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Developing Correctional Officer Professionalism: A Work in Progress.

Corrections has become synonymous with growth. Growth, in turn, is synonymous with change. And change has long been associated with progress. One might therefore erroneously assume that the skyrocketing growth of today's "correctional conglomerate" (Stinchcomb and Fox, 1999) has generated equivalent milestones of progress. But in this case, such traditional assumptions are not necessarily valid conclusions. To the contrary, as has been noted in a broader historical context, "All change is not growth, as all movement is not forward" (Glasgow, 1969:117).

In recent years, correctional administrators have become increasingly overwhelmed by the demands presented by record numbers of inmates (Gillard and Beck, 1998), closer scrutiny by the courts (Collins, 1990:23; Hanson and Daley, 1995:3) and challenges associated with the necessity to "do more with less" in order to pay for it all without generating additional tax revenues (Greenwood et al., 1994; Merianos et al., 1997; Dickey and Hollenhorst, 1999). In the face of such relentless pressures from so many divergent directions, it becomes easy to overlook organizational needs that are not related to the immediate necessities of crowding, litigation or economics. After all, one might very well question what else exists of any remotely equivalent significance that would merit relatively equivalent administrative interest. The answer, of course, is staff.

In the midst of our current number-crunching frenzy, it is easy to become so preoccupied by quantitative pressures that we lose sight of the qualitative aspects of corrections. As correctional administrators become immersed in the details of dealing with how much is being done, it becomes tempting to overlook how well it is being accomplished. At least in part, that is because the quality of correctional services depends largely on a fundamental component that is relatively obscured from public visibility -- the capabilities of the people who staff the system.

"Those who carry out the policies and deliver the services are, in the long run, even more influential [than policy-makers and administrators]. Through them, prevailing theories, public opinions and political actions are translated into practice. It is their level of professionalism and personal skills that can either help or harden an offender, promote or subvert operational programs and strengthen or weaken correctional effectiveness" (Stinchcomb and Fox, 1999:555).

The Legacy of Past Practices

Despite their pivotal role in the correctional conglomerate, the "professionalism and personal skill" demonstrated by correctional staff in the past did not always rise to a level that represented a proud legacy. To the contrary, in 1967, the first national study to assess staff credentials, employment prerequisites and related agency practices presented a rather dismal picture. For example, in 41 percent of states, there were virtually no educational requirements for custodial officers. The remainder of the states required only a high school diploma (President's Commission, 1967:181). Without much education required for the job, it was not surprising to find that 67 percent of line staff had a high school diploma or less (Joint Commission, 1969:22).

The situation was not much better in terms of training. Preservice academy training was so unusual that it was not even mentioned in the 1967 study. Regarding in-service training, more than half the agencies responding to one survey reported no organized in-service programs at all (President's Commission, 1967:100). The report went on to conclude that "most persons employed as custodial officers are not equipped for performance of their duties by previous experience or training ..." (165).

Emerging Trends

By the mid-1970s, concerns were being expressed about this inadequate state of affairs. The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (1973:467) lamented the "critical" lack of education among corrections personnel and called for encouraging in-service staff to pursue academic opportunities (490). Moreover, the American Bar Association (1973) went so far as to encourage legislative action to improve the education and training of correctional officers. Likewise, correctional administrators and educators responding to a national survey cited the need for line staff to study deviant behavior, inmate rights, counseling and the philosophy of corrections as being "very important" (Korim, 1973:10).

It finally had begun to appear that staff development priority was shifting toward those who "interact most with inmates, serve as role models and either support or sabotage institutional programs" (Stinchcomb, 1985:120). The forerunner of training standards was emerging in the National Advisory Commission's recommendation that "all new staff members should have at least 40 hours of orientation training during their first week on the job, and at least 60 hours additional training during their first year" (1973:494). Agencies were encouraged to provide financial support for staff development and to grant sabbatical leaves of absence for corrections personnel to take college courses (494). Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP) grants became available to fund in-service correctional officer education. Things were definitely looking up.

But the prospects for future improvements were encouraging only in comparison with past practices. Five years after the National Advisory Commission's Report, the National Manpower Survey concluded that only about half of adult correctional agencies in the United States were providing the amount of entry-level training recommended (1978:4). Nor was the picture much brighter once employees were on the job, with only 10 percent (or less) of officers in adult correctional systems receiving annual in-service training -- compared to 70 percent of those in probation and parole (1978:4).

Educational progress was not faring much better. Admittedly, only 10 percent of correctional agencies lacked entry-level educational requirements for correctional positions by 1978 (National Manpower Survey, 1978:59). However, 13 percent required less than high school completion, and the remaining 77 percent lingered at the high school diploma level. Virtually no department required any college course work for entry as a line officer. As Josi and Sechrest (1998:9) noted, "The job of correctional officer over the years has not been seen as requiring education at even the high school level, much less beyond."

Staff Development Today

As the results of the accompanying survey in this issue of Corrections Compendium illustrate, practices have advanced considerably in the past two decades. In comparison to earlier hiring patterns, it appears that fewer states are recruiting officers at the high school or general equivalency diploma (GED) level, while at the same time, the percentage entering with some college is climbing. Of the 35 jurisdictions responding to this survey item, 37 percent reported that recruits are entering correctional service in their agency with some amount of college education. On the other hand, of course, this means that 63 percent still are embarking on correctional careers with a high school diploma or GED. In terms of training, there also are some positive signs. Among the 45 responding agencies, there is an average requirement of nearly 220 hours of preservice classroom training, which in many cases is followed by further field training or on-the-job-training-based extensions. This is especially promising in contrast to the fact that current accreditation standards require only 160 hours of entry-level classroom training for staff who are supervising offenders (ACA's 2000 Standards Supplement, 21).

In part, such progress may be attributable to advancements accompanying both the nationwide movement toward correctional accreditation (Huggins and Kehoe, 1992; Miller, 1992) and the related implementation of state training/education standards. Additionally, the ongoing efforts of such organizations as the American Correctional Association, American Jail Association, International Association of Correctional Training Personnel and International Association of Correctional Officers have been instrumental in promoting staff development improvements. Educational progress, to some extent, also may be a feature of "degree inflation" -- with one to two years of college today having roughly the same market value as a high school diploma 30 or 40 years ago (Baro and Burlingame, 1999). Another contributing factor may be that a high school education no longer necessarily equates to academic capabilities at a 12th-grade level. Just as a declining economy quietly erodes the power of the dollar, a declining educational system slowly diminishes the value of a high school diploma (Stinchcomb and Terry, 1995:223-224). Regardless of reasons, as Chart 1 indicates, growing percentages of correctional agencies are mandating some college preparation for employment, while at the same time, the proportion of those requiring high school or less is diminishing.

[Chart 1 OMITTED]

The Professionalism Issue

The pattern of steadily increasing entry-level educational requirements is consistent with a broader trend toward correctional officer professionalism. The term "professionalism" itself, however, has been enthusiastically embraced without much thought given to what actually is involved in achieving such status. Certainly, striving in that direction is a commendable goal for any occupation. The question is whether professionalism has become so intuitively appealing and so widely endorsed that its symbolic attraction has been substituted for its substantive implementation.

Some would maintain that is precisely the situation in the corresponding field of law enforcement. Since police staff development patterns somewhat predate similar, parallel trends in corrections, they provide both a useful analogy and potential perspective of where corrections may be headed in this regard. In contrast to the more recent evolution of this concept in corrections, demands for police professionalism date back to 1931 recommendations for upgrading employees that were issued by the Wickersham Commission in an effort to combat corruption and extricate the police from excessive political influence (Peak and Glensor, 1999:7-8).

Also in contrast to the relative silence with which they addressed correctional officer personnel development, trends in this direction were further reinforced by the education and training recommendations vocally advocated by the police task forces of both the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice (1967) and the National Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (1973). More recently, police professionalism has been further promoted through the widely embraced concept of community policing (Watson, Stone and DeLuca, 1998:11939; Meese, 1993; Oliver, 1998:206-207; Trojanowicz et al., 1998:273-274).

But the ambiguities inherent in the notion of professionalism have been well-documented for many years (Walker, 1977). Moreover, conflicts between the rigidity of traditional organizational structures and the considerably more flexible principles of professional autonomy have led to the conclusion that police "professionalization" has more often been equated with "technical competence" and "efficiency" than with the altruistic principles more commonly associated with established professions such as social work, medicine or law (Stinchcomb, 1980:58). As others have suggested, "Police organizations became `professionalized,' not their members" (Bordua and Reiss, 1966:72). Nor are much more positive assessments forthcoming from early reports on the impact of community policing. In terms of actual implementation of the staff-related organizational foundations of community policing (such as decentralization, participatory management, civilianization, reduced formalization and so on), there is mounting evidence that more rhetoric than reality has been produced thus far (Maguire, 1997), with changes often more symbolic than substantive (Taylor, Fritsch and Caeti, 1998). At least one critic has gone so far as to question whether community policing itself (along with the professional advancement that it implicitly embraces) is simply a "trendy phrase spread thinly over customary reality" (Maguire, 1997, citing David H. Bayley). While corrections may not yet be at the developmental point where it could be held accountable for the answer, the same basic question is pertinent.

Perhaps that is, at least in part, because the movement toward professionalism in both policing and corrections was rooted in similar soft. Like its law enforcement counterparts, corrections has pursued professionalism reactively rather than proactively -- as a remedy designed to address problems for which the field was being attacked. Only the nature of the problems differed.

For the police, it was the insensitivity and isolation from the community that had generated overreaction to mass demonstrations during the 1960s and had been blamed as the spark that ignited many urban riots at the time (National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, 1968). For corrections, the stimulus came from an equally broad social front in the form of a variety of credibility attacks -- ranging from concerns about treatment effectiveness and "coddling criminals" to bureaucratic incompetence, inability to stem rising costs and civil rights violations:

"To combat this backlash, correctional agencies have devised a plan that has worked very well for law enforcement, a plan best summed up by a single word -- professionalization. Historically, policy-makers and managers in the criminal justice system have viewed `professionalization' as a favored solution to escalating organizational problems, a panacea used to silence occasional opposition" (Josi and Sechrest, 1998:5).

Simply jumping on the bandwagon to preach the value of professionalism has generated considerable rhetoric but falls short in terms of implementation reality. According to research on the role of implementation in creating change, this is not an unexpected outcome. Whenever change is stimulated by pressure to react to a fortuitous opportunity, it is not as likely to be implemented as effectively as change that is the product of a more sincere, self-generated effort to address a particular challenge proactively (Scheirer, 1981).

In both policing and corrections, it is becoming painfully apparent that professionalism is not a "quick fix" for organizational, political or interpersonal problems. Professionalism is not a commodity that can be issued like a uniform, provided like a training program, awarded like a promotion or decreed like a policy. It is not a weapon to be wielded defensively in response to public apprehensions. It cannot be mandated, forced or shouted into practice. To the contrary, the higher-order elements of professionalism described in a speech delivered by former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1912 are equally applicable today:

"First, a profession is an occupation for which the necessary preliminary training is intellectual in character, involving knowledge and to some extent learning, as distinguished from mere skill; second, it is an occupation which is pursued largely for others and not merely for one's self; third, it is an occupation in which the amount of financial return is not the accepted measure of success" (cited in Bopp, 1977:87).

As the former justice's words so eloquently illustrate, professionalism is not something with which to comply, but rather, to be committed to. It is a calling rather than a job. It is learning rather than accruing educational credentials. It is self-initiated rather than socially imposed. It is monitored by the discipline of peer review rather than the scrutiny of personnel rules.

Summary and Conclusions

There are, of course, superficial cheerleaders in the field who would argue that the significant strides in staff development that have been made during the past several decades justify designating corrections as a profession. As this argument goes, corrections should be considered a "profession" because its personnel are, on the whole, better-educated, better-trained, more cognizant of inmate legal rights, more honest, better-skilled and generally better-qualified than at any previous point in correctional history. All these observations may very well be valid. But those advocating such a position fail to distinguish between "professional" as an adjective and "profession" as a noun. Certainly, today's correctional officers, as a collective group, could be characterized as being substantially more "professional" than their predecessors. But it takes more than upgrading quantitative indicators of desirable personnel characteristics to qualify as a "profession."

At the other extreme, there are the idealistic pessimists who would argue that corrections never has been and never will be a profession in the real sense of the word. Their argument is based on a belief that corrections will never rise to the lofty heights of true professionalism. Detractors do not envision the field increasing the educational requirements, putting sufficient teeth into the code of conduct, demanding the completion of certification training prior to employment (Stinchcomb, 1995) or encouraging a "higher loyalty" -- directed first and foremost toward the profession and its clientele rather than the employing agency (Bopp, 1977) -- that form the infrastructure of true professionalism. Admittedly, it is tempting to consider only the benefits of professionalism and overlook the accompanying challenges, sacrifices and personal risks involved (Stinchcomb, 1986). Just as the cheerleaders fail to distinguish between "professional" and "professionalism," however, the pessimists fail to look "outside the box."

Perhaps the position of correctional officer as it is currently configured might not present an appropriate candidate for true professionalism. It may, for example, be difficult to justify raising educational standards for work that research indicates does not demand the "complex skills" that are acquired at a university (Rogers, 1991). In light of the manner in which the job is presently structured, it has been concluded that "education may contribute little to the `professionalization' of correctional officers" (Robinson, Porporino and Simourd, 1992:66). In fact, in one study, the more formal education officers had, the less likely they were to feel a sense of accomplishment from correctional officer work and the more likely they were to express dissatisfaction with the pace of their career advancement (Rogers, 1991:133).

While the idealistic pessimists would be likely to respond to such findings with an "I-told-you-so" negativity, the superficial cheerleaders would just as likely defensively dismiss such counter-intuitive results. Neither would be inclined to venture "outside the box" toward potentially restructuring and subdividing the position in a manner that separates the less challenging, purely custodial aspects of the job from the more demanding interpersonal relationships, decision-making and treatment-oriented nature of the job. Just as the dentist does not perform the same functions as the dental hygienist and the practical nurse does not perform the same duties as the registered nurse, perhaps all correctional officers should not perform the same functions. But as long as they do, it is likely that the rhetoric of "professionalism" as a noun will continue to be inconsistent with the reality of "professional" as an adjective. In that regard, change is not necessarily associated with progress.


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Jeanne B. Stinchcomb is an associate professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University.
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Author:Stinchcomb, Jeanne B.
Publication:Corrections Compendium
Date:May 1, 2000
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