Roundtable: 7 critical issues in corrections in 2018

From inmate mental healthcare to officer recruitment and retention, the corrections profession faced many challenges in 2018


As 2018 comes to a close, it is time to take a look at the critical issues that challenged the corrections profession this year.

We asked several CorrectionsOne columnists and contributors to share what they thought were the biggest challenges along with advice on how to address these issues in 2019. Add your thoughts in the comments below.

Participants

A CO watches inmates at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
A CO watches inmates at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

1. Contraband

Contraband is one of the biggest threats facing corrections. Efforts made to deter the influx of contraband into correctional facilities have to be both proactive and reactive. We need to protect our prisons and jails by ensuring facilities have the right tools for contraband scanning, that facilities are properly staffed and that officers are protected so they can get the job done effectively. We need to employ all efforts to eliminate the paths along which contraband can travel. 

— Anthony Gangi

Cell phones and drones continue to create peril for corrections staff. While these are not the type of contraband that directly injure like shanks, phones and drones deliver danger indirectly. Drones can map restricted areas and uncover vulnerabilities in security. Phones can record and store sensitive information found in blueprints, exempt policies, staff information and anything on the internet.

Phones and drones also facilitate contraband delivery. Agents of disorder can use phones to schedule bootleg drops and conduct illicit transactions. Drones can deliver small, hotly coveted items like narcotics with frightening accuracy. Of course, tensions over the control of the lucrative underground economy often results in violence and staff injury. In addition, phones and drones are easy to operate, sold everywhere, inexpensive, hard to detect and increasingly packed with more utilities.

All of this seems insurmountable. Still, I believe that all is not lost. Corrections can stem the contraband tide with adequate staffing levels, basic contraband control and technological countermeasures. In doing this, though, we must honestly assess just how strong the tide of contraband can be.

— Joe Bouchard

2. Inmate addiction

Inmate addiction will continue to be a problem due to lack of treatment resources in the community. If an offender is currently on parole or probation and they are regularly using drugs, the supervising officer can refer them to out-patient treatment. Yet it may take several days or weeks before that offender can become engaged in any type of treatment programing. For an offender already engaged in treatment who continues to use drugs, wait times for an in-patient bed can range from a month to three months. When an offender is using drugs regularly the supervising officer is sometimes left with no other option than to arrest the offender to stop the behavior from going from bad to worse. Offenders using heavy drugs such as methamphetamine, PCP and bath salts can pose a serious public safety risk to our communities due to the irrational behavior they exhibit. Unfortunately, we can’t just cure drug addiction, but there could be better ways to manage it the communities. For instance, if we had immediate intervention programs that offenders could be referred to for assessment. Once an assessment is completed the offender would be enrolled in a treatment program to meet their needs.

— Tyson Howard

MCO is hoping to pass HB 4859 before the end of Michigan’s lame duck session. This bill would add local and state corrections officers to the definition of “peace officer” for the purposes of carrying and administering life-saving drugs such as opioid antagonists like naloxone. We need this inside our prisons now more than ever, thanks to the emergence of fentanyl. In August, 29 Ohio COs were hospitalized after possibly coming into contact with this powerful opioid. When a prisoner or staff member is exposed to these drugs, every second counts. That’s why corrections officers, who are professionals and the first responders inside prisons, should be trained to use and authorized to carry opioid antagonists.

— MCO

3. Inmate mental healthcare

The inmate mental health crisis continued to be a huge challenge for corrections in 2018. New programs have been implemented into correctional policy with revamped management of mentally ill inmates. Contrary to the views of line-level staff, as it is hard to see this on a day-to-day basis, this year has brought positive change as new mental health provisions became part of operations and correctional facilities handle the mentally ill more diligently. Mental health and uniformed staff work better collaboratively rather than as separate entities, where officers learn tools to deal with issues that for years were beyond their area of expertise. When this happens, staff assaults decrease and inmates are released in a better state with a prearranged continued care plan. There are still inmates who refuse medication and are unable to care for themselves though. With the crisis as demanding as ever, incarcerations involving the mentally ill remain challenging for COs, but this year’s progress shows hope for the continuing fight.

— Harriet Fox

Local county jails in 2018 utilized an overwhelming number of resources for the care and custody of inmates who suffer from a variety of mental health afflictions.

In California’s county jails, mental health patients who are charged with new crimes are often declared incompetent to stand trial and spend months in jail, pending competency restoration, instead of in proper mental health facilities.

Mental health patients often decompensate in a correctional setting. Caring for this population is risky and corrections staff are often undertrained to properly work with these inmates. Staff are tasked with coaxing mental health inmates out of cells for basic essentials like cleanliness, hygiene and yard time. Mental health patients often attack staff, flood their cells and spread biohazards. This population is responsible for a significant number of on-duty staff injuries.

California recently allocated $270 million for nine counties to fund jail expansions that will better serve the growing mental health population in county jails. Two hours north of San Quentin State Prison in Mendocino County, Sheriff Tom Allman also celebrated voter-approved funding for community mental health facilities in 2018, a measure that could reduce the local jail’s mental health population.

— Zohar Zaied

Prisons and jails have become a warehouse to deal with the mentally ill. People with extensive mental health illnesses may need 24-hour monitoring to ensure they take their medications as prescribed and facilities need staff on standby capable of intervening during a crisis. Right now this job is left to law enforcement, and they are dealing with the behavior that is occurring at the time, not the underlining issue.

Some judicial districts have created mental health courts to help provide treatment and supervision to individuals suffering from mental health illnesses who are facing criminal charges. These courts were created to bring all the community stakeholders together in an attempt to lower crime and try to keep individuals suffering mental health illnesses from being incarcerated in prison or jail. Yet, these courts are having a very low success rates due to the individuals needing more care and supervision than the courts are able to provide.

Another problem is affordable housing. People with mental illnesses are often stuck in a cycle of going in and out of jail and are never able to maintain a job, which in turn leaves them homeless. We need to have centralized services that can help individuals get back on track and navigate all the doctor’s appointments, therapists, substance abuse treatment, housing, medications, insurance and employment.

— Tyson Howard

4. Officer safety

First and foremost, remember basic officer safety skills such as body positioning, watching hands and body language indicators, and good handcuffing skills and search techniques. Complacency always gets the best of us when we slack in our approach. We have to make sure that the foundational principals of officer safety are solid. Facilities could also add body scanners and have inmates scanned before they enter into the facility. They could also add proximity metal detectors that inmates will have to walk by when moving to different areas.

Prisons and jails should focus on updating outdated video surveillance systems and adding to the number of cameras they have to help reduce blind spots. Some homeowners and businesses have better surveillance systems than correctional institutions. Administrators may also look at utilizing body-worn cameras in certain areas of their facility that have higher use of force incidents. Even though adding more cameras and placing body cameras on COs may not change the behavior of inmates, it will assist in investigations, prosecutions and intelligence gathering.

— Tyson Howard

When we talk about officer safety and assaults, we shouldn’t forget about what we in Michigan call Dignity Assaults or Dress Outs – throwing bodily fluids onto staff or sexual exposure to staff. These assaults leave psychological scars. Thanks to MCO’s advocacy, prison administrators have been trained in how to respond to these assaults, including how to document them for prosecution.

— MCO

Officer safety is paramount because officers are the foundation to ensuring a safe and secured facility. If the officers are not protected, their ability to do the job becomes weakened. The officers begin to hesitate and ultimately fail to be effective in dealing with security concerns like searching and responding to institutional emergencies.

Recently, laws are being passed that have placed a major limit on the tools officers can employ to help maintain safety, such as segregation. Officers also need to be properly equipped and trained in handling the threats that now exist behind correctional facility walls. Officers are severely outnumbered and inmates have more freedom than ever before. Rehabilitation has superseded safety to a point where neither safety nor rehabilitation can be achieved. If we want to keep things safe and secured, we must first take care of the officers who risk their lives to protect and serve.

— Anthony Gangi

5. PTSD

COs across the country could benefit from more training on PTSD in corrections. Officers need to be able to recognize the problem in themselves and their coworkers and know when to get help.

The problem is vast. In 2016, a study by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach found 34 percent of Michigan COs and Forensic Security Assistants showed signs of PTSD and 36 percent had signs of depression. We’ve had 11 officers or recent retirees commit suicide since in the last three years.

This year, the Michigan legislature earmarked $50,000 to study the prevalence of PTSD among corrections officers, and COs were formally recognized as part of Traumatic Stress Injury Awareness Day, a resolution adopted by the legislature, in June. Still, more can be done to bring this problem out of the shadows, including in-depth segments on PTSD during new officer training and in-service training.

— MCO

6. Recruitment and retention

It might take a person nine months to get hired on as a corrections officer, where it may only take one shift to realize it takes a certain character to effectively work behind the walls. Our facilities are scrambling to retain quality staff, yet the ones who push through for the long term are being pushed to their limits. In an ever-evolving profession fighting to stay in compliance with new laws, standards and practices, our facilities are overpopulating, while remaining understaffed, causing the current staff to be outnumbered and overworked; sometimes 74 inmates to one officer, and that officer being mandated to work a 16-hour shift for coverage.

Studies show that the average life span of a corrections officer is 59 years of age, and the suicide rate for corrections professionals is 39 percent higher than any other profession. The PTSD rate in corrections is over double than what is found with military veterans due to the cumulative vicarious trauma, as well the individual critical incidents. Whether it is cutting down an inmate who has just attempted to hang themselves, or protecting yourself from an inmate who has just assaulted you, each day is just as unpredictable as the next.

Having the right mindset is everything if you want to survive in this career field. However, it is also the responsibility of management to proactively invest in the needs, safety and well-being of their staff.

Crime isn't stopping, mental illness is rising, and the opiate epidemic and use of illicit drugs is bringing officer safety and liability through the roof. The individuals in custody are becoming more challenging to deal with and the risks are becoming greater, yet as easy as it is to put heads in beds as an industry, our agencies can't fill the staffing vacancies, nor can they retain the staff they have.

This has certainly been one of the biggest challenges in corrections this past year for both the staff and the agencies. It is going to take some serious attention and work for the profession to unite and put a stop to understaffing. Along with integrity, safety should never be compromised.

Brandon Anderson

Understaffed facilities are a growing problem. Nationally, agencies are having trouble recruiting and retaining the proper professionals needed to keep our facilities safe and secured. Without proper incentives, staffing will continue to decrease as people look elsewhere for better opportunities. 

In order to invite and maintain good qualified correctional officers, agencies must begin to offer better pay and benefits, a good retirement plan, and better laws that serve those who protect and serve. Corrections needs to be a competitive field that looks for the best personnel and do what it can to achieve that goal. If agencies continue to settle for the bare minimum, finding and retaining qualified personnel will be impossible. 

— Anthony Gangi

This is going to be a huge challenge going forward for correction agencies. Agencies are going to have to get more creative in their hiring approaches to attract qualified applicants and to retain their current employees. Right now we have the lowest un-employment rate in decades and companies are in need of employees. During such times, private companies offer better benefits and pay to attract talent. The government has not done a good job keeping wages competitive, especially in the prison setting for employees to continue to make the sacrifices to work there. Union contracts with a 3 percent cost of living increase will not be enough when an employee can leave and negotiate a pay raise of 15 percent to take a job in a different field with better working conditions and safety. Let’s also not forget that when an employee goes to work every day they are going to prison. They are entering one of the most violent and toxic places in our society. Prison staff deal with the most dangerous, manipulative and mentally ill individuals imaginable and this can have a direct effect on their own health and well-being. There is nothing anyone can do to change this fact, but it is definitely an obstacle that has to be overcome to attract and retain employees.

— Tyson Howard

7. Training

Many departments regrettably view training as a black hole rather than an investment in bringing officers to a level of competency that would make their facilities more safe and secured. Training alone is not the answer. Training must also come with the proper tools and equipment to do the job of a correctional officer in the 21st century. Too often the tools that we need are looked at as being barbaric rather than essential to the safety of inmates and staff alike. If we truly wish to provide a safe and humane environment for inmates, training and equipment must take precedence over budgetary concerns.

— Russ Hamilton

Every CO can always use more training to keep skills sharp and stay current with new trends and laws. Training works and gives employees confidence while doing their job. It has been said again and again that when you are in high-stress situation you revert back to your training. This doesn’t mean administrators have to always send COs to trainings and have them off work and pay for expensive classes. Training can consist of reading articles and debriefing incidents that occurred at other facilities during a shift brief and looking how officers would handle similar situations in their facility. Agencies could also bring in officers assigned to different units to do short presentations on different topics. There are tons of ways to constantly train without spending any money.

— Tyson Howard

CorrectionsOne would like to thank all of our contributors who shared their insights. What do you think were the biggest issues in corrections in 2018? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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