A New Role: Training First-Line Supervisors as Direct Supervision Managers

By Westbrook, Charles F.,, III; Knowles, Fred E., Jr. | Corrections Today, July 1994 | Go to article overview

A New Role: Training First-Line Supervisors as Direct Supervision Managers


Westbrook, Charles F.,, III, Knowles, Fred E., Jr., Corrections Today


In the two decades that have passed since the Federal Bureau of Prisons opened the first direct supervision correctional centers in New York, Chicago and San Diego, the concept of direct supervision has grown into a nationally accepted jail management practice. The small number of direct supervision facilities that existed in the 1980s now have been joined by many others throughout this nation and abroad.

In a direct supervision facility, staff and inmates have direct contact with each other within the housing units rather than communicating through bars and control rooms. The pioneers of this form of correctional supervision, through their collective experience in these facilities, have made the transition process much easier for those who have followed. Still, those agencies now entering the direct supervision arena have some recurring concerns.

Of primary importance is the issue of preparing first-line supervisors for their new role as managers in the direct supervision philosophy. Interviews with Direct Supervision Administrators, a study published by the National Institute of Corrections in 1987, noted that "...nearly all of the administrators indicated that their facilities experienced problems with first-line supervisors."

What could cause previously loyal, hard-working first-line supervisors to create problems for their administrators and facilities? All too often, when line staff are empowered to make decisions and supervise, as is the case in direct supervision, the first-line supervisors feel their own power is being eroded. By educating the supervisors in their new role as managers, the agency might hope to avoid this dangerous but common problem.

Change in Supervision

In direct supervision facilities, there is generally one officer staffing each inmate living unit--commonly called pods--housing 48 to 64 inmates each. The officers become leaders, supervisors and unit managers. They are responsible for maintaining control of the pod and the inmates. This control is achieved through basic management principles adhered to by the pod officers with the support of supervisors, the facility and the agency. Pod officers, in actuality, become the first line of facility supervision, with the inmates becoming their direct subordinates.

As a result of this change in supervisory responsibility, first-line supervisors working in a direct supervision facility for the first time may not be prepared for the dramatic role change they face in this environment. Pod officers now are solving the problems and making the decisions that before were the exclusive purview of first-line supervisors. In their traditional jail role, first-line supervisors were the ones with all the answers. Now, many sergeants and corporals are left feeling as though they have lost control--and they may not like it.

Many first-line supervisors, in an attempt to maintain control, may find themselves overruling pod officers' decisions and taking over pod officers' responsibilities when they enter inmate areas. When this happens, officers must struggle to re-establish their control of the unit and maintain some degree of credibility with the inmates. If their control cannot be re-established, the result can be dangerous for both the officer and the facility.

Generally, problems such as this will not surface until a facility is open and operating. These problems usually do not stem from incompetence but rather from a lack of experience with direct supervision. The supervisors may have all the skills and abilities they need to be good supervisors in a traditional jail, but they find direct supervision is an entirely new game. In the 1987 NIC study, Larry Ard, former chief deputy of the Contra Costa Detention Facility in Martinez, Calif., reported that "...our first-line supervisors had considerable difficulty adjusting to the new environment, philosophy and working conditions. Line personnel had their own informed peers, but the sergeants had no one to turn to except staff of lower rank--a difficult situation. …

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