Changing Prison Culture

By Corcoran, Randy | Corrections Today, April 2005 | Go to article overview

Changing Prison Culture


Corcoran, Randy, Corrections Today


Author's note: This article is dedicated to the memory and vision of Susan M. Hunter.

"Prison culture can change from one based on fear to one based on hope."
--Susan M. Hunter, Ph.D.

Everyone knows what culture is. Everybody lives it and is part of it at work, in families, communities and various organizations. For the purpose of the National Institute of Correction's Institutional Culture Initiative (NIC-ICI), and this article, culture is defined as the values, assumptions and beliefs that correctional staff hold in common. These drive both individual and group behaviors, which ultimately define the way a particular institution functions.

NIC's intensive investigation of institutional culture began under the direction of the late Susan Hunter, former chief of NIC's prisons division. It was her belief that prison culture could change from one based on fear to one based on hope. With that as its starting point, NIC's initiative to examine institutional culture nationwide has progressed to include four intervention strategies--organizational culture assessment, promoting a positive prison culture, strategic planning and management, and leading and sustaining change--and an evaluation method to measure their impact on an institution's culture.

The Impetus for Change

In 2002, during one of my first days at NIC, Susan explained to me, quite clearly, the impetus for NIC's examination of prison culture. During the late 1990s, NIC received numerous requests from various prisons for assistance with reducing incidents of inmate violence, excessive use of force, staff sexual misconduct, discrimination complaints, absenteeism and high staff turnover.

NIC initially deployed its traditional responses in the forms of staff training, information sharing and other technical assistance efforts. When NIC began receiving repeated requests for assistance from the same prisons, Susan decided to take a deeper look at the entire prison environment that had produced these problems.

Susan believed deeply in the strengths and abilities of individuals working in corrections, especially those working in prisons. She knew that if corrections employed a rigorous empirical examination of institutional culture followed by thoughtful interventions, then significant and lasting improvements in the quality of life for staff and inmates could be accomplished.

Firsthand Experience

What Susan had articulated so well was consistent with my experiences at three Maryland maximum-security facilities. As warden, I had learned that staff behaviors that violated prison rules were not only unethical, but sometimes bordered on criminality. More important, these were the institutional behaviors of individuals who were otherwise good staff, family members and community citizens.

Over time, I began to identify the influences on staff behavior that could create an environment where prison staff could become vulnerable to a slippery slope toward a negative culture. As a staff member, there is the ever-present peer pressure to be like other staff. In corrections, especially at a maximum-security facility, the lives of staff depend on the support and responsiveness of other staff. When new staff orientation includes a "code of silence," the resulting messages are that "the suits" (administration) do not care about staff safety and will not allocate sufficient resources to do the job the "right way." Consequently, the job gets done "our way."

It sometimes behooves new staff members to view the institution through the "our way" lens, especially if they expect other staff members to respond by providing aid and safety during an emergency. And too often, to successfully complete the initial probation period, new staff must "go along to get along."

When, where or how an institution's culture begins to veer off track is less clear than assessing an institution's current culture. …

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