Why so many corrections jobs go unfilled: prison culture needs changing

Last spring, 21 percent of all congressionally-funded corrections officer positions were vacant. The situation is so dire that in some prisons, teachers, case managers, and even secretaries have been tasked with covering open positions, even though they’ve only had the most basic safety training.

Why are correctional positions so hard to fill? Salary, certainly, is a consideration — corrections officers are infamously underpaid. But could the answer also be a bigger, deeper issue than money?

Could current prison culture be a major staffing deterrent?

Public welfare (police, corrections, and courts) is a state and local government budget category that exceeds those of both education and healthcare. But the leadership development resources available to wardens of correctional facilities are meager in comparison. As a result, prison culture and its environment have changed very little over the years.

While leadership does have access to new learning programs, they focus primarily on management strategies — such as how to count 1,000 people in 15 minutes, or options for intervention if there’s a hunger strike. But opportunities to learn about shifting prison culture in ways significant enough to solve understaffing problems, are few and far between.

That’s what makes programs like the Warden Exchange so unique. This novel program seeks to create safer prisons and facilitate justice through transformational leadership. It empowers wardens — a group often stereotyped as hard and uncaring — to instead see themselves as powerful change-makers.

This radical model is based on simple principles. For example, you can’t disrespect someone into being respectful. Another example: Men and women in prison, like all of us, learn who they are and how the world works by observing the people around them.

Transforming the culture within prisons starts with those in charge. Wardens can come to understand that a sentence itself is supposed to be the punishment. Their own role should not be additionally punitive, but rather one that facilitates personal transformation.

This idea that true rehabilitation starts by changing the dynamics within the prison is somewhat new and gaining traction nationwide.

In the prisons of the more than 440 wardens trained in this model, change is happening. Prisoners and staff alike say they can feel the culture shift. This could be the key to making prisons a place where people are willing to work.

If one warden in one prison at a time began to make these changes, we could see a dramatic shift in the landscape of correctional facilities across the country — a shift that benefits employees, the people living inside, and society as a whole.

Almost 1.9 million people are currently incarcerated in the U.S., and most will be released back into the community at some point. It is imperative that we create an environment inside prison walls where men and women are taught to be the kind of neighbors we all would want one day — people with integrity, who are reliable and who want to contribute to the community in positive ways.

Teaching leaders how to treat incarcerated individuals differently can make a life-changing impact long term. But how does a culture shift actually happen?

To start, correctional officers can use prisoners’ first names instead of calling them “inmates” or “offenders.” They can refer to cells as “rooms.” These adjustments may seem trivial, but words matter, and the simple act of changing the way we speak to incarcerated individuals — even in reference to their living arrangements — reminds them of their dignity and worth.

These small shifts already help prepare eligible individuals for reentry into the community and cultivate respect between corrections officers and prisoners, building relational skills they will need upon release.

Wardens can also start to look for ways to say “yes,” which is key to fostering positive self-determination, an idea with enormous repercussions for individuals upon release.

It is also important to address the underlying issues of criminal behavior, foster gifts and talents, help individuals develop coping strategies and offer education and skill-building. When we provide incarcerated people with the tools necessary to be successful and productive members of society, far-reaching economic and public safety benefits will follow.

It is possible to teach incarcerated individuals how to be good citizens, but we need to start that process while they’re still in prison.

When these changes are implemented, they lead to authentic transformation in the lives of those living behind bars — and a different culture in which to work and live.

It’s time we insist the culture inside prison walls move from being punishment-driven to one that is rehabilitative, respectful and restorative. This is true justice. This is how lives are rebuilt. And this is what modern-day corrections can look like.

Given the current circumstances, surely it’s worth a try.

Dan Kingery is the executive vice president of correctional advancement at Prison Fellowship.

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