Maximizing Personal and Professional Development Through Correctional Specialization in a Confinement Facility

Staff Trainer Corrections

***This is a guest blog post from James W. Buckner Jr, Corrections Specialist, 86-Keys Consulting***

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines ‘specialized’ as something “made or used for a particular purpose, job, or place.”

Today, I will discuss the very important role of specialization within the correctional environment, by taking a look at various collateral duty assignments, all of which support and enhance the primary function of institutional security or protection of the public, through uniquely mission-specific tasks. Before we venture any further into this topic, it’s important for you to recognize and understand that the obligations of any specialized collateral assignments shall not supersede nor relieve you of your regular duties.

It should come as no surprise that taking on additional responsibilities in a position where the majority of us already wear many hats is certainly a challenge. However, for those willing to meet the challenge, the rewards may exceed your own expectations. I know this from first-hand experience. I never imagined my first job as a Deputy Jailer in 1988 would put me on a path leading to a position dealing with counter-terrorism and issues of national security. It was correctional specialization that put me on that pathway.

I began taking a closer look at correctional specialization at the onset of my third year as a correctional officer. I was hardly seasoned, but I was getting there. Life on the job consisted of perimeter fence checks, endless pat downs (frisk searches), inmate common area/living area searches, and of course, at the very top of the list, ensuring inmate accountability through conducting institutional counts. Accurate facility counts are the method in which every correctional facility ensures it is carrying out its mission of protecting the public through the prevention of escape. Although I thoroughly enjoyed my job, I began to wonder if this was all it would ever consist of. It was around this time I began to recognize and explore the possibilities of how correctional specialization might advance my career.

The pathway to correctional specialization is probably closer than you may realize. Consider this old saying: “A closed mouth doesn’t get fed.” In short, you have to ask for what you want. But before you take that step, let’s look at a few things that may make your journey a little easier. In that regard, we will discuss methods to groom yourself for opportunity, while also taking a closer look at various specialized duties within the correctional environment. Finally, I will provide you with a suggested list of Do’s and Don’ts to help maximize your opportunities in successfully navigating the world of correctional specialization.

It should be remembered that appointment/assignment to a specialized collateral duty assignment is secondary to your primary job assignment, and should not interfere with those duties. Additionally, appointment and/or assignment to a specialized collateral duty assignment is not a guarantee of promotion, though it may be viewed favorably on an application or resume.

Groom Yourself for Opportunity

Master Your Current Assignment. Putting the cart in front of a horse is clearly counter-productive. Likewise, it is essential you have a solid foundation of correctional common sense and a thorough knowledge of institutional policy and procedure prior to applying for any specialized collateral duty assignment.

The best way to gain this experience is to master your current assignment, along with the duties of all rotational posts within your respective facility, from housing units to transportation and visiting. In essence, ensuring inmate accountability, awareness of appropriate search methods and tactics, along with a comprehensive knowledge of all post assignments, are among the building blocks of a solid correctional knowledge base. In your career as a correctional worker, it’s imperative for you to transcend your familiarity of policy beyond memorization, by developing an understanding of how and why policies are formulated for the goals of institutional safety and security.

Seek a Mentor. The process of seeking a mentor is somewhat paradoxical in nature, in that your mentor may actually find you. Simply put, your supervisors are intently monitoring your performance and are very quick to identify staff members who demonstrate consistent, superior performance, both individually and as part of a team, in particular those staff members dedicated to the team concept of getting the job done. Whether you find your mentor or your mentor finds you is a minor detail, as long as you find one.

Your mentor’s experience will provide you with a wealth of information on the total operation of your respective facility. It’s likely they have climbed the career ladder from the bottom up; subsequently, a mentor can be a vital part of your professional development. In addition to sharing their personal experience, a mentor can guide you in selecting training development courses, as well as provide you with insight on issues ranging from custody and treatment programs to the management roles of institutional CEO’s. One of my mentors once said, “A mentor’s greatest gift is the ability to recognize and develop talent.” Your mentor can greatly aid you in determining the correctional specialty best suited for you!

Become an Effective Communicator. Working in corrections will not transform you into the famed “Most Interesting Man [Person] in the World,” but if you pay attention and learn, it will make you a world-class communicator.

During the course of my career in corrections, I’ve had the opportunity to sit across the table from hard-core gang bangers, Golden Triangle Cartel members, and everyone in between. As the nature of my work shifted toward investigations, my audience grew to include agents from various federal agencies, including the FBI, Secret Service, ATF, and Marshals Service, as well as institutional executive staff and assistant United States attorneys.

During your daily tour of duty, it’s very reasonable to expect multiple scenarios directly involving your ability to communicate effectively with both staff and inmates. Examples include answering questions relating to policy and procedure, up to and including using interpersonal communication skills to defuse volatile situations which may otherwise lead to incidents of inmate violence against other inmates or staff.

In the correctional environment, your ability to communicate verbally and in writing is, in essence, your personalized calling card and a strong, measurable indicator of your ability to gather, process, and share information in the interest of institutional security and inmate management and accountability.

Examples of Specialized Collateral Duty Assignments

Below you will find a list of some specialized correctional assignments, along with a brief description of their related duties. This list is not all-inclusive. However, it does identify specialties considered as high-profile within institutional corrections.

Training Instructor: Trainers provide instruction in a variety of correctional topics from Common Core Security Skill (Basic) elements to firearms, self defense, and first aid/CPR. Requirements for selection as a trainer will typically include completion of a train-the-trainer instruction course, followed by intensive, course-specific certification training.

ACA Team Member: Members of an institutional American Correctional Association (ACA) team are uniquely involved in the process of ensuring facilities are in compliance with ACA standards for accreditation purposes.

Internal Affairs/Investigations: Internal Affairs is charged with investigating incidents of inmate and/or staff misconduct. Appointment to these positions often requires extensive knowledge of investigative techniques, Rules of Evidence, as well as the inmate disciplinary process. Pre-service training, including academic testing, should be expected.

Security Threat Group (Gang Intelligence Coordinator): Gangs represent a significant threat to institutional security, based on their role in everything from the inmate contraband economy to narcotics trafficking, money laundering, and assault/extortion. Subsequently, it’s imperative that gangs are monitored and effectively managed as a control measure. Appointment as a Gang Intelligence Coordinator typically requires some knowledge of prison and street gangs and gang ideology. Continued research and training (institutional and individual) is required, as gang intelligence continually expands and evolves.

Fire Safety/Sanitation: Fire Safety and Sanitation personnel ensure our institutions are clean, safe, and that all emergency equipment is free from defect and fully operational, including fire extinguishers, emergency lighting, self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs), and alarm systems. Appointment to these positions may require some knowledge of basic life safety protocols and/or National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Codes and Standards. Pre-service training, including academic testing, should be expected.

Disturbance Control Team: Disturbances and riots are an unpleasant reality, but the possibility of such occurrences warrants the need for an appropriate response. Disturbance Control Teams are that response. Their role is to disrupt and end disturbances within the correctional environment, including incidents involving planned use of force. Appointment to Disturbance Control or CERT (Correctional Emergency Response Team) teams typically requires enhanced physical agility testing, as well as participation in regularly scheduled team exercises and/or drills.

Do’s and Don’ts

Your interest in correctional specialization may be reflective of career advancement goals both within and outside of your present agency. I’m still working in the field of corrections (although no longer inside an institution) and my specialization is intelligence. In addition, several former co-workers of mine are now serving as Federal Air Marshals. We successfully utilized the training we received while working in specialized assignments to transition into other unique positions within the field of criminal justice/corrections.

In that regard, I’ve included a list of Do’s and Don’ts, formulated to help you avoid pitfalls and maximize the benefits of correctional specialization:

Do become the subject matter expert (SME) for your specialized assignment.
Do pursue continued professional development in support of your specialty.
Do create opportunities to share what you’ve learned (develop training courses).
Do become and remain a team player.
Do liaise and consult with other SME’s within your specialty.
Don’t expect a promotion based upon taking on a collateral duty assignment.
Don’t allow collateral duties to interfere with your primary assignment.

Conclusion and Rationale

When you consider the complexity and time-sensitive nature of just the basic duties of a correctional worker (accountability checks/observations; safety and sanitation inspections; searches; direct inmate supervision in a variety of settings; and responding to institutional emergencies and disturbances), the idea of taking on additional duties might seem to exceed the bounds of common sense, even as it relates to any expected promotion potential. It is for that very reason the expected outcome of pursuing and/or accepting specialized collateral duty assignments should be squarely focused on personal and professional development.

Clearly, there are potential advantages or perks to be gained from being appointed to certain specialized duties, including favorable work schedules, outside agency training, and even enhanced promotion potential. However, specialized duty assignments are not typically considered to represent automatic guarantee of promotion. As such, your interest in pursuing correctional specialization should be an extension of your desire to develop a comprehensive correctional knowledge base, thereby creating opportunities for your own career advancement, while simultaneously promoting and working toward the goal of greater institutional safety and security for staff and inmate populations.

By: James W. Buckner Jr, Corrections Specialist, 86-Keys Consulting

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