Correctional leader as entrepreneur

Many decisions will not be unanimously supported within the organization and will require risk taking


In recent years, many correctional leaders have realized the benefits of operational standards and the best efforts at compliance taken by their agencies. Such standards bring structure, enhanced safety, and a degree of predictability to an environment that can all too quickly spin out of control.

That being said, though, there is much entrepreneurial behavior in the correctional profession that is also important to its success. Entrepreneurial leaders initiate change where they see the need. Often those decisions are not unanimously supported by others in the organization, or require risk taking. Many great accomplishments in the corrections profession occurred with that spirit in mind.

To give just a small example, a cellblock supervisor decides that housekeeping standards are not adequate. Therefore, he or she implements requirements involving a higher level of cleanliness. If this is a change of tradition, there is likely to be much resistance by staff and inmates. However, after the successful implementation of new cleaning techniques, it is likely that the new amount of cleaning and polish becomes the new tradition that everyone embraces.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there were a number of infamous disturbances in prison systems throughout the US. Staff clearly saw the need to be prepared to effectively manage correctional emergencies. The result has been the creation of numerous programs in prisons and jails.

Historically, leadership in corrections has implemented standards of operations where none previously existed. Those standards could be driven by ACA, in-house security policy, or other professional organizational standards. All began implementation by a leadership initiative in the face of resistance to change. They can be referred to as “entrepreneurs of identity, in the sense that they proactively steer this process.”

Many of those standards have driven better, higher-quality systems that have not existed before, and have created a better performing correctional service.

All of the related improvements in the corrections profession began with a vision and commitment by corrections leaders at all levels. These people saw opportunity and long term benefits, and were willing to labor during the implementation often in the face of much resistance by staff and inmates. Often it is described as having the “presence of mind” to know the importance. It is leadership behavior in the true entrepreneurial spirit and exists wherever we are successful in corrections.

About the author

Gene Atherton is currently in his 40th year of service in the criminal justice field. He served 27 years for the Colorado Department of Corrections. After promoting thru the ranks, he became Director of Prisons for the Western Region in Colorado until retirement in 2004. For the last fifteen years Mr. Atherton has served as a technical assistance consultant and trainer for the National Institute of Corrections on a variety of topics related to corrections. He has served as an author of numerous ACA publications. He has served as mentor to Afghan Corrections Leadership and as a subject matter expert to the United States Embassy in Afghanistan. He has provided evidence in Federal Court as an expert witness on a variety of correctional issues, including conditions of confinement, use of force, unlawful discrimination, and management of high risk offenders. He is currently serving as an expert for the United States Department of Justice in the application of the CRIPA act to the Alabama Department of Corrections. Finally, Mr. Atherton currently serves as a member of several committees for the American Correctional Association, and as an ACA standards compliance auditor for the nation of Mexico.

Atherton joins CorrectionsOne through the Correctional Management Institute of Texas. See all the CMIT columnists here.

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