Fit officers alone can't control violence in our state prisons

Published: Friday, January 12, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 12, 2007 at 12:01 a.m.
The Jan. 9 Gainesville Sun contained an editorial favoring the retention of James McDonough as Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. I am neither for or against on this issue. What concerns me more is the attention given to the secretary's insistence on an on-going physical fitness standard for correctional officers.
I recently retired after more than 30 years in the prisons and jails of this country during which I taught at the college level in addition to training correctional officers for many years. I can assure you that an officer in top physical condition is not the answer to violence in our corrections facilities. Officers will still be outnumbered 20 to 1.
What is needed is a serious and continuing effort to teach management skills to those who supervise the officers. It does not follow that those who are effective officers are also effective managers. Management is a skill not unlike teaching. One must learn to be proficient in order to do the job well.
I suggest that a 40 hour course of management training, conducted by people from outside the department, be required before promotion from officer to sergeant, and a more advanced course to attain the rank of lieutenant and above. In this way it may finally be possible to break the hold of the "good ole boy system" on the state's largest department.
I spent ten years as an officer and, later as a sergeant with the DOC, and I can attest first hand to the complete lack of understanding by many supervisors of the expertise required in the everyday oversight of their employees. I believe that these courses should be mandatory in order to be placed on the list for promotion. Wardens and assistant wardens should be required to take the courses immediately. The department is still rife with those supervising entire institutions based on who has connections to whom.
Let me return to the subject of physical fitness requirements. Such requirements, while seeming to be a rational idea, have several inherent problems.
First, older staff are less likely to pass such requirements and would be subject to dismissal, taking with them their long years of experience. The eventual result is a young, inexperienced, albeit physically fit staff. Lack of experience in dealing with people in a human services field leads to increased violence and chaos.
Second, I mentioned above that staff will still be outnumbered by the inmates they supervise. It is common in DOC to have two officers supervising a dormitory of 150 inmates. Even my rudimentary math skills tell me that the ratio of staff to inmates is 1 to 75. Even the most physically fit will not overcome those odds.
Prisons are high crime neighborhoods and the men and women incarcerated there remain compliant only when they are assured of personal safety and are treated like humans, not animals. Personal safety can only be assured when the staff has the authority and support to respond quickly and with as much force as is needed. Politics cannot overshadow the daily management of such a volatile and potentially brutal group of people.
In short, forget the physical fitness requirements. Stop worrying about political correctness and restore the control formerly exercised by staff over inmates, tempered with some serious management training. The combination will, in the long run, make our prisons safer places to live and work and will go a long way toward solving the longstanding problem of staff shortages in Florida's prisons and jails.
As in any organization, staff will not stay unless they feel safe and effective. Babysitting felons is not a rewarding career. Corrections can be.
James M. Strauss is a former correctional officer who lives in Gainesville.

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