must be "firm, fair and consistent"--for their sake if not for the sake of inmates. He says officers have to walk a fine line. They can't get too familiar with inmates, he warns, because sharing personal information can open them up to exploitation. But officers can be firm without being harsh. "Is it okay to care?" he asks. "Yes, as long as you don't care too much."

To illustrate his point, he tells about the time he learned that an inmate's son had just died. Although the man had been bad-mouthing him and otherwise making his life as a guard very difficult, Melanson felt compelled to approach him. "I told him from the bottom of my heart that I was sorry," the instructor recalls.

Four weeks later, the inmate approached Melanson. "He said that was a stand-up thing I had done," Melanson told his trainees. "He told me I'd never have any trouble from him again."

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