Correctional staff attitudes after one year of employment: perceptions of leniency and support for inmate rehabilitation.

Author:Young, Jacqueline L.

Correctional staff are frequently the subjects of research studies that examine the culture of a prison or jail. For example, some research has explored staff burnout (Carson and Thomas, 2006; Garland, 2004; Garner, Knight and Simpson, 2007), job satisfaction and retention (Lambert and Hogan, 2009; Tipton, 2002), use of force (Griffin, 2002; Hemmens and Stohr, 2001), career goals (Shaffer, 1999) and stress (Armstrong and Griffin, 2004; Belcastro, Gold and Grant, 1982; Griffin, 2006; Lambert and Cluse-Tolar, 2007; Lambert and Paoline, 2008), while other studies have examined the level of support correctional staff have for rehabilitation programs. Findings from these studies showed that females (Gordon, 1999; Hemmens and Stohr, 2000; Stohr et al., 2000), racial minorities (Cullen et al., 1989; Maahs and Pratt, 2001; Paboojian and Teske, 1997) and older or tenured staff (Cullen et al., 1989; Farkas, 1999; Farkas, 2000; Maahs and Pratt, 2001; Paboojian and Teske, 1997; Stohr et al., 2000) supported inmate treatment and rehabilitation programs more than males, whites and younger staff.

Beyond these staff characteristics, prior studies also found that support for rehabilitation varied by job category. This was particularly evident for correctional officers versus noncorrectional officers, with the latter group viewing treatment more favorably than the former (Antonio, Young and Wingeard, 2009; Antonio, Young and Wingeard, foKhcoming; Gordon, 1999; Kifer, Hemmens and Stohr, 2003; Robinson, Porporino and Simourd, 1993). Specifically, these Findings revealed that clerical and treatment staff expressed higher levels of support for rehabilitation and were more oriented toward human services (Robinson et al., 1996). In contrast, correctional officers tended to report more punitive attitudes and were less inclined to understand or recognize the benefits of rehabilitation (Gordon, 1999; Lariviere and Robinson, 1996).

As Lariviere and Robinson (1996) discovered, a similar trend held when examining staff in additional job categories, including labor and administrative support positions. Correctional officers and labor/technical staff indicated the lowest levels of support for inmate rehabilitation and tended to adopt a more favorable attitude toward retribution and punitive behaviors. In contrast, health care professionals, programs staff and supervisors/managers reported the most support of inmate rehabilitation. Prior research from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) found similar results, as newly hired treatment and clerical staff recognized better than correctional officers that staff support of treatment programs impacts inmate rehabilitation outcomes, and that staff actions and interactions with others can make a correctional facility a more positive, rehabilitation-focused environment (Antonio, Young and Wingeard, 2009; Antonio, Young and Wingeard, forthcoming).

This study expands on these findings by presenting responses from staff who were employed by PADOC for approximately one year. Qualitative responses to questions about the importance of studying staff support of inmate rehabilitation and perceived leniency toward inmates were analyzed. The focus of this article was to determine whether employee attitudes toward rehabilitation and perceived leniency varied by job category. Given prior research, it was believed that maintenance personnel and correctional officers would place less importance on studying staff attitudes, as earlier research found these groups to be less supportive of rehabilitation in general (Gordon, 1999; Kifer et al., 2003; Robinson et al., 1993). It was also expected that maintenance personnel and correctional officers would report a stronger preference for following correctional rules rather than allowing for leniency toward inmates. This hypothesis was shaped by prior research indicating that these groups exhibited more punitive and rule-oriented attitudes (Young, Antonio and Wingeard, 2009; Lariviere and Robinson, 1996; Robinson et al., 1996).

Reinforcing Positive Behavior

To evaluate the attitudes that prison staff have about inmate treatment and rehabilitation, PADOC developed a two-hour training seminar called Reinforcing Positive Behavior (RPB) that was delivered to new employees during their required orientation to the department. RPB exposed new employees to PADOC's approach to inmate treatment, explained the principles on which programs are based, and clarified the roles and responsibilities of correctional staff for reinforcing positive behavior in a prison. A basic premise of the training was that staff support of inmate treatment and rehabilitation can positively impact inmate behavior. This positive impact occurs when staff use inmate interactions to teach and reinforce treatment concepts and when staff serve as role models by consistently demonstrating desired behaviors. Evaluations conducted by PADOC showed that the RPB training was effective for improving staff attitudes about inmate treatment and rehabilitation efforts (Antonio, Young and Wingeard, 2009; Antonio, Young and Wingeard, forthcoming).

Because findings from the original analyses were favorable toward the immediate effectiveness of the RPB training for improving new employees' attitudes, research efforts were refined to focus on the long-term effects of the training. The decision was made to reassess staff who received the two-hour RPB training during their orientation at a time interval of one year after being employed by PADOC. A self-administered survey was designed and delivered to these staff members to gauge their responses. The purpose of the current analysis was to evaluate variations among staff attitudes about perceived leniency shown toward inmates and the importance of studying inmate treatment and rehabilitation efforts. The one-year follow-up survey was comprehensive and collected responses from open-ended and close-ended questions. Findings gathered from both lines of questioning were examined.


PADOC keeps detailed records about all employees who attend the new employee orientation, including the date the training was completed and the name of the state facility where individuals are employed. Using these records, it was possible to determine when each new employee completed his or her first year of employment with PADOC and the institution where he or she could be contacted. A sampling strategy was designed based on this information.

One-year follow-up surveying of correctional staff began in November 2007. Employees who received these surveys had completed one year of employment at PADOC and were the first to participate in the RPB training during their orientation. Each employee in that class received a package that included a letter requesting their participation in the study, the actual survey instrument and a self-addressed envelope. The letter informed staff that their participation was voluntary and asked them to complete the survey, as their responses would help with future training and curriculum development. Staff were instructed not to put their names or any other self-identifying information on the survey.

After completing the survey, staff were instructed to place it in the self-addressed envelope, seal the envelope and return it to the institution's mailroom, where it would be delivered to the research and evaluation office for analysis. This process continued for every employee who received the RPB training and was employed at PADOC for one year. From November 2007 through November 2008, responses were collected from 465 staff members employed in state correctional institutions, community corrections centers and central administration offices.


Table 1 shows staff characteristics of the employees included in this analysis for the full sample of respondents and when separated by job category. The full sample of respondents (N = 465) reveals that the majority were male (55.9 percent), white (89.9 percent) and young (38.0 years old). This sample represents a 39.4 percent response rate among all eligible respondents. The table also shows that 107 clerical support, 51 maintenance personnel, 133 treatment staff and 174 correctional officers completed and returned surveys. The largest differences among the job categories were found when examining response rates. Overall, clerical support, treatment staff, and maintenance personnel reported higher response rates (64.7 percent, 60.1 percent, and 58.1 percent, respectively) compared with correctional officers (24.7 percent).


Structured questions. On the survey, staff were asked two questions about the importance of studying staff attitudes concerning inmate rehabilitation and about perceptions of leniency shown toward inmates. Specifically, staff were asked to respond "yes" or "no" to the following question: "Do you think your institution is too lenient on inmates?" Staff also were asked to respond on a range from "not important" to "extremely important" to the following question: "Overall, how important is it that PADOC study staff attitudes about inmate treatment and rehabilitation efforts?" The percentage of...

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