Nearly 10 years ago I started down the road to making adult corrections my career. At the time, it was a job until I settled on that one thing I wanted to do when I grew up. It didn’t take long before I realized that corrections was the career I had been looking for. Accordingly, I wanted to do everything I could to ensure that I would be able to do the job, and grow as a professional.
One of the first things I did was determine who I should listen to, and who I shouldn’t. I covered this a little in my article about being a mentor. Unfortunately, we have all run into those officers, sergeants, lieutenants, and other staff in general who we knew immediately were not going to be able to assist us in our journey.
As a new officer, determining who to go to and who not to go to when you have questions is going to be the difference in getting answers and solving problems, as well as outright frustration. It can sometimes be difficult to differentiate between the two.
In that same vein, I would urge new hires to be their own people and use their own good judgment when it comes to their new coworkers. Rumor mills run strong in correctional facilities. Corrections is no different than any other profession in that regard. As a new officer fresh out of the academy and wanting to fit in, it’s often easy to get wrapped up in the current the rumor mill creates.
Perhaps it’s because we hear things from officer’s we have come to respect, or officers who we are friends with outside of the work environment. We’re all guilty of this to some degree. It’s important that we fight the urge to make snap decisions about our coworkers however based on the opinions of others.
I’m not saying that officer you respect or that friend you’ve known since kindergarten is wrong. I’m saying that as a new hire, with years and years ahead of you, you owe it to yourself to make determinations about offenders and staff alike based on your own observations and experiences with them. I can personally attest to the fact that when we allow ourselves to look past rumors and the personal biases of others, we might be surprised at what we find.
Ask questions. I’m not talking about "When is chow?" or "What do you think my chances of getting next weekend off are?" Not that those aren't important questions, but they’re not going to help you grow as a professional. We all know of groups or organizations that do things a certain way. Most involved in that group can’t tell you why they do things the way they do, or will tell you "It’s just the way it’s always been done." If you plan on making a career out of corrections, asking questions is key to your success.
Of course, this goes back to my first point about knowing who you can, and cannot, ask questions of. There are so many things going on in most facilities around the country on a daily basis that as a new hire, you’re not going to be able to understand most right away. Once you find those people you know you can talk to, talk to them.
If you want to better understand why the escort is done a certain way, ask. If you’re curious as to why certain things aren’t allowed in administrative segregation units, ask. If you don’t understand the count procedures, ask. If you’re having a hard time with that one old lock on the door at the end of the range that needs to be secured before shift change, ask someone for help.
My point is, in our business there really are no dumb questions. If things aren’t done right, people could get hurt. If you’re uncertain and need guidance…that’s right. ASK.
There’s a flip side to that coin called listening. If we’re being honest, we have all encountered that new hire that was blessed with the knowledge of a 30 year vet as soon as he or she put the uniform on. They learned everything they needed to learn in academy, which of course they could have taught most of. All they need are their keys, their radio and for you to get out of their way.
Unfortunately, there’s little we can do about those folks. What you can do as a new officer is ensure that you are not one of them. We all bring past experiences and certain traits with us to each new job. Remember that those are not in question.
A good mentor will guide and instruct. A good student will listen and remember that they are in a new environment, a potentially dangerous environment, and listening to what that veteran officer has to say could mean the difference in you walking out at the end of the shift, or not. Even if you have had previous corrections experience in another state, or another facility, you’re new to the place you were hired on at, and things are going to be different from what you know.
I can hear you now: “Chris, there are things that are just fundamental regardless of agency or facility.”
You’re right. You don’t walk in front of a group of offenders. You don’t turn your back on an aggressive offender. You don’t let offenders hold your keys. It goes without saying that some things are universal.
Just as many things are institution specific though, and regardless of your past corrections experience, you are going to encounter things that are done differently. I have heard of people who worked at a facility for a few years, left to pursue other interests, and returned to the same facility only to find that things weren’t exactly the same way they left them. I’m not advising you not to utilize all the tools you bring to your new job. I’m simply saying that those tools become that much more effective when paired with your ability to listen to those around you.
Finally, understand that there are things that you simply cannot get away with as a new officer. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got as an officer fresh out of the academy came from a female officer that I was working with in my first full week on the job. Before going out and making rounds, she explained a number of things to me. She told me that when she left the office, I was to lock the door and not unlock it under any circumstances unless it was to let her back in.
She explained that if she were to be assaulted while on the ranges, I was not to leave the office to assist. Finally she told me that I would see her interact with the offenders in a way that I could not. She told me that because of the rapport she had established with the offenders in that cell house, and because of the respect she had earned from them, she could say things to them that I could not. That single point is very important.
You have to realize that you are an unknown to the offender population at this point. They don’t know anything about you. They don’t know how you’ll react in certain situations. They don’t know whether you’re going to be straight laced, or whether you have a sense of humor. Accordingly, you cannot interact with them in the same way that veteran staff can. Remember that it’s all about respect. Earn it!
As a new hire, the road ahead of you is challenging. You will have good days, and days you’d like to forget though you likely never will. My short list is by no means comprehensive. You’re a work in progress, and have lots to learn.
Make the most of your opportunities and you'll do fine.
About the author
Christopher L. Jones is a Correctional Officer and Security Threat Group Intelligence Officer with the Iowa Department of Corrections, working at the maximum security Iowa State Penitentiary, the oldest operational penitentiary west of the Mississippi. He has been with the department for just short of 8 years and has worked with all levels of custody within the IDOC, including 5 years in the Clinical Care Unit, a 200 plus bed unit special needs unit located on the ISP campus. In addition to his work at ISP, Chris also teaches Security Threat Groups for the IDOC at their Pre-Service Academy.