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The Three Stairways to a Professional Staff
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 12/21/2020

In life, both professionally and personally, we climb heights. In our personal lives, we climb heights in school from elementary school to middle school to high school though college. We are told to always do our best and strive to succeed. Do your homework, get good grades, and do the hard work! Make the honor roll, and so on.

In our professional lives, we climb hills as well. We are hired, attend the academy, go through our on the job training and make it through our probationary year. We are transferred, learn new jobs and go for promotions. A true professional corrections officer (CO) always tries to achieve goals and grow, learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge.

Recently, I spoke to Professor Kevin Courtright and students of the Department of Criminal Justice, Anthropology, and Forensic Studies at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. I presented a Zoom lecture on deviance in the corrections profession. Edinboro is my alma mater, and I thank Dr. Courtright for the opportunity and compliment him, the faculty and the criminal justice students for their interest in learning about corrections.

Unfortunately, like in many professions, there are deviant officers. They are disciplined, demoted, suspended, or terminated. Moreover-when their deviant acts make the news, it is embarrassing to our field. We, as a profession, must take steps to hire good people, train them, retain them, and invest in their professional development.

Think of this process as a stairway to the top floor-that being having a professional staff. No staff is perfect; corrections officers are human, honest, and make mistakes. However, what every agency wants is to have are staff members who take pride in their profession, are well trained and continue to grow and develop.

The First Stairway

Let us begin with the first stairway. The first step is to hire the right people-mature, level-headed, are in good physical and mental health, have stable work histories and possess a sense of public service. While many corrections agencies are short staffed, I have in my classes encountered supervisors who have said that they would rather work short than be fully staffed with the wrong people. With the hiring process, a clear picture of the profession must be illustrated. Corrections is not the same as police work, in some respects, but just as important. However, dangers exist. COs do not patrol the streets and engage in high-speed vehicle chases. They patrol inside one of the unique buildings on earth-the correctional facility. Whether for juvenile offenders or adult offenders, these buildings have one central thread. The people housed inside do not want to be there-and many constantly work to subvert the security practices, procedures, and policies of the staff. Included in these steps must be a realistic, plain approach to training. Correctional training curriculum has greatly improved in the past several decades, along with developments in technology. However, some topics should be covered, such as inmate manipulation, the inmate lifestyle and subculture, and stress management.

The second step makes it clear that corrections is a people profession. Inmates in our custody are to receive the services they are due, as per case law and statute. They have limited constitutional rights, and the intentional or deliberate denial of these rights can lead to a CO being found liable. COs must realize, clearly, that inmates, no matter their behavior or temperament, are people in our custody. Their well-being is in the COs’ hands. Inmates are to receive adequate food, clothing, shelter, recreation, sanitary living areas, medical care, dental care and mental health care. They are to be free of harassment and dangers to their personal safety. Trainers and supervisors must discuss court cases involving inmates being denied their constitutional rights, due to staff negligence and deliberate indifference. Cases should discuss what staff did or did not do that resulted in mistreatment, injury or death. For example, in recruit basic class an instructor discusses the Eighth Amendment, cruel and unusual punishment. Cases where staff did not exercise good judgment and practices, and an inmate was attacked or died have to be clearly discussed. Topics include lack of medical care, inmate suicide, sexual assault, etc. In addition, trainers must keep up with the times. The needs of housing and maintaining safe custody of LGTBQ inmates must be made clear. A challenge for corrections is the safe management of trans-gender inmates. Times are changing, and staff training must keep up with the changes.

Another step in the first set of stairs involves ego-and this may be observed early in the training academy. Trainers and agency supervisors must be on the alert for CO trainees on ‘power trips’. COs with runaway egos must be given a frank and clear ‘sit-down’ session by supervisors. Out of control egos and ‘power trips’ will result in lawsuits down the road, punitive damages, discipline and termination. Correctional officers can be charged criminally. Make this very clear.

The Second Stairway

The second set of stairs deals with on the job training (OJT). Supervisors must choose their best people to be field-training officers (FTOs). To be designated a FTO should be based on an exemplary work record, the ability to communicate clearly with trainees, patience, maturity and a clear working knowledge of the agency’s policies and procedures. FTO positions should not be solely awarded based on favoritism, such as ‘Officer ___ has been on 30 years; he knows the ‘ropes’ and all the brass like him’. Some officers with less time on the job may be better FTOs that the ‘old timers’. Remember-your FTOs shape and mold the staff.

While going up the second flight of stairs, supervisors and trainers should bluntly discuss ethics, including how officers can be disciplined, including demotion and termination, for mistakes in social media. Postings, comments and photos must not denigrate the mission of the agency or embarrass the agency. Every agency should have a clear policy on the proper usage of social media. There are limitations; it is not a simple First Amendment issue. Even off duty, the CO represents the agency. Staff must use common sense. For example, a CO posts on social media that he believes that all offenders should be ‘roughed up’ to teach them a lesson. This sheds negative light on his or her agency, which states that all offenders in custody shall receive humane treatment and be afforded due process in accordance with their constitutional rights and the law. The CO posting says the opposite-and the public image of the facility takes a negative ‘hit’. He or she does not have First Amendment protection; and cannot claim ‘freedom of speech’.

Also included in this stairway is the proper use of the probationary year. Most recruits make it through the academy, graduate and go on to OJT. Regrettably, a few do not. No one likes to see a person lose employment, but if a new CO cannot do the job-a dangerous job-and is making serious mistakes, it would be a disservice to the agency and facility staff to keep him on. Use the probationary year as a continuum of training. If the new CO is not quite ready to be ‘cut loose’ and work independently, then take the time to correct mistakes. The academy, OJT and the probationary year all serve as a foundation for staff development.

The last step is mentoring. Good mentors are the ‘dream’ of every correctional supervisor. Officers who are mentors may not necessarily have rank. They are the calm, mature, thorough and hard-working officers who know how to handle the inmates, and how to get the job done. In war movies, they are the ‘old hands’ that take care of the new replacements. They give good advice, and when they see new or problem COs making mistakes, they patiently teach them the right way to do things, based on their experiences. They take pride in their work, attend trainings with an open mind and are a credit to the agency. Develop and support your mentors-and remember to thank them.

The Third Stairway

You have made it up two flights and pause at the landing. You have hired the staff, trained them and sent them down their career path. The last flight of stairs includes keeping them not only on the job, but proficient at their job. This approach includes good in-service training, evaluations, and preparing them for different assignments.

A critical step is the availability of good in-service training that both maintains certification in accordance with standards, and develops the CO. While Cultural Diversity and Legal (court cases and statutes) are required, other topics should include, but not limited to, resisting inmate manipulation, avoiding liability, interpersonal communications, verbal judo, preventing suicide, stress management, ethics, special populations (including trans-gender, mentally ill, elderly, etc.), escape prevention, officer safety, documenting and communicating critical incidents and managing the inmate populations. This training must be constantly revised to keep up with the times. It must be presented in a way that keeps trainees interested, and not just sitting there to ‘get their hours in’. With the current COVID pandemic, many agencies are using on-line venues-but whatever the medium, good, interesting training is necessary.

Evaluations should be honest, and not ‘sugar coated’. Some COs do take criticism constructively; others argue every point. Make sure your reasoning is well documented, and covers only the rating period. How many times have we supervisors heard: ‘Hey! Last year’s evaluation was better than what you are now rating me!’ Job performances can go up-or down. If a CO is not performing well, the evaluation can be a critical tool to remedy the behavior-if possible. Do not rush evaluations; do not just ‘get them over with’ if a CO is a problem employee. This does not help your agency and is not fair to the good people who must work with that CO.

Finally, prepare staff for other assignments. Staff transfers should be implemented in ways that facilitate good transitions and training for new assignments. If COs are transferred into new jobs, such as from confinement to community corrections, they should receive adequate OJT; they should not be given the assignment with little or no acclamation to the new duties. Also, COs should understand the different philosophies of corrections. Working on a squad is part of the punishment philosophy; inmates are punished through incarceration and the courts taking away their liberties (this does not mean that inmates should be mistreated). COs who are transferred into programs should be trained in the treatment philosophy-inmates working through programs to correct their criminal behavior. If a CO transfers into community corrections, community service, etc., they should be given orientations in the prevention philosophy. Community corrections staff works with inmates to prevent future criminal behavior.

When a CO is promoted, he or she should attend supervisors training-how to manage people, evaluations, coaching, employee discipline, problem employees, leadership, etc. Gone are the days where a new sergeant gets the stripes and is told: ‘you have been here a while-you know what to do’. Supervisors training must address the issue of supervising the people that you worked with, and now you are their boss. Remember-promoting and developing good supervisors is a positive legacy for your agency.

In summary, the three flights of stairs to a professional staff develops your staff, maintains good professionalism in your staff, and prepares them for promotions, new job assignments and better job performance. When you get to the top, taking your time on each step, your agency will benefit.

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius, retired, Power Point Presentation: Correctional Officer Deviance, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Kevin E. Courtright Ph.D., Department of Criminal Justice, Anthropology, and Forensic Studies, October 16, 2020.

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.

He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University since 1986, where he has taught four corrections courses: punishment and corrections, community corrections, jails and preparation for internship. He also teaches corrections in service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. He has also presented webinars and Skype presentations on correctional issues. His latest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition was published in April 2017 by Carolina Academic Press. He has authored several other books in corrections, including The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition, (2009) from the American Correctional Association, and The American Jail: Cornerstone of Modern Corrections, (2008) from Pearson Prentice Hall. Gary has received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in Social Science from his alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an Instructor Appreciation Award from George Mason University. In January 2011, Gary started a blog “Tales from the Local Jail” on The Corrections Connection (www.corrections.com) followed in December 2012 by his second blog, “Talks About Training” on Corrections One (www.correctionsone.com). Gary has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP) representing local adult corrections. He has corrections projects in development, including, a new second edition of The Twenty Minute Trainer, from the Civic Research Institute, and a new third edition of Stressed Out: Strategies For Living and Working in Corrections from Carolina Academic Press. Gary has appeared on CNN, MSNBC and Tier Talk, discussing corrections security, training and staff issues. He presents training for InTime Solutions and Lexipol. He resides in Williamsburg, Virginia.


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