How collateral duty assignments can maximize professional development

Working specialized assignments like gang intelligence or disturbance control can help develop your corrections career


By James. W. Buckner, Jr.

It should come as no surprise that taking on additional responsibilities in a position where the majority of us already wear many hats is a challenge. However, for those willing to meet the challenge, the rewards may exceed your expectations. I never imagined my first job as a deputy jailer in 1988 would put me on a path that led to a position dealing with counterterrorism and issues of national security. Correctional specialization put me on that pathway.     

I began taking a closer look at correctional specialization during my third year as a correctional officer. Life on the job consisted of perimeter fence checks, endless pat downs, inmate common area/living area searches, and at the very top of the list, ensuring inmate accountability through conducting institutional counts.

A sheriff officer watches over inmates during a program at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
A sheriff officer watches over inmates during a program at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility Thursday, April 27, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

Although I enjoyed my job, I began to wonder if this was all it would consist of. It was around this time I began to recognize and explore the possibilities of how correctional specialization might advance my corrections career.

In corrections, there are various collateral duty assignments, all of which support the primary function of institutional security and protection of the public through mission-specific tasks. In this article, I will review the methods to groom yourself for opportunity and take a closer look at various specialized duties within the correctional environment.

You should remember though that appointment to a specialized collateral duty assignment is secondary to your primary job assignment, and should not interfere with those duties. Additionally, appointment to a specialized collateral duty assignment is not a guarantee of promotion, though it may be viewed favorably on an application or resume.

How to Groom Yourself for Opportunity

There are three main ways to prepare yourself for a specialized assignment in corrections.

1. Master your current assignment

It is essential you have a thorough knowledge of institutional policy and procedure prior to applying for any specialized collateral duty assignment. The best way to gain this experience is to master your current assignment, along with the duties of all rotational posts within your respective facility, from housing units to transportation and visiting. Ensuring inmate accountability and awareness of appropriate search methods and tactics are among the building blocks of a solid correctional knowledge base. In your career as a correctional officer, it’s imperative to transcend your familiarity of policy beyond memorization by developing an understanding of how and why policies are formulated for the goals of institutional safety and security.

2. Seek a mentor

The process of seeking a mentor is somewhat paradoxical in nature in that your mentor may actually find you. Supervisors intently monitoring performance and are quick to identify staff members who demonstrate consistent superior performance both individually and as part of a team. Whether you find your mentor, or your mentor finds you, is a minor detail, as long as you find one. Your mentor’s experience will provide a wealth of information on the total operation of your facility. In addition to sharing their personal experience, a mentor can guide you in selecting training development courses, as well as insight on issues ranging from custody and treatment programs, and the management roles of institutional CEOs. One of my mentors said, “A mentor’s greatest gift is the ability to recognize and develop talent.” Your mentor can greatly aid you in determining the correctional specialty best suited for you.

3. Become an effective communicator

During your daily tour of duty, it’s reasonable to expect multiple scenarios that directly involve your ability to communicate effectively with both staff and inmates. Examples include answering questions relating to policy and procedure, and using interpersonal communication skills to defuse volatile situations, which may otherwise lead to incidents of inmate violence against other inmates or staff.       

Your ability to communicate verbally and in writing is a strong indicator of your ability to follow process and share information in the interest of institutional security and inmate management and accountability.

Examples of Specialized Collateral Duty Assignments

Below you will find descriptions of some specialized correctional. This list is not all-inclusive; however, it does identify specialties considered high profile within institutional corrections.  

1. Training instructor

Trainers provide instruction in a variety of correctional topics from facility security to firearms, self-defense and first aid/CPR. Requirements for selection as a trainer typically include completion of a train-the-trainer instruction course, followed by intensive course-specific certification training.   

2. ACA team member

Members of an institutional American Correctional Association (ACA) team are uniquely involved in the process of ensuring facilities comply with ACA standards for accreditation purposes.    

3. Internal affairs/investigations

Internal affairs investigates incidents of inmate and/or staff misconduct. Appointment to these positions often requires extensive knowledge of investigative techniques and rules of evidence, as well as the inmate disciplinary process. Pre-service training including academic testing should be expected.

4. Security threat group (gang intelligence coordinator)

Gangs represent a significant threat to institutional security, based on their role in everything from the inmate contraband economy to narcotics trafficking, money laundering and assault/extortion. It is imperative that incarcerated gang members are monitored and effectively managed. Appointment as a gang intelligence coordinator typically requires some knowledge of prison and street gangs and gang ideology. Continued research and training (institutional and individual) is required, as gang activity continually evolves.       

5. Fire safety/sanitation

Fire safety and sanitation personnel ensure institutions are clean and safe and that all emergency equipment is free from defect and fully operational, including fire extinguishers, emergency lighting, self-contained breathing apparatus and alarm systems. Appointment to these positions may require some knowledge of basic life safety protocols and/or National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Codes and Standards. Pre-service training including academic testing should be expected.     

6. Disturbance control team

Disturbances and riots are an unpleasant reality, but the possibility of such occurrences warrants the need for an appropriate response. Disturbance control teams disrupt and end disturbances within the correctional environment, including other incidents involving planned uses of force. Appointment to disturbance control teams or CERT (Correctional Emergency Response Team) typically requires enhanced physical agility testing, as well as participation in team exercises and/or drills.       

The Do’s and Dont’s of Correctional Specialization

Your interest in correctional specialization may be reflective of career advancement goals both within and outside of your present agency.

I’m still working in the field of corrections, though no longer inside an institution, and my specialization is intelligence. In addition, several former co-workers of mine are now serving as federal air marshals. We successfully used the training we received while working in specialized assignments to transition into other unique positions within the field of criminal justice/corrections. Here are some do’s and don’ts that will help you do the same:     

  • Do become the subject matter expert (SME) for your specialized assignment;
  • Do pursue continued professional development in support of your specialty;
  • Do create opportunities to share what you’ve learned (develop training courses);
  • Do become and remain a team player;
  • Do liaise and consult with other SMEs within your specialty;
  • Don’t expect a promotion based upon taking on a collateral duty assignment;
  • Don’t allow collateral duties to interfere with your primary assignment.

Conclusion

When you consider the complexity and time-sensitive nature of the basic duties of a correctional officer (inmate accountability checks/observations, safety and sanitation inspections, searches, direct inmate supervision in a variety of settings, and responding to institutional emergencies and disturbances), the idea of taking on additional duties might seem to exceed the bounds of common sense, even as it relates to any expected promotion potential. It is for that very reason that the expected outcome of pursuing and/or accepting specialized collateral duty assignments should be squarely focused on personal and professional development.

Clearly, there are potential advantages or perks to be gained from being appointed to certain specialized duties, including favorable work schedules, outside agency training and even enhanced promotion potential. Typically, specialized duty assignments are not considered to represent automatic guarantee of promotion. As such, your interest in pursuing correctional specialization should be an extension of your desire to develop a comprehensive knowledge base about correctional facility operations, thereby creating opportunities for your own career advancement while simultaneously promoting and working toward the goal of greater institutional safety and security for staff and inmate populations.  


About the author
James Buckner is a corrections professional with over 30 years of experience in the field. He currently serves as an intelligence analyst for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) Counter Terrorism Unit. Prior to working for the BOP, he worked for the Kentucky Department of Corrections from 1990 to 2000. James was assigned as one of the first Security Threat Group Coordinators in Kentucky.

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