By Frank Drebin
What has happened to the corrections system in Arizona? It seems to have shifted its focus from punishment to rehabilitation. Rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society for worthy inmates is certainly a desirable result from incarceration, however, without a punitive component there is no deterrent effect. There are countless studies by researchers and mental health professionals condemning a punitive-based system and endless data to support their arguments. One thing I’ve noticed about many of the studies is the lack of concern for the victims, victims’ families, and others affected by the offenders’ crimes. Where is the deterrent effect in our prisons? For some inmates their quality of life is better in prison than when they were out. All of their basic needs are met without work requirements. They have time to recreate often. They have access to cable television, video games, board games, music, movies, prison athletic events, educational and vocational opportunities, visitation with family and friends, etc. When some inmates come back to prison it is reminiscent of a homecoming event. An experienced corrections officer that has been in the trenches and has no agenda will most likely tell you the system is broken and is getting increasingly worse with every passing year. He doesn’t need an “empty suit” spewing statistics and mitigating issues that the officer knows are problematic for corrections personnel and society at large. The problems are complex to solve because the system is broken on so many levels. Previous prison administrators and politicians have kicked the can down the road for years, unable or unwilling to fix them. I believe the most notable areas of concern are staffing, safety and administrative issues, working conditions, and infrastructure. Many of those problem areas overlap but I will briefly present some of them.
Staffing issues continue to plague most corrections departments. Recruiting and retention is usually affected by low pay, poor morale, poor working conditions, and supervisory issues. Some departments have poor vetting processes and have lowered entry standards because of high turnover rates. The result is many employees being hired that have criminal histories, integrity issues, work ethic problems, issues involving personal and professional conduct, and lack of maturity. The Arizona Departments of Corrections is hiring teenagers to staff prison control rooms to bolster staffing levels and reduce staffing costs. The employees have not attended a correctional academy. They’ve had very little training and are responsible for controlling critical security areas of the prisons.
Staff safety is a concern in many correctional institutions primarily because of low staffing levels, a growing prison population, and recent spurious reclassification efforts. Those inmate reclassifications were devised to eliminate maximum custody levels and facilitate court-ordered inmate programs. Inmates previously considered actual or potential threats to staff or other inmates were somehow deemed safe to walk freely, or under escort without the use of mechanical restraints. Housing units on medium-custody prison yards are routinely understaffed unless a major incident occurs. Staffing levels and safety concerns are then typically temporarily addressed until public scrutiny and media exposure fades.
Administrative issues have been problematic for staff and institutional efficiency for years. There seems to be a disconnect between many upper-level managers and lower-level employees in many departments. There have been many different management and training systems introduced over the years. They are always presented with enthusiasm and touted as great achievements by upper-level management. Many employees see the presentations as nothing more than empty rhetoric. Despite all of the data, charts, and graphs presented, they feel they are just more management gimmicks that will fade away just like the others before them. The bottom line is that many employees are still disengaged, lack commitment, and feel unsatisfied with their jobs. They see myriad management issues, including: cronyism, micro-management, poor communication, no transparency, incompetence, lack of leadership, harassment, bullying, retaliation, flawed promotional systems, and poor supervisory training and supervision. An abundance of managers appear to be uninterested in finding solutions or solving existing problems within the correctional system. They seem to be satisfied with the status quo and are more interested with their own career development than assisting staff, and truly caring about staff needs. They are just putting in time at their current assignment and avoid or create controversy until they can move on to the next promotion or undertaking. That mentality creates divisiveness, and a lack of trust and confidence in management that affects the agency mission.
Working conditions are an important area of concern because studies have indicated that pay is important to a point but many employees value a supportive, happy workplace over monetary rewards. Prisons are dismal environments to work in. The hours are long, and employees have many restrictions concerning what they can bring into a prison setting, including personal items and food. Many prison environments are unsanitary, and health hazards exist in certain facilities. The work is labor-intensive in some units with burdensome workloads expected to be completed within unrealistic time frames. The work is often done with insufficient tools to properly perform the job. Department policies and post orders sometimes conflict with the work environment. For example, one corrections officer is assigned to an area to oversee inmate movement and activities that require two officers. Some employees are subjected to mandatory workplace rotations, and frequent changes in their staffing assignments to accommodate employee shortages. The system fosters a work-life culture that is not supportive of family life. Hard-working, productive staff members typically receive more physically demanding assignments that require more responsibility. Staff members that exhibit bad behavior or incompetence are usually rewarded with easier assignments or more favorable work-site locations. Many managers simply want to get the daily job done with as little controversy as possible. They are also mindful of department efforts to reduce high employee turnover. Rather than severely punish or terminate recalcitrant or poor-performing employees, they are often moved elsewhere to become a burden for other staff members.
The inmate population is another source of stress for staff members. A recent landmark lawsuit against the state regarding health care issues and conditions of confinement has cowed prison administrators. That court decision emboldened inmates and led to the cultivation of an entitlement culture within the inmate population. Inmates now have more out-of-cell time for recreation, educational classes, and job opportunities. Health care, including mental health care needs were ostensibly improved. Inmates receive more visitation time, increased commissary, and other privileges, including the playing of video games on large screen monitors, and movie nights in the medium-custody facilities. Staff are subjected to more scrutiny by management concerning their interactions with inmates. It has created apathy and a reactive rather than proactive mentality among staff members. They are concerned that increased inmate interactions will lead to accusations of impropriety or potential legal entanglements.
Infrastructure is a concern because many institutional buildings are in a state of disrepair, and pose potential hazards to staff and inmates. Some departments have high-mileage vehicle fleets that are poorly maintained and need to be replaced. Technological updates need to be implemented. We are in the information age , and yet many reports, accountability logs, and journals are still being hand-written. Isn’t it time for some sort of a change? Sweeping these issues under the carpet only endangers staff and more importantly the public.