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Reducing inmate litigation: Missouri's Constituent Services Office proves value of communication.

Many correctional agencies have functioned traditionally as closed systems, resulting in a self-reliant posture which encourages limited outside interaction - usually only with other law enforcement agencies. This independence has led to weak community relations and blocked opportunities for feedback and improvement, leaving many legitimate issues and concerns unresolved. It also has promoted feelings of alienation among the agency's constituents - victims, volunteers, visitors, staff, legislators, inmates, advocacy groups and others. Over time, this communication barrier has resulted in increased inmate litigation, court involvement in department operations, conflicting information, internal duplication of efforts and poor public relations.

Due to the very nature of the agency's mission - to administer punishments as imposed by the court - all correctional agencies face conflict with those who want more or less or different sanctions. The Missouri Department of Corrections (DOC) has, however, significantly improved the management of complaints and conflict through the creation of an Office of Constituent Services.

When the Constituent Services Office was established in January 1994, the department was facing many challenges, including an increase in its inmate population, scarce resources, and significant changes in law and the public's expectations. The Constituent Services Office was charged with finding and quickly fixing root causes of legitimate complaints about the department's operations; improving communication with, and services to, DOC customers; and reducing the costly duplication of staff time spent responding to inquiries routed to a variety of offices.

The results have been terrific. The office has helped improve facility operations and has promoted a positive relationship with the public. Dividends that have been realized since the creation of this office include:

* substantial monetary savings to Missouri taxpayers through averted litigation;

* improved responsiveness to the unique needs of a diverse constituency;

* decreased workload for the judiciary due to the reduction in litigation;

* less court involvement in departmental operations via court orders and decrees;

* identification of problems in correctional operations, resulting in improved correctional management;

* improved public relations; and

* less need for additional staff by eliminating the duplication of time spent responding to one complaint sent to many offices.

Constituent Services Office

The Constituent Services Office is charged with identifying and addressing legitimate issues of concern about conditions of confinement in general, as well as those specific to one or more inmates. Typically, contacts are generated by inmates, families and friends of inmates, volunteers, advocacy organizations, elected officials and others.

For example, inmates frequently complain about the quality of medical care they receive in prison; these complaints often lead to litigation. To evaluate the root causes of these grievances and complaints, the Constituent Services Office organized focus groups that included inmate councils, corrections personnel and the department's medical provider to discuss inmate concerns. From these discussions, the office identified the following commonly held beliefs and widespread practices characteristic of the inmate population:

1. Inmates did not practice healthy habits;

2. Inmates had limited knowledge of community standards for service delivery;

3. Inmates believed managed care resulted in diminished care; and

4. Inmates felt that every death that occurred within a correctional setting was avoidable and the result of poor medical care.

The office used this information to undertake a variety of corrections-based activities, including the development and distribution of issue-specific educational materials; health fairs; procedural changes; and activities that required inmates to assume more responsibility for their own health.

The department also initiated a "self-declared emergency" procedure, which allows inmates under certain circumstances to request immediate medical care. A Peer Mortality Review panel was established to assess circumstances surrounding every inmate death, enabling the department to ensure that appropriate procedures were in place and followed, and demonstrating the department's concern to the inmate population. The department sought medical accreditation of every facility's infirmary; since then, 14 of 15 clinics have been accredited. The proactive responses initiated through the Constituent Services Office effectively identified and addressed the root causes of legitimate concerns of the inmate population in a cost-effective manner. Since then, the number of medical lawsuits pending has been reduced by 78 percent during the last four years, from 308 in January 1994 to 69 by January 1998, of which number the majority of cases were cut before the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA).

As another example, the Constituent Services Office noted several years ago that the DOC was receiving a variety of complaints from visitors about visiting policies and practices. In addition to responding to individual complaints, the department also surveyed each facility regarding their visiting operations, identifying those facilities which facilitated visitations and revising the department's policy to make the visiting procedures more uniform between facilities. The department also discovered that inmates - visitors' primary source of information about visiting procedures - frequently provided their family and friends with erroneous information. Inasmuch as the officers were the ones to tell visitors otherwise, they were the bad guys. So the Office of Constituent Services developed a handbook, For Family and Friends, designed to answer visitors' most commonly asked questions about the department's rules and regulations. This book is now sent to each inmate's family at the time of the inmate's admission to the department. Since publication, facility staff report that they spend less time responding to routine questions and have fewer frustrated family members calling with complaints. Because the book is a great reference for staff, it also is used to train new employees and volunteers.

Reduction of Lawsuits

In 1993, Missouri inmates filed lawsuits at almost twice the national average. At the close of 1993, Missouri ranked fourth in the nation in the number of inmate grievances filed, but by 1997, the state ranked 18th, having cut the number of lawsuits filed by more than half.

As a result, the state has saved several million dollars in averted litigation. Moreover, no new court intervention has occurred, even though 8,883 additional inmates have been added to Missouri's already crowded facilities. Nationally, states have placed much emphasis on processing inmate litigation once it reaches the courthouse door. The Constituent Services Office helps to avert inmate litigation before it reaches the courthouse door. It is the department's practice to address problems at the earliest opportunity to avoid litigation and to otherwise enjoy the benefits derived from the identification and remediation of underlying problems.

Through feedback received from victims, visitors, staff, volunteers, legislators, the governor's staff, advocacy groups and the general public, the department is able to proactively assess its day-to-day operations. This assessment provides feedback that promotes continuous improvement in departmental operations, and is a means by which the department strives toward excellence as measured by the public's perceptions and the department's own performance standards.

By routing written and telephonic inquiries to one place, the Constituent Services Office has helped the department detect potential problems early and ensure they are quickly corrected. Identifying and correcting problems in the department's operations has improved productivity, performance and public perception. Through continuous focus group feedback, the department has learned that most individuals will accept as fair resolution the opportunity to be heard and impartially evaluated.

Between January 1994, when the office opened, and calendar year 1997, the Constituent Services Office responded to a total of 20,802 inquiries. Of that number, 1,973 inquiries were routed by the governor's office; 3,906 inquiries came from state representatives and senators; 7,180 were from inmate family members and friends; 6,671 were from inmates; 424 were from other state agencies; 461 were from inmate advocacy agencies; and 187 were from other sources.

Additional Benefits

The Constituent Services Office also has helped staff avoid duplication of effort and improve the quality and consistency of responses. For example, in one month, the office fielded 494 contacts, of which 32 percent were duplicate requests sent "buckshot" by inmates to a variety of persons in the department and elsewhere. For example, an inmate may write the caseworker, the superintendent, the central office, his clergy, his mother and legislators. Because the letters or calls to the governor's staff, legislators, departmental staff, inmates and their families are all now routed through the Constituent Services Office, the original complaint is investigated once by one person, who also responds consistently to each related inquiry. The quickness and consistency of the replies has saved the department significant staff time and also improved outcomes in those instances when the agency has gone to trial. Preliminary calculations suggest that the reduction in duplication of staff efforts through the use of the Constituent Services Office has reduced by one-half the need for additional staff to handle these inquiries.

The Constituent Services Office also has enhanced the facilities' safety and security. The office identifies sources of inmate tension, frustration and problems, which, if left unresolved, can lead to serious incidents. By identifying and correcting legitimate issues of concern early on, the Constituent Services Office contributes to a better managed prison system. It also provides inmates the opportunity to be heard and to learn productive methods of dispute resolution, and it lessens the possibility of verbal and physical aggression by inmates against other inmates and staff. Given the greater number of more violent felons serving longer sentences, assaults have not increased at the rate they did previously.

Can This Program Work for You?

Every corrections department at state and local levels would benefit from such an office, as would other public sector agencies that serve the community. The program's fresh approach to problem-solving and the fair and consistent manner in which it is applied has served well a constituency with diverse interests. The department has effectively and proactively promoted a process of self-evaluation, correcting root causes of legitimate concern before they are brought to the attention of the department through litigation, other state agencies and officials, or even more publicized means. Through this process, the department has experienced positive growth and change. The informally resolved disputes and operational adjustments facilitated by the Constituent Services Office have resulted in benefits for the department, those voicing concerns and others who may be affected at a later date by the same problems if left unaddressed. Relationships have been strengthened and frustrations reduced through a process less formal and faster than litigation and the traditional inmate grievance system.

The creation of this office has served the Missouri DOC well by saving taxpayers money that can be used for other purposes and by greatly improving the department's image. This program can be easily replicated and can produce quick, efficient and cost-effective results. The office costs $137,060 annually to operate, which includes the salaries of four constituent services officers and two clerical staff. The program also had a one-time start-up cost of $5,240. With an estimated savings of more than $3 million in averted litigation each year, this low-cost operation is well worth the expense to operate.

National Recognition

The Missouri DOC has received state and national recognition for the implementation and operation of the Constituent Services Office. The Innovations in American Government program, sponsored by the Ford Foundation, the JFK School of Government at Harvard University and the Council for Excellence in Government, selected the Missouri DOC as one of 25 national finalists in 1997 for effective government programming. The Constituent Services Office and fellow employees also received the Missouri Governor's Award for Quality and Productivity for creation of the informational handbook for families and friends of inmates. In 1996, the Constituent Services Program was awarded regional finalist recognition by the National State Council of Governments for effective government programming. For program cost-effectiveness, the Corrections Cost Control and Revenue Report has featured the Constituent Services Office in its April 1997 issue. And the office was recognized in Limiting the Burdens of Pro Se Inmate Litigation: A Technical Assistance Manual for Courts, Correctional Officials and Attorneys General, written by Lynn Branham and published by the American Bar Association. In that manual, it was recommended that every department of corrections establish a Constituent Services Office. Other local and national publications have recognized the value of the program as well.

Conclusion

When the constituent services model was introduced, it faced many internal and external challenges. Staff initially expressed concern that the Constituent Services Office would interfere with local decision-making. It was difficult for some to view informal dispute resolution as an effective management tool. Other staff resisted the shift from involuntary, court-imposed resolution of complaints to voluntary, corrections-based problem-solving. Missouri's "culture-busting" approach to resolving complaints at the earliest opportunity required staff to look at their work, evaluate their performance and effectiveness, and become more comfortable with a customer service focus. Because the Constituent Services Office continues to process information about many issues and concerns, it will continue to shape future departmental activities.

Change is slow in paramilitary organizations, yet every correctional agency faces the same challenge: to reduce crime through the effective use of punishment and control and to increase the public's understanding (and therefore, their satisfaction) of those activities. If a correctional agency increases cell capacity only and makes no other effort to manage the population or educate taxpayers, neither the public nor offenders will feel any less frustrated or more confident about its competency.

Dora Schriro, Ed.D., is director of the Missouri Department of Corrections. For more information about the Constituent Services Office, please contact Lisa Jones, constituent services officer, at (573) 526-2695.
COPYRIGHT 1998 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Schriro, Dora B.
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Aug 1, 1998
Words:2202
Previous Article:Civil disabilities of convicted felons.
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