Magazine article Corrections Today

Selective Balance and Crisis Management

Magazine article Corrections Today

Selective Balance and Crisis Management

Article excerpt

Control within a correctional setting is one of selective balance. Administrators must balance security and control needs with inmate programs and operations, such as recreation, visitation and inmate movement. A crisis within a penal facility often begins when the balance within the environment is disrupted - either because of inmate activity or a management decision. The crisis can accelerate when line staff and management react to the situation inappropriately. This article will focus on the ways the selective balance can become unstable and the snares staff can avoid when responding to a crisis.

Maintaining Balance

How is correctional balance maintained? Most correctional staff would agree that many elements are necessary to maintain balance within a prison. In his book Effective Prison Leadership, Kevin N. Wright defines well-run facilities as those that stress "care, custody, and control [and] are safe, clean, and humane. . . . [E]ffective prison staff are characterized by pride, professionalism and proficiency."

Conversely, in his book on the 1980 riot at the New Mexico Penitentiary, Mark Colvin lists several "markers" that typify a penitentiary in turmoil: inconsistencies in the operation of the prison; correctional dissatisfaction and turnover; harassment between inmates and staff; breakdown of inmate solidarity and growing violence; growth of small, self-protective inmate cliques; and growing influence of violent, hardcore inmate cliques.

Other activities upset the balance within penal facilities. Because correctional managers know that inmates abhor change, they usually modify policies incrementally and with advanced notice to the inmate population. Seasoned correctional managers, for example, rarely would, if ever, change inmate visiting hours or recreation programs without a great deal of thought and communication with inmates.

Inmates also can affect the sensitive balance within a prison or jail. An inmate killed in a race-related attack will destabilize an institution, as will inmate work or food strikes, inmate-on-staff assaults, and escapes or attempted escapes. These circumstances are considered "business as usual." However, the way in which staff react to these situations will determine if the loss of balance is short-term and controllable, or long-term and unmanageable.

Losing Balance

As noted, it sometimes is impossible to maintain balance within a difficult correctional climate. There are some basics, however, that will allow correctional staff to monitor and respond to issues before they reach crisis mode. The most important aspect is the "management by walking around" technique. As James D. Henderson and Richard Phillips write, "The first thing managers can do to gain a critical advantage and improve the way at, institution runs is to increase the visibility - the physical presence in every area of the facility - of mid- and upper-level staff. While workloads admittedly are high for top administrators, it is imperative that the warden, his executive staff and department heads regularly tour the institution and make themselves available to staff and inmates." Lack of visibility is the first step in conceding control of the facility to inmates.

A warden also must have a professional, well-trained staff. They represent the first line of defense against inmate manipulation. However, in times of fiscal austerity, training budgets usually are the first funds cut.

Poorly trained or poorly supervised staff can have a devastating effect. While I was a human resource manager at a U.S. penitentiary, a handwritten message was found in a spiral notebook of a rookie correctional officer who had quit his position the day before after only three weeks on the job. The entry was a real eye-opener: "Yesterday was my first day in general population at [a maximum security penitentiary]. I can now imagine what hell would be like. All the new guys would joke and try to relieve some of the pressure that kept building. …

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