Today's prison culture is focused on custody, control and care of inmates, and thus, the focus is often put on security and the inmates. This singular focus has created some serious problems for prison staff, resulting in high employee turnover, physical and psychological problems. What is the solution to this problem we have created? Security is an important part of the answer, but there is much more to the answer than just security.
Security is a necessary condition, but it does not guarantee the safety of staff, and that should be our primary focus. During my 24 years of providing Team-building Attitude Conflict Transformation (TACT) (1) trainings, staff members frequently comment about not feeling physically or psychologically safe. This is evident when prison staff members talk about coming to work and feeling their stress level dramatically increase. Security alone does not ensure either physical or psychological safety; it is a means to an end, not the end itself.
Security is like money. People often say if they had more money they would be happy. Yet, when asked if money guarantees happiness, they say it does not. If it did, then everyone with enough money to pay their bills and save for the future would be happy, and that is simply not the case. However, happiness primarily comes from connection with others and engaging in meaningful and rewarding activities. When people become obsessed with making money, they often sacrifice friends, family and their own happiness in the process. It is the same with security. If we become obsessed with it, we sacrifice psychological safety and also, to some extent, physical safety. A lack of psychological safety leads to system breakdown, procedures not being followed and high turnover resulting in working short staffed, which adds to the already high level of stress.
Security is necessary, but if it is our only focus, it creates the "us vs. them" environment we are currently experiencing. This "us vs. them" condition certainly exists between staff and inmates, but more significantly, it exists among staff, between staff and supervisors, and between staff and administration. This results in low morale, high turnover, short staffed, shortened life expectancy [20 years] (2) and high rates of depression, PTSD, divorce, substance abuse and suicide. (3) All of these are an indication of a lack of psychological safety. This produces an "us vs. them" environment, which will never ensure safety and negatively impacts empathy, a necessary skill for effective teamwork, healthy relationships and effective supervision. (4) Staff members have consistently reported to me that they leave correctional services because of negative relationships with other staff, poor supervision and not feeling supported by administration. Herein lies the key to transforming the culture in our prisons and reversing this negative impact on staff. In order for there to be safety in prisons, there must be a combination of security, staff empowerment and inmates engaged cooperatively.
Staff members may feel disempowered because of a lack of support/cooperation from other staff (making them feel vulnerable to inmates), poor supervision that demeans or belittles them and the feeling that administration fears inmates more than...