Program curbs prison violence through conflict resolution.
At the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon, Pa., which houses some of the state's most aggressive inmates, staff must deal with violence every day. Of the 2,200 inmates, nearly a third are serving life sentences and many have extensive histories of assaultive behavior.
Every year, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on emergency preparedness equipment and staff training. This training prepares a select group of employees to respond to crises. Such training is invaluable; however, we have learned that improving officers' communication skills enables them to respond more effectively to conflicts with inmates and co-workers. We need to teach inmates and staff how to get along better and resolve their differences peacefully.
Why should corrections officers want to get along with murderers, robbers, rapists? Most corrections officers view their jobs as providing for secure custody and control of inmates. Many would resist the notion that their job should go beyond giving direction and orders.
But good relations between inmates and staff are important to maintaining safety and order in an institution. The DOC is learning that communication and conflict resolution are effective tools for managing their inmate populations.
Conflict Resolution In Pennsylvania Prisons
Conflict resolution was introduced to the Pennsylvania DOC more than 14 years ago at the State Institution at Rockview by Marie Hamilton, executive director of the Voluntary Action Center. Superintendent Joe Mazurkiewicz wanted to provide a resource for inmates who had a history of aggressive behavior.
The conflict resolution course promised to give inmates the skills and the resources to handle their own anger and that of other inmates more appropriately and in a nonviolent manner. One of the main objectives of the course is teaching respect for one's self and others. The main components of conflict resolution are values clarification, listening skills, problem solving, mediation skills and introduction to victim/offender reconciliation.
Says Mazurkiewicz, "I think conflict resolution has tremendous value in a prison setting, since most of our inmates are used to handling conflict aggressively. It provides them with another alternative."
In 1988, Community First Step, an inmate organization at SCI-Huntingdon, decided to try to bring the conflict resolution program to that facility. The group asked Hamilton to provide training for members of the organization. The idea was to prepare inmates who completed the training to teach the course to other inmates.
The course was well-received, and after three years, Community First Step invited officers to participate in a training session with inmates. They believed, correctly, that including officers would improve relationships between inmates and officers. Despite some reservations, corrections officers agreed to participate.
Major John H. Brown, who teaches conflict resolution courses and communications classes to new and veteran corrections officers, says many of us mistakenly assume that we are effective communicators. According to Brown, most people fail to realize that listening is the most important ingredient for effective communication. Brown encourages officers to be active listeners and to take time to listen to all sides of an issue before responding.
Conflict resolution training typically requires 15 hours of instruction. The course curriculum is designed to provide special skills in handling conflict, with emphasis on developing and improving skills in listening, problem solving, values clarification, and mediation, plus emphasis on anger control, forgiveness and non-violence. Brown uses didactic and experiential techniques to teach the course.
The course aims to improve communication, promote self-esteem, build relationships, and encourage respect for cultural differences and people's emotions. It also teaches techniques to resolve conflicts without emphasizing winning or losing.
Staff joke that the purpose of Brown's communications class is to turn Huntingdon into a "kinder, gentler prison." Brown takes it all in stride, but he believes that if his course helps just one individual improve his communication skills, everyone will benefit.
Testaments to Success
During a meeting with Corrections Commissioner Joe Lehman, officers at Huntingdon asked that the DOC establish ongoing courses in communication and conflict resolution at the facility to help them improve their interpersonal skills.
The officers told Lehman that since training was initiated, they have been spending more time in positive interaction with inmates than they do quelling conflicts. They also argued that since communication is such an integral part of their jobs on a daily basis, improving their communication skills should be considered just as important as emergency preparedness.
One Huntingdon inmate who is serving 10 to 20 years for a violent assaultive crime participated in the training with corrections officers. He noted that one of the officers who took part was a strict disciplinarian from a military background who believed that inmates were "nobodies." According to the inmate, after completing the conflict resolution course, the officer is more humane and professional in his relationships with inmates.
Art Kulik, a veteran corrections officer who participated in conflict resolution training, was impressed with the course and says he still carries a card in his wallet that outlines the six steps of problem solving.
"I feel the training is probably more effective for block officers who have more direct contact with inmates than special duty officers who usually respond to crises more immediately."
The most powerful example of the effectiveness of conflict resolution training occurred during the 1989 riots at the State Correctional Institution at Camp Hill. Inmates in the New Values drug and alcohol program, who had recently completed a course in conflict resolution, were the only inmates who did not participate in the disturbance. In addition, these inmates were credited with helping officers so they would not be assaulted.
Over the past 14 years, more than 1,500 inmates and staff statewide have been trained in conflict resolution. Because of the program's success, the Pennsylvania DOC is committed to continuing the use of conflict resolution training throughout the system.
We recognize that conflict resolution is not a panacea and cannot be used in every situation, but we have found that it offers us another way to help stem the violence at SCI-Huntingdon. Margaret Moore, former Deputy Commissioner for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, agreed with our assessment.
"We can create a safer correctional environment for staff and inmates by teaching conflict resolution skills," she said. "I believe inmate violence and use-of-force incidents by staff can be significantly minimized by teaching and using communication and conflict resolution skills as an initial response to disputes and grievances."
The Six Steps of Problem Solving
1. Define the problem according to both parties' needs. (Look at the cause of the problem as this might be the problem.)
2. Brainstorm possible solutions.
3. Have each party eliminate unacceptable solutions. If all are eliminated, generate more possible solutions.
4. Select one solution or combination of solutions.
5. Implement the solution(s).
6. Set time for evaluation.
Bill Love is superintendent of the State Correctional Institution at Huntingdon.
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|Title Annotation:||Stemming the Violence; includes related article; State Correctional Institution of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania|
|Date:||Aug 1, 1994|
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