Justice Today

Enhancing Corrections Spaces and Cultures

May 07, 2024 Bureau of Justice Assistance Season 3 Episode 2
Enhancing Corrections Spaces and Cultures
Justice Today
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Justice Today
Enhancing Corrections Spaces and Cultures
May 07, 2024 Season 3 Episode 2
Bureau of Justice Assistance

The nations prisons and jails are struggling to recruit and retain staff. These staffing challenges impact re-entry efforts and overall public safety.

In this episode of Justice Today, hear from former Bureau of Justice Assistance fellow Dr. Danielle Rudes on how leaders can make correctional institutions better for staff and residents.

Also read the corresponding blog post.

Show Notes Transcript

The nations prisons and jails are struggling to recruit and retain staff. These staffing challenges impact re-entry efforts and overall public safety.

In this episode of Justice Today, hear from former Bureau of Justice Assistance fellow Dr. Danielle Rudes on how leaders can make correctional institutions better for staff and residents.

Also read the corresponding blog post.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, otherwise known as OJP. We shine a light on cutting-edge research and practices and offer an in-depth look at what we're doing to meet our time's most significant public safety challenges.

Join us as we explore how funding science and technology help us achieve strong communities. I'm your host, Karen Friedman. I am the Director of Criminal Justice Innovation, Development, and Engagement at OJP's Bureau of Justice Assistance otherwise known as BJA.

The first week of May is National Correctional Officers Week. Correctional officers are essential in our public safety system, balancing custody and rehabilitation. Correctional institutions nationwide have long struggled to recruit and retain staff, but the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the situation is particularly dire.

In 2022, the number of people working for state prisons hit its lowest in over two decades. Today, we will discuss the impact of this recruitment and retention crisis in the nation's correctional facilities with Danielle Rudes, PhD.

Dr. Rudes is a criminal justice and criminology professor at Sam Houston State University in Texas. She's also the Deputy Director of the Center for Advancing Correctional Excellence, otherwise known as ACE, and a fellow with the Bureau of Justice Assistance Focusing on Enhancing Correctional Spaces and Cultures.

Thank you so much for being here with us today, Dr. Rudes.

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: Thank you, it is my pleasure.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: So what made you want to focus your research on corrections and culture?

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: Well, there's a couple: there's a personal reason and then there's a professional reason. On the personal side, I grew up in Upstate New York, and it is a landscape that is littered with prisons. Almost everyone I know either works for a prison or is married to or related to someone who works in a prison, and it got bigger as I was growing up there.

So, corrections has always been something that I'm interested in because there were prisons all around me and I didn't understand them as a kid growing up. Professionally, though, the research on corrections and culture for this fellowship is really because the BJA asked for it. I've been studying prisons for quite a long time and the BJA fellowship was posted during the pandemic, and the focus was on correctional spaces and cultures, and I read it and I literally thought, for the first time ever, ‘they wrote this for me.’

Like, it was meant to be mine. It's everything that I've been studying my whole professional career and everything that I wanted to be to get inside and really take a good look at corrections and culture, the environmental and physical spaces of that place, and what it means to live and work in those carceral institutions.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: That's so interesting. Now, I know when you started your fellowship, we were at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, how did the pandemic impact your research?

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: It was definitely challenging. I found out that I got the award during the time that the U.S. was still pretty much all on lockdown. So going into these institutions, which is what I had proposed to do, interviews with the staff and the residence there was not possible.

I begin conversations with the BJA, I work with a woman named Sara Sullivan there, she was my grant manager. And I just got a list of places that I wanted to go, places that I knew, places that she knew, contacts that we had, and I started reaching out. Typically, it takes me, usually, between six months to a year to get a prison to agree to let me in, for my team to go through all the background checks for all the--you know, we're jumping through all the hoops, making sure we got everything lined up, so it was okay. At the beginning of the research though, the first few prisons we went to, we were masked. And the masks are necessary, obviously, but definitely were troubling for someone like me and the way that I do my research, requires personal conversations with people, we sit with them for an hour. So, you know, we…

KAREN FRIEDMAN: Yeah. It creates a barrier.

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: Yeah. We practice a lot with, you know, nonverbal expressions. We try to be empathetic; we try to be really engaged, and it's hard when half of your face is covered, you're like, oh. So we practice with our eyes, trying to be really--you know, it was just--it was hard to build rapport with the people that we were interviewing but I think they've just been through something really horrific, right? The pandemic wasn't great to anyone. It was particularly harsh in prisons and jails.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: I think they were just happy to have someone to talk to, both the staff and the residents were overwhelmingly gracious, wanting to talk to us. And so I think, you know, it was good and bad. I think we made it work but it wasn't ideal.

But about halfway through, we got rid of our masks, we were able to go into prisons and jails like our normal selves, right, without our face being covered and it was a lot easier to make real connections with people when we were talking to them.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: Yeah. Yeah. And despite all this, right, you eventually were able to conduct more than 600 interviews with staff and individuals who are incarcerated in prisons and jail, which is amazing. So what did you find?

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: Well, so the fellowship was focused on three different things, and I think all three things are kind of important for the findings. They really wanted information and I wanted information about the culture, the spaces. They also had some focus areas on COVID, how COVID procedures were rolled out in these institutions, and sort of what the feelings were both during the pandemic—the height of the pandemic, and then post—which is kind of where we were for most of the study. And a large focus of the fellowship was on correctional staff training.

So when we went in to do interviews, we asked questions around all of those issues and we added other things in that are directly tied to culture. We asked questions about health, physical, and psychological health. We asked questions about violence, we asked questions about just the general day-to-day living conditions or working conditions inside the space, so all three of those were big. I think a couple of big findings. I think the—we're still analyzing, so I don't want to put—I don't have it all figured out yet but the biggest finding, I think, is not new to the study but is new at this level. It's rare for individuals to get the kind of access that we had and to do studies of both prisons and jails of both staff and residents at the same time, and get the kind of numbers that we got. I think we're at about 680 something.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: The big finding for me was that the staff and the residents, I think they want dignity.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: They want not to be harmed, and they want not to harm each other inside the institutional space. And that's something that, systemically, isn't working for them.

The way the prisons and jails are designed, the way the policies are enforced or, you know, created—creates—a situation where they often feel disrespected, put-upon, definitely harmed, they feel psychologically and physically at risk in lots of different ways. And I was fascinated not just by correctional officers, and I know it's Correctional Officer Week, but it was just staff in general, so we interviewed everyone at any position in the institution. And it was really fascinating how much the staff wanted to be helpful to each other and to the residents. And something that most people probably don't know, maybe the folks listening to your podcast know, but most people don't know that in general, the residents actually want to be helpful to the staff and they want to be helpful to each other. It's pretty rare that they discuss a scenario where they're trying to be hurtful to someone else or to themselves. In most cases, they feel like there isn't a lot of options.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: Yeah. I mean, in my position, I spend a lot of time in prisons and jails a lot and I find the same things that you're talking about. You know, when I talk to residents, when I talk to staff, that human dignity piece is so important. Everything you're saying, it so resonates with my experience, the safety aspect, the desire to really have relationships that create a rehabilitative environment and just the, you know, the desire for safety on both sides, all of that, I find to be so true, really resonates with me so strongly.

Now, I know that, you know, one of the things that also I hear every time I go into a facility is the issue of staff retention and just staffing in general. And we know that the number of people who work in state correctional systems have dropped by 10% just since 2019. And I would love if you could share with our listeners how that impacts staff and the culture inside the jails and prisons.

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: Yeah. It's incredibly tough. It's a very hard environment to work in under regular staffing levels. What we're—what I saw—this last time out, and I've been doing this a long time, and I have never seen prisons run on the skeleton crews that they're currently running on. The staff are overwhelmingly anxious, and I'm not clinical so I'm not diagnosing them as having some sort of disorder, but they're anxious, they're stressed. They're angry, they're frustrated, they're overwhelmed, they're exhausted. I think that's probably the one that's most common. It's not uncommon to see them working for 16-hour shifts back-to-back and then getting mandated to stay for a fifth.

The mandates are absurd. I watched a number of staff try to avoid the mandates by not answering the phone the day that was with them just, you know, trying to just do anything to go home. They're suffering on the job and then they're suffering at home. Their family life is suffering greatly. They're not seeing their children, their relationships at home are really a struggle. I think one of the things that we often say, and I didn't mention this in my last question because I was thinking I'd bring it in here, one of the things we often say is that staff need more training. And I don't generally disagree but at the moment, we can't train our way out of staffing shortages.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: They're in deep trouble and it's impacting them, but it's also impacting the residents. When staff are short, it means that, basically, many prisons are operating as if they're supermax facilities or restricted housing facilities.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: The residents are stuck in their cells for up to 23 hours a day because there isn't enough people to transport them, to move them around the facilities. To offer them programming and classes means that you'd have to let them out and let them go to the programming building. That's not possible when you don't have any staff to escort. There was one prison in my study where they don't even have enough staff members for all of the buildings that were, housing units, pods of people. So instead of having one staff member supervise–or there should have three–but instead of having one staff member supervising a unit that holds 60 to a 140 people, that one gentleman that I hung out with for a few hours was running back and forth between two buildings and supervising both.

He's the only one, there's no one else. There wasn't someone in the control room, it was him. There wasn't anyone walking the pods, it was him. He was alone, and he was going to be like that for the 16 hours of that shift. I think training is a really important part of this fellowship and a really important part of the job that they're doing. But at the moment, training, I think, needs to take a back seat to focusing on putting people in the space, and more than what I've heard, in my research I often heard from correctional directors, you know, we're hiring. This is a direct quote, “anyone with a heartbeat, we're hiring anyone with a pulse, we're hiring anyone who will take the job.”

I'm watching states lower their standard. There are some states now that don't even require a high school diploma to work in a correctional facility. I think that is a house of cards.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: Yeah. It's asking for trouble.

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: It is. I understand the rationale for wanting to do that, but I think, long-term, that is a gigantic mistake.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: Yeah. Agreed, agreed. Now, we know that poor conditions lead to many correctional officers and other staff resigning from their jobs, which leads to worse conditions, and possibly contributing to even more staff leaving, vicious cycle. So, what are staff asking for to stay in these critical positions?

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: I think—well, the current staff, if you're asking them to stay—I think there's a difference between recruitment and retention, right? So, this question is mostly about retention. To stay, I think one of the really, I don't want to say cool, one of the interesting findings, it's not cool at all from the research, and this isn't new either. I think there are other people who've found this before and I've seen this in other institutions or studies that I have conducted. The staff don't feel as stressed, or overwhelmed, or frustrated by the residents as they do by the upper management.

It felt, I think, in almost every case, a staff member that we interviewed had something negative to say about people at the lieutenant level up. So, their deputy chiefs, their chiefs, their wardens, their directors, their superintendents, their captains, they were—they feel like—I think they feel a disconnect from them in many prisons and jails. They don't see them much, they don't interact with them much. And so, you know, I guess some people would say out of sight, out of mind but the other problem with out of sight is that if the person isn't giving you information, sometimes people make it up. Right? You, kind of, make up a story instead of getting information directly from the source.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: And so they feel like when their—I don't know, their captain maybe—isn't making rounds every day, isn't checking in with them isn't trying to find ways to let them sleep for a few hours or help them with something that they need help with, or adjust the policies so that it fits better with the current conditions. They make up stories, right, that that captain is a jerk. "He hates us, he doesn't appreciate our work.” And he may be working very hard behind the scenes to get that done for them but without there being a communication feedback loop between the upper administration and the correctional staff on the ground, these sorts of stories take off and become an accepted narrative in these places.

And so, it creates—I think it creates—I don't want to say it's a toxic culture, but it borders on toxicity. It's a place where they don't feel valued, they don't feel appreciated, they don't feel taken care of. There were many correctional staff who also had similar problems with their own counterparts. So they weren't comfortable, they didn't believe that some of their fellow staff members would have their back if they needed something. They didn't believe – and staffing was a problem, right? So the guy that was running, you know, building to building was like, I was like, "Well, what happens if something goes wrong?" And he's like, "I'm on my own, man." There’s no one here. Like, no one's got my back. And it just creates a place where people don't want to stay.

I mean, the pay is fairly low, but some states have done some work to try to raise their pay. The benefits aren't great, but they're getting better. The shift work is tough on people and families, but I think people would put up with all of it if they felt cared about and respected and safe at work. And they don’t feel, for the most part, any of those things.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: Interesting. Very interesting. Now, we, you know, one of the things you talked about earlier is the fact that with this staff shortage. People can't be moved around the facility and go to programming, and all those other things that we want them to do during the day. So it really does have a severe impact on daily prison life. The residents have to be in, like you said, in the cell more. They're going to endure longer waits for basic needs like shower and more urgent things like medical care, et cetera. So what do you think can be done to address these issues?

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: It's a hard one. It's really--it's very difficult. I understand it from all the angles. So I understand the staffing levels mean that some of the movement and some of the opportunities to go out to yard or to move around the facility, to have a more open campus is curtailed because there just simply isn't enough staff to manage the movement or the, you know, being present to watch people as they move or as they recreate or whatever they're doing.

I think part of it is that the humanity sometimes is a secondary concern. The first concern is the basic running of an institution, which is hugely important. I don't want to say that it isn't. It's, this is, a 24/7 operation, right? We got to have people watching people, I get it. But the humanity is missing. So it's difficult for, in several prisons we went to, less so in jails, but in several prisons we went to where the residents had not been out. In one prison in particular, the residents had not been out to the yard in nine months.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: They hadn't left their cell block in nine months. No fresh air, no sunlight, no daylight, no opportunity to socialize, and the day rooms are basically all closed, or they're open intermittently in the prisons. And the jails, things are a little bit different. The jail staffing levels are low, but nowhere near, I don't think, as crisis situation as the prisons, at least not the jails from the ones that we went to. So the residents sometimes are complaining that they're not getting, for example, fresh air, right? And you can imagine, I can't even imagine what that would be like, right?

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: Like, I mean, I do Zoom calls sometimes on my phone so that I can be outside just for a minute, right? I just wander around my front yard because I just want some daylight.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: And then not to go to programming. I mean, a lot of residents don't get the opportunity to program anyway because of the conditions or, you know, misconducts that they've conducted or just their level of security or the prison might not have a lot of programs, and so there's a waitlist.

But for the ones who were going, it is a loss. They were in the middle of a class when the pandemic hit, and it's been now, what, three, four years and they still haven't been back to the classroom. They feel like they're just treading water, right? Everything I want for when I'm released is lost. I can't improve myself. I can't get better. I can't get the certificates or the degrees or the diploma if I was in a GED program that I need. It's also problematic for states where parole boards are in play because the parole boards aren't releasing people without having taken certain classes. And those classes are not being offered, or they're being offered maybe slowly. The class sizes are maybe smaller at the moment. And so the waitlist instead of being two years is seven years or five years, right? And so, these guys are going up for parole and getting denied parole because of COVID, really, because the classes were closed and they've been on the list. They were preparing for their eventual release, and now they can't get the things that they need.

So, I feel like some of the things that we could do is just take a good hard look at what is possible for these residents, given the conditions that we're in. It is not their fault that we're understaffed, and we are already punishing them by putting them in an institution for crimes that they committed. But I don't think we need to further punish them by not allowing them any possibility to improve themselves while they're in it. It's not serving the institution. It's certainly not serving the residents and their families. And eventually the communities that they will go back to are not any better when you haven't prepared them in a way for release.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: Yeah. It's not serving public safety. My background before I joined BJA was a judge for over 20 years. And, you know, people would file motions for modifications to get their sentences reduced. And I would always ask those questions, you know, what did you—what have you done? Why are you incarcerated? What classes have you taken? You know, how have you changed? How have you improved? And a lot of times I would get their response. They're not offering anything. We can't--and, you know, from a judge, you're like, come on, really? They're not…

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: No, they're not.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: No. And, you know, and now that I'm in this position, right? And I'm like, oh, my gosh, they were—they were right. They're not being offered and it's not—you know, there is a waiting—you must hear about the waiting list. I'm like, there's a waiting list? Like, that sounded so crazy to me, you know. And I'm like, gosh, they're being honest. There is a waiting list, and they can't get access to this and they can't get this class, and this is no longer being offered. And, yeah, it really affects them in a very, very real way because, you know, a lot of judges, sorry, you know, not letting you out unless you do X, Y, and Z. And if X, Y, and Z is just not a possibility at that facility, then how are they ever supposed to earn their, you know, their ability to get out earlier? So, it's a very—it's very, very tough. It really is.

So, I mean, I know that we basically touched on this but, like, kind of as a summation, I-, you know, we, it's clear that administrators need to be able to balance staffing needs with resident safety and rehabilitation, right? That's—yeah. And as you wrap up your BJA fellowship, what are your top recommendations for the field to help mitigate this problem?

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: Ooh, there's so many. I don't know. I think, let me go with residents first. I think in terms of residents, I think, you know, moving them is not going to be possible because for the short term or maybe the long term, we have these staffing shortages. So allowing them to program, allowing them to get out to yard, allowing them to socialize or be physical is challenging. A lot of prisons and jails adapted during COVID by issuing tablets.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: Or some of them already had the tablets, but maybe making them more widespread. Some of the apps or the ability to send emails or phone calls was even allowed for free during the pandemic. Some people even got free movies or free music, something to do. I strongly believe that we can do better on those tablets.

Think about the way that you and I use our phone, right? Every time I do anything, I literally say to myself, oh, I got to Google it, right? I need to—like I need something. And I understand that we're not about to give people in custody access to the internet, right? That I get that. But we could make a better system on those tablets that allows for learning opportunities for people to be able to use the tablet to learn and develop themselves. So, if I'm stuck in my cell and I can have books, and I can have paper, and I can have a tablet, then I can take online classes. Or I could be participating in some version of—some prisons do have like a kind of like a Khan Academy, like Khan Lite kind of, right? Where there are—one resident told me that he had taken all the algebra courses and now he was learning biology because he has that ability. But we can do better. We can absolutely do better and they should be free.

Anyone who wants to learn something should be able to find that. They could have access to a variety of TED Talks where they just get like a 12 to 15-minute conversation with somebody about a topic.

We could also do medical and psychological health on those tablets. If you can't move them out to medical and you don't have enough medical personnel staff to bring, you know, have a psychologist on every unit, for example, they're suffering mentally and psychologically a lot. It would be amazing if they could do like we can do, right? There's all kinds of apps for mental health. There are apps for sleeping. There are apps for meditation. There's apps for whatever. We could easily make some of those things prison-ready or jail-ready, available for them, right? We'd have to be very careful, there's rules about what we can show and not show. I'm not sure we want to have yoga instructors or something on our tablets, but we could have things like that that would help people cope with this continued and what appears to be long-term lockdown.

For staff, there's just so many things that I would recommend. I think the prisons need to do a much better job of thinking about how they are recruiting and retaining their staff. Part of that is getting outside the headspace of carceral environments. I talk to people all the time. There's one jail that I know of that has hired a professional recruiter, which is super interesting. I love that because it's weird and different. We didn't go to jails in Virginia, but Virginia also has a recruitment group that's working with them for the Virginia Department of Corrections. But I think also for retention, I think we don't do a good job of communicating with people, making people feel valued.

All kinds of prisons are trying all kinds of things, right? They're doing potlucks. One prison in Texas has, like, grill day where everybody brings in, like, whatever meat they want. And the correctional staff grills it all day and then you just go get some meat off the grill. It makes them feel good for the day. They do ice cream socials. They do those kinds of things. I think those are super important, but I don't think that an ice cream social is going to make up for the fact that I feel disrespected, or I feel unheard in my workspace.

I don't—I'm guessing from where you work that you don't feel like that in your workplace. I don't. I feel mostly, you know, occasionally something bad happens and I'm like, ugh, like, you know, it's a bad day or whatever. But for the most cases, I feel important. I feel appreciated. I feel heard. I feel respected. And there's not a planet in which I want to work in a place where I don't.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: And those things are really important and the potlucks are really big deal, but it's not enough. It's the day to day how do we talk to each other? How do we communicate with each other? Getting rid of this idea that there's lines between us, blue lines or otherwise between us that separates staffing levels or that prevent us from sharing information about ourselves and our workplace. That sort of cultural shift is going to take a while, but I think it's desperately needed in these spaces for people, especially the new generation of millennials and the ones after, the groups after, I can't remember what they're all called. I'm sorry, there's so many different groups of people now as the years go by. I don't know what they are. But they're just not going to work in a place like this. They're not. They're not going to work without their cell phones.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: Yeah. That's a big issue. Yeah.

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: They're not going to work 16-hour shifts without being able to go home and see their families. They're not going to live like that. And I think we need to do better if we're going to put people in these positions that can do the right thing and the best thing. And they're going to want to stay there.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: Right. Agreed. Agreed. It's really interesting. And I feel like it's all very—both those things you just talked about from the residents viewpoint and the staff viewpoint, they're very interconnected, right?


KAREN FRIEDMAN: It's like the tablets can, I agree, can be a game changer. And I think that the more productive the residents are being, and are being kept busy and are really just doing productive things all day, the safer the staff's going to be, the better the interaction's going to be between the residents and the staff, and appealing that job will be. So it's really kind of linked. Do you—would you agree?

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: Absolutely. At the end of the day, I think most staff want to believe that they made a difference.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: They want to believe that something that they did today had an impact positively on someone. And if the men and women or any gender identity are locked down 23 hours a day, unable to go to yard, unable to go to programming, unable to get visitation. Visitation, we didn't even talk about, but that's also been heavily curtailed.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: Maybe I can have a great conversation with someone and feel like, ooh, that was a good talk. But at the end of the day, I'm thinking to myself, I just locked a human being in a six by eight-foot box for twenty-three hours.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: How good do I feel about what I've just done? And it's not the correctional staff, it's the system. It's just a system-wide problem. And they're in the middle of it. And I can imagine the toll that it takes on them over many years to know that I was responsible for doing that without the productivity or the positivity that I wanted to infuse. I wanted to make a difference and I couldn't because we were short staffed, or I couldn't because we were under-resourced or I couldn't because that's not the culture here.


DR. DANIELLE RUDES: I think that is just the kiss of death for staff members. If they stay, they suffer. And if they don't stay, everybody else suffers.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: Yeah. Well, thank you so much, Dr. Rudes. This was such an interesting conversation. I really appreciate your time. And thank you for all the research you're doing. I know it's going to be invaluable to the field, so thank you so much.

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: Oh, I'm so grateful. I'm just grateful for the BJA for this amazing opportunity. We're going to publish for a while, so we should have lots more findings coming out in the coming months. I wish I had more intricate details, but we're still analyzing; 680 interviews is a lot to go through. So we're still making our way through.

KAREN FRIEDMAN: Well, I'm really looking forward to seeing all your findings.

DR. DANIELLE RUDES: Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time today.