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Trial Service Year – P003

June 9th, 2009 No comments

What matters is not what any individual thinks, but what is true. A teacher who does not equip his pupils with the rudimentary tools to discover this is substituting indoctrination [orientation] for teaching.

-Richard Stanley Peters

ralph-waldo-emerson

Visit Quote Snack for a great look at this quotation!

NEO Training Part 1
NEO, or New Employee Orientation, is what prospective Correctional Officers (CO’s) are subjected to in their first week of employment at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP). I mention this specifically for OSP because not all Oregon correctional facilities train their employees in the same fashion, nor does each institution necessarily use the same materials for their training; in fact, some institutions do not have a NEO training week. There are both pros and cons to this reality; however, I am primarily concerned with OSP – so the focus will remain on OSP’s version of preparing a prospective CO for the realities of employment in a correctional setting.

Considering the 3″ binder full of OSP’s policies, procedures, and post orders, as well as the Department of Corrections’ rules and regulatory instructions, my peer group’s training sergeant did a pretty reasonable job of covering an enormous amount of disparate information. Unlike New York, new COs in Oregon are not sent to the training academy prior to starting their job. OSP chooses to deal with this lack of training by providing a one week crash course. In Oregon, if a new CO, or in New York’s parlance, a New Jack (a CO still serving their one year of trial [read probationary] service), makes it through NEO and the first few months of “sink or swim,” then the new CO is sent to the training academy. That little gem right there is worth a post all its own!

Back on point! So there we were, my peer group and five days of mind numbingly tedious information interspersed with a few fun moments thanks to our training sergeant. One of the points that were hammered home was the need for consistency. Several of the instructors said something close to, “straight up people, better to be a consistent asshole than to be a wishy-washy chocolate heart.” Often enough that statement was followed up with something along the lines of “mind you, I’m not telling you to be an asshole – only that a consistent asshole is better than an indecisive or inconsistent officer.”

Virtually every OSP post order has some version of this imperative: Staff will be totally consistent and uniform in enforcing all applicable DOC rules and policies and OSP procedures and directives. Somewhere along here I think it becomes obvious why I included the Emerson quotation. I think too, that the Peters quotation starts to make a little sense. The incredible emphasis on total consistency calls to mind the very bureaucrats that most of us despise. That a person would spend more time seeking the right pigeonhole in order to apply a “consistent” rule than to exercise a little creative/flexible thinking in order to find a reasonable solution to a problem should seem absurd to an American! And yet…

Too often, new COs walk away with an overwhelming affinity for the notion of consistency – because it removes the necessity to think and take a risk in decision making. Too often, the people training new COs rely on indoctrination methods rather than sound teaching methods in order to produce an officer with the tools to get at the truth of a matter or to think on his feet. Now then, after making these kinds of observations don’t make the mistake of assuming I think I am the best CO around! There are several officers that I think are better at the job. But the point really isn’t who the best is – it’s how to make us all better at the job.

In a budget crisis, we all know, the very first things to get cut out of the budget are education, training, and “in-service” instruction. It’s cheaper to indoctrinate than teach, and that is simple economics. However, our on-the-job (OJT) training could be much better. Take a look at SB – 257 (which aims at removing academy training) and think about it in practical terms. We do need to work with each other to do the best with what we’ve got! There are two things we can do here.

First, avoid that “foolish consistency.” I made a point of quoting a section common to most of OSPs post orders. The reason is twofold:

  1. It was one of the most often repeated elements in NEO and OJT, and
  2. How often the very NEXT imperative was NOT mentioned in tandem with a reasonable consistency.

This is how, dear reader, you know this isn’t just some negative screed. The writers of the post orders knew what a “foolish consistency” was and immediately followed the “consistency imperative” with a “mature thinking” imperative. If both elements were properly emphasized, then the writers had every reason to expect it would help prevent that very “foolish consistency.” What is that next imperative in the post orders?

Due to the large numbers of inmates typically present within the zone of control, it is especially important that all assigned staff exercise self-restraint and maturity of judgment as they enforce guidelines in a timely, decisive, impartial, and unobtrusive manner.

The second thing we can do is advocate for reasonable training. The idea that training can be computer based in an officer’s “spare time on the job” as worked out with his supervisor is – well, errant nonsense seems a kind way to put it. Unless a concerted effort is made by the top of the food chain to take the training seriously by supporting, scheduling, and TEACHING, it hardly seems reasonable to presume the bottom of the food chain will invest any more concern than the top of the food chain. Let’s make the most of our NEO training time (and our in-service training time).

Phew! I didn’t even manage to get to the videos we watched or the environmental conditions of the training… perhaps next week. Until then, take heart Oregon public – OSP truly is full of dedicated officers doing their best with what they’ve been provided, and THAT, is good news indeed.

Cheers!

Trial Service Year – P002

May 25th, 2009 No comments

One Person’s Creepy is Another Person’s Cool

When I showed up for the interview, I wasn’t really expecting a tour of the facilities. I wasn’t really sure why the management at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) wanted to provide a tour before they actually hired any of us, but something my wife said did come to mind:

An Older OSP

An Older Version of OSP (Click for more history)

When I applied to be a Corrections Officer (CO), one of the first interviews I accepted was at OSP. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I would turn down any interview offers from OSP – the place gave me the creeps!

Creeps? It didn’t take me very long to realize what it was she was talking about. The original buildings of OSP were opened for inspection in October of 1872, and though the prison has been through many upgrades and improvements, the age and general disrepair of many parts of the prison show up early in the tour. Though I understood why it gave my wife the creeps, for me, applying some six years after she applied for the job, the prison’s age and the fact that it is Oregon’s only maximum security prison made it appealing for both employment and direct research. Additionally, I had already made a few friends that worked at OSP. More important, one of my uncles had also worked and retired from the prison. Some of his comments made the prospect of employment at Oregon’s oldest prison even more appealing.

The older a prison is, the more likely it is for the operations to stray from established policy and protocol. The reasons for this are probably obvious in some areas and not so obvious in other areas. One of the more obvious reasons is that architecture dictates many elements of security. The more modern a prison is, the more likely it is that the prison’s operational practices actually reflect both the state and departmental policies. One of the less obvious areas to those unfamiliar with trying to change ingrained operational procedures is the difficulty in obtaining complete stakeholder support for changes in policy and operational procedure. If that doesn’t seem clear, then just think of it this way:

You are a new hire attending New Employee Orientation (NEO), and you are trained to do a specific task in a very specific manner. You finish training and the first time you attempt to perform that specific task a senior employee makes it clear you are performing that task the wrong way. You politely explain what you learned in NEO, and the senior employee makes it clear that the NEO training isn’t worth paying attention to because “we’ve always done it THIS way.”

Having a military background – well, it sort of prepares you for this kind of thinking. It also prepares you for the fact that despite this practice, you will also run across very effective and organized leaders and supervisors that find yet another way of getting the job done.

For my wife, it was the age, mustiness, smell, peeling paint, asbestos, etc., that made OSP creepy. For me, those same things made my imagination wander – wondering what the place was like when it was closer to “new.”

Perhaps the “three hour tour” was simply a way to let one know the working and environmental conditions. My wife ultimately chose to accept a CO position at the brand new women’s facility. I turned down a few other offers in order to get hired at OSP. Another important reason for taking the position at OSP is simply that it is almost the same age as New York’s Sing Sing, and that makes for a better comparison to Ted Conover’s experiences in New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing. At any rate, the next installment of my trial service year is probably obvious… NEO training.

Trial Service Year – P001

May 19th, 2009 No comments

I’m late after only two weeks! I told myself I’d make a post each Monday, and here it is Tuesday – worse still, my daughter sent me an email telling me to get off my apathy and get to work. Though I saw plenty of sparkles this past week, I didn’t make the time to comment. So, I’m now making the time to comment on one of the primary purposes of this blog, i.e., corrections as a function of our criminal justice system.

Previously, I mentioned that Ted Conover’s New Jack: Guarding Sing Sing played an important role in my desire to publish this blog. New Jack, in short, is the story of Ted Convover’s trial service year as a corrections officer in the New York Department of Correctional Services (DOCS). I wanted to serve at least a year in a maximum security prison and compare the experience. I plied my trade during my trial service year in the Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC). Part of this blog will be a comparison of my trial service year to Conover’s trial service year. There are some disturbing similarities and differences. More common however, is the day to day grind like any other job.

Once the initial trial service year has been compared, I plan to move on to a more robust discussion of the prison experience here in Oregon. Conover mentions, and most experienced corrections officers and management personnel make it plain, that becoming a seasoned officer requires 2-5 years of service on the job. This may seem a peculiar research method, but I liked the idea and admired Conover’s courage to step into a job he may have been ill suited to perform.

Generally, I’ll follow Conover’s lead in being marginally chronological in the telling of the tale; however, I’ll also take some excursions away from the time line to develop other ideas and experiences. Conover opens his book with what might be taken as a typical arrival at work – and a stark description of all the fear and angst he claims officers feel when they arrive. He also includes a clear and compelling description and short history of Sing Sing, New York’s third prison. I’ll also hunt down some history for my prison experience, but I’ll also try to limit any bibliographical material to that which I’ve actually read and used in my writing.

I’ll see you at the front gate by next week.

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