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Changing the Culture of Corrections

Peter van Agtmael / Magnum Photos

As jail populations nationwide have grown dramatically over the past three decades and the needs of incarcerated individuals have become increasingly acute, resources and staffing levels have not kept pace. In particular, jail administrators have elevated workforce-related issues as a top priority. Even as baby-boomer retirements are diminishing the ranks of management and experienced line staff, jails are confronting unprecedented challenges in recruiting and retaining qualified candidates for correctional staff positions at all levels.

Several factors make recruiting and retention difficult. First, correctional officers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations, due to confrontations with incarcerated people and exposure to contagious diseases. The threat of violence can cause hypervigilance and anxiety. Officers often work long hours in a closed environment, and though some jails are modern and temperature-controlled, others are “old, overcrowded, hot, and noisy.” Studies have found that among correctional officers, there are high rates of stress, depression, suicide, obesity, and cardiovascular risk factors. In addition to the potential for violence and injury, sources of stress include understaffing, shift work and overtime, and work/family conflicts that can arise due to family members’ lack of understanding of the job’s demands.

A second barrier to recruitment is competition for qualified candidates from other criminal justice agencies, specifically those in law enforcement, the federal government, and the private sector, which offer more appealing opportunities, pay, and benefits. In most cases, correctional officer pay is not comparable to that of other protective service positions. In 2014, the median annual pay for correctional officers working in both jails and prisons was $39,700, as compared to $58,630 for police officers and detectives, and $45,970 for firefighters, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The changing civilian labor force has contributed to reduced jail staffing levels as well. Historically, jail correctional employees have been predominantly white, non-Hispanic, moderately educated males in their mid-30s. With women and people of color making up a growing share of the U.S. workforce, different recruitment strategies and messaging may be necessary to reach the entire pool of qualified candidates.

These factors, along with media coverage of corruption and violence among some correctional staff, have created “cultural stigma” about the corrections field. As such, potential applicants may avoid it altogether, and those who are hired may view a position in corrections as merely a steppingstone to a more attractive job in law enforcement, rather than as a career.

Limited officer training, mentoring, and advancement opportunities further impede retention. Staffing shortages prevent extensive ongoing officer training, and what programming does exist tends to focus on security and survival, which leaves officers unequipped for interactions with a diverse population of incarcerated people—pretrial defendants, convicted offenders, people charged with felonies, those charged with misdemeanors, and probation and parole violators—with varying needs, particularly those who are in crisis and experiencing mental illness. Finally, because the management style of many jails is paramilitary and hierarchical, line officers must often comport with strict—sometimes arbitrary—rules and discipline, and seniority dictates assignments and promotions. With decision making concentrated at the top, initiative and creativity among lower-ranking officers are not often encouraged.

Just as the needs of the people detained in jails have changed over time, so too must the culture of the jails responsible for supervising them. With growing recognition that focusing on punishment instead of treatment and rehabilitation is contributing to the cycle of mass incarceration and not public safety, some jails are working to build partnerships with social workers, other treatment and service providers, and the larger community. Establishing new, more effective correctional approaches will foster healthier individuals, families, and communities—for those on both sides of the justice system.