Why civilians should be part of your corrections team

Creating partnerships between correctional facilities and their surrounding communities will improve your level of service


The majority of civilians have no idea what happens inside a correctional facility. Most of the American population enjoys total ignorance of the work environment correctional officers face every day until an incident in a correctional facility ends up in the news. What is often missing when these news stories are published is the context of what led up to a reported incident and the steps that were taken before, during and after the event in order to keep staff, inmates and the surrounding community safe.

The new partnership paradigm

In today’s socio-political environment there is an expectation of complete transparency of all law enforcement operations. With civilian review boards overseeing law enforcement operations, and audio and video recordings readily available to the community, it is critical that the public becomes better educated about correctional facility operations.

A CO holds a pair of handcuffs to be put on a condemned inmate about to leave an exercise yard death row at San Quentin State Prison Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016, in San Quentin, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
A CO holds a pair of handcuffs to be put on a condemned inmate about to leave an exercise yard death row at San Quentin State Prison Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2016, in San Quentin, Calif. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Fortunately, there are two groups within our communities who can provide a bridge between the corrections world and the public.

The first group are civilians who work alongside sworn staff. The civilians who work in jails and prisons are some of our best advocates as they can explain how sworn staff conduct their duties and why. 

Unfortunately, civilians working within a jail or prison have traditionally been treated as outsiders to varying degrees. This practice has been a disservice to the corrections field. It is more important than ever to bridge the gap between civilian and sworn staff.

Instead of seeing facility chaplains, correctional nurses, educators, mental health care providers and other civilians who have regular contact with your inmates as standing in the way of your duties, treat them as part of your team. Include civilian staff in appropriate trainings with sworn staff and include them when you gather information to make changes in the way you do business. They will share their understanding and empathy for your duties with their friends and family members.

There is a second group of civilians who can help improve community understanding of correctional facility operations and challenges. Community stakeholders are those civilians trusted by other members of the community to advocate on behalf of the public. This group is generally made up of elected and appointed officials but can also include other interested parties.

I recently attended a three-day critical incident training where our sheriff invited members of the local grand jury to the training. The members of our grand jury sat through the entire training and participated, along with many members of law enforcement, in the discourse that occurred during the training.

By the end of the training, the grand jury members had a much more accurate perspective of how corrections staff respond to critical incidents, specifically involving mental health patients. This civilian panel also learned what was being done (through the training) to improve services to the community. During breaks and lunch, the members of the grand jury had opportunities, through frank discussions, to delve into the realities faced by correctional staff on the ground.

The benefits of transparency

Why invite an untrained and inexperienced group to see how corrections staff members do the job day in and day out? Are we not opening a conduit for potential criticism of our methods? I would argue that we are, but that this process could serve to improve our methods in corrections and bring them in closer alignment with the communities we serve. It also dispels misunderstandings community members may have about how correctional facilities operate and increases understanding about what happens in jails and prison.

Treat members of the civilian world as partners and, in time, you will find that your community, fortified with a healthy perspective about the realities of our institutional environment, will respond with empathy for the difficult job you do.

Next steps

Correctional facilities should safely and within the boundaries of confidentiality conduct regular tours in order to remove the curtain of mystery from these institutions. Facility tours are a good opportunity for the community to ask questions to understand the realities of life in our jails and prisons. Command staff should have regular dialogue with community stakeholders in order to share and address concerns.

Running a correctional facility where operations are transparent to the community can improve public perspective about corrections and give communities less room for wrongful interpretations when major incidents occur. In bringing a community closer to the correctional environment, we also create stronger partnerships in society, thereby spreading the responsibilities of inmate incarceration and rehabilitation to our civilian partners and improving our expected level of service to the community.

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