Testing the Conceptual Path to Correctional Staff Safety: A Study of the Implementation of Unit Management in Two Medium Security State Institutions in the USA

By Farmer, J. Forbes | International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, January-June 2012 | Go to article overview

Testing the Conceptual Path to Correctional Staff Safety: A Study of the Implementation of Unit Management in Two Medium Security State Institutions in the USA


Farmer, J. Forbes, International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences


Introduction

Those researching correctional management (see Antonio & Young, 2011; Blevens, Cullen & Sundt, 2007; Brookes, Smith & Bennett, 2008; Lambert, Hogan & Allen, 2006) have argued that the prison environment, including structure and policy, leads to staffattitudes and behaviors, both positive and negative. Investigators (i.e., Blevins, Cullen & Sundt, 2007: Lambert & Paoline, 2008; Maahs & Pratt, 2001) refer to this conceptual flow as the "deprivation" or "prisonization" penal model. This study of the implementation and effects of unit management on staffperceptions of their safety and security follows this respected tradition.

Unit management was introduced into correctional facilities around 1973 (Wener, 2005) and is conceptually based on the prison literature and the array of penal policies. In comparison to the authoritative penal policy and organizational structure of the 1950s that Sykes (1958) saw as causing prison unrest, unit management has been argued to be a policy that increases staffcommitment, lessens staffalienation, and results in control over inmates without the need to overpower them (Fihla, 2001; Wener, 2005). Unit management also addresses the problem of poor communication among staff, and between staffand inmates (Yocum, Anderson, DaVigo & Lee, 2006; Gerard, 1991; Levinson, 1999), that Cressey (1961) attributed to the separate hierarchies for the custody and treatment branches of the prison organization. Hobbs & Dear (2000), however, raise some questions about the validity of the effectiveness of unit management in improving communication between staffand inmates to the level that inmates are comfortable discussing personal problems, like depression and self-harm, with the staff.

Unit management is a correctional policy that specifies a specific structure. For example, multi-disciplinary unit teams, housing small numbers of inmates together permanently, placing officers in the inmate housing units, and decentralized organizational hierarchy (Hobbs & Dear, 2000; Wener, 2005). The implementation of unit management has been reported to positively change various processes such as the opportunities for individual members of the team to participate in decision-making, and the proactive intervention that heightens security and prevents incidents (Wener, 2005; Yocum et al., 2006). These processes, in turn, affect the attitudes and behaviors of both staffand inmates. This structural model, as depicted in Figure 1, serves as a guide for the present study.

Unit management is thought to be one way of separating the inmate population into smaller groups to bring about the fairness and safety specified by the retribution policy of the 1970s and carried through to the present. Unit management today also seems to be compatible with both the "punishment as retribution" and "re-entry" sides of the current debate over penal policy. With authority decentralized and stafflocated in inmate living quarters for direct supervision, unit management teams are in a position to be immediate reinforcers of positive inmate behavior and observers of potentially dangerous issues that jeopardize staffand inmates. Since these unit management teams are multi-disciplinary, more choices (i.e., classes, counseling, and recreation) should be visible and available to inmates. Inmates should have the option, then, of making more positive use of their incarceration period, a hope expressed by Fihla (2004) in South Africa, Hobbs and Dear (2000) in Australia, Houston and Stefanoviae (1996) in Slovenia and many researchers in the United States.

The basic hypothesis for this present study was based on the presumed and documented success of the unit management structure and process (Figure 1) as it relates to staffbeliefs about their work environment, specifically their own safety. It was hypothesized that unit management staff, compared to non-unit management staff, would feel safer and would perceive more delegation of authority and more opportunities to participate in decisions regarding their work environment and issues relating to the inmates. …

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