A New Vision for Correctional Officers

Incarceration has been failing for decades as a means for promoting public safety. More often than not, the finger is pointed at the unreformed inmate as the source of that failure. What about those who work in prisons and jails? What responsibility do they bear for promoting real change that reduces crime and restores communities? What difference could they make if they were trained in the basic principles of human relations, business management, and motivational change, not to mention restorative justice?

In this article we share our experience, as longtime developers of restorative practices in a San Francisco County Jail, of the deputized staff who have assisted in bringing about a new vision. We honor the courage of those mavericks, and acknowledge the desire of many more to be a part of that vision. We recognize how a profession that is unavoidably brutal can, with the right institutional leadership, encouragement, and training, take steps toward becoming the noble vocation that many correctional officers long for it to be.

Schwartz and Levitas

A prisoner paints a guard: Someone Cares by Paul Bruton. Acrylic. Credit: Prison Creative Arts Project.

We have known decent, smart, and compassionate people who have worked as deputies or correctional officers. If that surprises you, you may be prejudiced. But you would not be alone, because the nature of the prison system encourages each of us to take sides and dehumanize everyone on the other side. The most inspiring people behind the clanging doors of jail and prison are those individuals—whether wearing prisoners’ fatigues, law enforcement uniforms, or civilian clothes—who resist that temptation and, in doing so, help to build humanity where it is in short supply.

How Prisons Fail Correctional Officers

Let’s be clear, there is nothing ennobling about our current prison system. The traditional way of incarcerating and releasing people is a “crime after crime.” Most members of the general public now know what industry insiders have known for forty years. In the typical jail or prison, men or women sleep in their bunks, play dominoes and cards, watch The Jerry Springer Show on TV, and scheme. About two-thirds of those released are rearrested within three years. The corrections system has failed the victims of crime and our communities’ needs and expectations. It has failed the people inside, and their families. What many of us do not yet realize is that the system has also failed the professionals who run it.

For sure, deputy sheriffs (or “deputies”) who work in county jails and prison custody staff (commonly referred to as correctional or corrections officers, COs, or sworn staff) have careers that appear attractive and are lucrative. They are paid to attend a mandatory four-to-six-month pre-employment training/academy. They begin their careers free of student loan debt. Many undergrads would envy that, along with the starting base salary between $45,000 and $65,000, an extensive benefit plan and defined-benefit pension that provides for retirement at age fifty-five with 85 percent of salary for life.

But the content of the standard training does not adequately prepare them for the realities they face on the job or the highly stressful and inhumane things they are asked to do. Occupational stress is a pervasive problem within all correctional jurisdictions. Deputies and corrections officers face the daily challenges of effectively managing the inmate population as well as their own stress levels. {{{subscriber|2.00}}}

A correctional officer’s life expectancy is heartbreaking. On a national level, according to the Correctional Peace Officers Foundation project statistics published in 2004, there were thirty-nine deaths in the line of duty in the four years preceding the report. The suicide rate for corrections has been recorded as 39 percent higher than that of other professions (Archives of Suicide Research, 1997). The Society of Actuaries reported in 1994 that Corrections Officers had the second highest mortality rate of all occupations. The Metropolitan Life Actuary Statistics reported in 1998 that the average life expectancy of a corrections officer is fifty-eight.

Our goal for the sworn staff is not just to reduce this stress level by developing more collaborative and humane ways to manage prisons. It is to give them a positive role in creating better communities in the low-income locales from which most inmates come, and from which many of sworn staff also come. We envisage a future in which restorative justice spreads nationally and prisons are drastically reduced in number, but in which the sworn staff are partners in this vital approach, utilizing their experience in holding people accountable, in combination with restorative practices, thereby gaining the respect of all segments of the community.

Corrections Staff Training for the Monster Factory

What goes through the minds of the deputy sheriffs and corrections officers as they enter the jail to start their shift? It may be the pride that comes with a career in public service. Or it may be fear of real and valid threats to the safety of themselves and their co-workers. It may be the thought of eight hours doing a job that has elements of boredom and repetition. It may be the frustration and disgust of seeing the same individuals returning to custody year after year, each time looking and acting the worse for the wear.

From day one, the typical training to become a sworn officer focuses on learning defensive tactics, crowd control, and physical take-downs. There is minimal, if any, discussion of the psychology of inmate populations from a humanistic perspective, and little light is shed on the pathways into the criminal justice system. The core curriculum does not cover issues related to the complex socioeconomic backgrounds of their charges. The required classes to work in a jail make no mention of restorative justice or other vehicles of hope for change.

Furthermore, all of the training to work in this area reinforces an us-them mentality that these professionals learn early in their training: “We” (sworn staff) are the good guys, and “they” (the inmates) are the bad guys. “They” (the prisoners) are the worst dregs of humanity, the underbelly of our communities who have histories of hurting people, including us, and who are destined to hurt our families when they get out.

The professional program staff and volunteers who provide a range of educational, restorative social programs for inmates are often considered to be more a part of the “they” than the “we”: they may be seen as “bleeding heart liberals,” lazy, protected by the sworn staff, useless (because the inmates are seen as unable to change—“once a criminal always a criminal”), expensive to the taxpayer, and even colluding with inmates. Program staff may be seen as offering a community-college-level education free to criminals—an education that the sworn staff have to pay for their own children to receive.

As with any culture that you become a part of, whether the most progressive or the most conservative, you are expected to uphold the tenets and ideology of that culture. Members of the law enforcement culture develop a brotherhood/sisterhood that carries a fierce loyalty and mutual respect that enable them to function in the adversarial, difficult, and at times dangerous conditions of the jail. It is likened to being in the foxhole together during times of war.

But there is a backlash to the group mentality: it often results in members of the group succumbing to peer pressure, secrecy, collusion, and the infliction of cruelty. We must not forget the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, led by professor Philip Zimbardo and others, which demonstrated a classic abuse of power by ordinary citizens. A group of students were randomly divided into prisoners and guards and relegated to a mock prison in the basement of the Stanford Psychology Building. Those in the role of “guards” took their authority to extremes, including enlisting some of the “prisoners” to assist in psychologically torturing others. These were not “bad people,” they were educated people placed in an inhumanly unequal and oppositional system that is hard to withstand.

A Different Way of Doing Business

Over 50,000 arrested or charged individuals go through our revolving jail doors each year in the city and county of San Francisco. The men and women behind bars here, like those incarcerated across the country, have been abandoned to society’s scrap heap. Those who committed crimes not only hurt their victims, they also hurt themselves, their own families, and their communities. Many of them have suffered violence and abuse as children and their crimes only perpetuate the cycle of violence. As adults, they have violated the public’s trust and many people want them locked away for a long time, even in the relatively forgiving environment of San Francisco. But most prisoners will eventually be back on the streets, so it is essential that they are released with the skills to lead a better life.

Time in jail or prison provides a break from the chaos of dysfunctional lives and the cycles of insanity so an inmate can reflect on past behavior or gain skills for the future. When this time is enhanced with evidence-based treatment programs and educational services, it has the potential to dramatically change a person’s life for the better, interrupting the cycle of crime that can affect generations to come.

Drawing on this perspective, in 1990 the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department opened its first program facility where, in professor Linda Zupan’s words, “a new generation of jail management” existed. A new architecture promoted civil and humane management. Equally important was redesigning the selection, training, and management of jail staff. Starting with leadership: a civilian (who was himself an ex-offender) was appointed as the overall facility director with responsibility similar to any prison warden. Being an ex-felon is not a prerequisite for this job, but having the backbone and the belief in people’s ability to change is fundamental.

He chose to institute policies that were more integrative and inclusive of all staff, which resulted in collaborations between sworn and civilian staff, better officer safety, and an eye on reducing the recidivism. Civilian staff were cross-trained in fundamental safety and security measures, while correctional officers were cross-trained in programmatic content and delivery of services. Essential to the success of this was the partnership of a high-ranking sworn officer who led by example and inspired the ranks to buy into a concept that went counter to everything they had learned before about how to do their jobs.

We designed a comprehensive implementation program that set out clear goals and ways to measure success. We asked how helpful each program was to both prisoners and staff, and brought program staff and custody staff into each others’ meetings so that they shared responsibility for each others’ tasks. We designed various methods to keep open lines of communication and to emphasize at every opportunity the shared mission of both staffs.

Actors in the play Man.Alive

In the Man.Alive play (see caption on page 28) Reggie Daniels (left) accounts for his actions, speaking through the piece to his often-neglected eldest son (played by Freddy Gutierrez, at right) who is now caught in the same street life that enveloped him. Credit: Ruth Morgan (communityworkswest.org)

We brought the elephant into the room by stating clearly what everyone had been expected to believe, naming all the misconceptions and stereotypes that sworn and program staff had about each other and about the prisoners. We stated that our goal was to create a professional environment free from misconceptions and stereotypes. Our challenge was, “Imagine yourself as an agent of change” and, “Remember: resources are not the problem, lack of commitment and leadership is!”

The San Francisco Sherriff’s Department implemented programs at this facility that addressed the issues needed to get people out of their lives of crime: deficits in education and literacy; comprehensive family services including re-unification, when appropriate, and expanded visitation while in custody; violence prevention; relapse prevention; and job training and vocational readiness, to name a few.

How It Has Worked for the Sworn Staff

The success was overwhelming, with recidivism rates going down and in-jail violence significantly reduced. Deputies who worked in the program facility reported that these benefits carried over into their personal lives, with stress reduction and less time off for work-related injuries. Eventually, many of the staff who had at first resisted the integration began requesting to be assigned to this facility.

One deputy said:

I kept hearing about the “love jail programs” and thought what a bunch of crap … then I was forced to work there for cross training and thought I may have to quit … I have to be honest, after two weeks of working at the program facility, I noticed when I got home, and my wife noticed it too, I wanted to do more things with my family and play with my kids. I never thought I’d say this but these programs are good for us also.

Over the years, the programs at this facility have evolved to include a restorative justice approach to working with male inmates. We mandate people to attend programs that help them stop their hurtful behavior and we offer the victims something they almost never get from the criminal justice system: empathy, support, and direct services. The Resolve to Stop the Violence Project, which works with violent men and those harmed by their violence, the Community of Veterans Engaged in Restoration for incarcerated veterans, recovery programs, and our own charter high school are examples of this approach.

The Possibilities of What Could Be

Imagine every jail and prison to be a place where we create and provide no-nonsense programs that invest in people’s success and our public safety. Imagine that all uniformed staff in our jails and prisons are trained to be interventionists and educators who hold people accountable for their behavior by providing opportunities for those prisoners to change the behavior that brought them to prison. Think about it: being a correctional officer is probably one of the most thankless and stressful jobs. A man or woman is in a pod or tier or dormitory eight to ten hours a day, depending on their shift. All around our nation, these shifts exist around the clock, 365 days a year, in which professionals can have a profound, positive influence on the millions of prisoners that come in and out of our jails and prisons. If those uniformed staff are encouraged and rewarded for their humanity, role modeling, and contribution, this would have everlasting public safety benefits by returning individuals back to our community more prepared to become pro-social, law-abiding citizens and participants in restorative justice efforts. That would put true meaning to the title of “correctional officer.”

It is time to bring our social justice principles to a higher ground for prisoner and worker alike. Just as programs have been developed that change the culture for inmates, changing the culture for those who work in the jails boils down to the question of leadership.

Now is the time for a new approach to training corrections officers throughout the country. We now have “realignment” in California, whereby those formerly sent to state prison for nonviolent, nonsexual crimes will stay in county jails or participate in community-based supervision programs. Many shudder at this change, but if done right, intelligently, and with heart, this can be a way out of the madness of doing business as usual with matters of crime and punishment. We can change the way we sentence, incarcerate and release prisoners that will improve public safety, reduce cost, and ultimately enhance our civilization. Now, and in the future, we have the opportunity to bring more effective and more humane conditions both to those who live and those who work within the walls of our prisons and jails.

Ideally, restorative justice is about creating alternatives to prison altogether, but we can do it both inside and outside as everyone has a stake in this, Republican or Democrat, big tent liberal or small-government conservative; this isn’t a partisan issue, it is a human one. We can actually use the prisons to make us safer if we realign the way we operate our jails and prisons. If our prisons really correct behavior, we all win. It will only happen with a new vision and expansion of what the sworn staff can do for their and everyone else’s health and safety.

(To return to the Winter 2012 Table of Contents, click here.) Also, don’t miss the seven freely accessible online exclusives associated with this special issue on restorative justice — to read them, click here.

Sunny Schwartz is the author of the book Dreams From The Monster Factory: A Tale of Prison, Redemption and One Woman’s Fight to Restore Justice To All and has worked in the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department for thirty-one years. Leslie Levitas, M.A., has worked for the San Francisco Sheriff's Department since 1996. She has coauthored articles on a variety of topics related to criminal justice and social justice. Her writing and photograpy were included in the recent anthology Razor Wire Women: Prisoners, Activists, Scholars, and Artists (SUNY Series in Women, Crime, and Criminology).

Source Citation

Schwartz, Sunny and Leslie Levitas. 2012. A New Vision for Correctional Officers. Tikkun 27(1): 37.

tags: Economy/Poverty/Wealth, Justice & Prisons, Politics & Society   
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