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Selective balance and crisis management.

Control within a correctional setting is one of selective balance. Administrators must balance security and control needs with inmate programs and operations, such as recreation, visitation and inmate movement. A crisis within a penal facility often begins when the balance within the environment is disrupted - either because of inmate activity or a management decision. The crisis can accelerate when line staff and management react to the situation inappropriately. This article will focus on the ways the selective balance can become unstable and the snares staff can avoid when responding to a crisis.

Maintaining Balance

How is correctional balance maintained? Most correctional staff would agree that many elements are necessary to maintain balance within a prison. In his book Effective Prison Leadership, Kevin N. Wright defines well-run facilities as those that stress "care, custody, and control [and] are safe, clean, and humane. . . . [E]ffective prison staff are characterized by pride, professionalism and proficiency."

Conversely, in his book on the 1980 riot at the New Mexico Penitentiary, Mark Colvin lists several "markers" that typify a penitentiary in turmoil: inconsistencies in the operation of the prison; correctional dissatisfaction and turnover; harassment between inmates and staff; breakdown of inmate solidarity and growing violence; growth of small, self-protective inmate cliques; and growing influence of violent, hardcore inmate cliques.

Other activities upset the balance within penal facilities. Because correctional managers know that inmates abhor change, they usually modify policies incrementally and with advanced notice to the inmate population. Seasoned correctional managers, for example, rarely would, if ever, change inmate visiting hours or recreation programs without a great deal of thought and communication with inmates.

Inmates also can affect the sensitive balance within a prison or jail. An inmate killed in a race-related attack will destabilize an institution, as will inmate work or food strikes, inmate-on-staff assaults, and escapes or attempted escapes. These circumstances are considered "business as usual." However, the way in which staff react to these situations will determine if the loss of balance is short-term and controllable, or long-term and unmanageable.

Losing Balance

As noted, it sometimes is impossible to maintain balance within a difficult correctional climate. There are some basics, however, that will allow correctional staff to monitor and respond to issues before they reach crisis mode. The most important aspect is the "management by walking around" technique. As James D. Henderson and Richard Phillips write, "The first thing managers can do to gain a critical advantage and improve the way at, institution runs is to increase the visibility - the physical presence in every area of the facility - of mid- and upper-level staff. While workloads admittedly are high for top administrators, it is imperative that the warden, his executive staff and department heads regularly tour the institution and make themselves available to staff and inmates." Lack of visibility is the first step in conceding control of the facility to inmates.

A warden also must have a professional, well-trained staff. They represent the first line of defense against inmate manipulation. However, in times of fiscal austerity, training budgets usually are the first funds cut.

Poorly trained or poorly supervised staff can have a devastating effect. While I was a human resource manager at a U.S. penitentiary, a handwritten message was found in a spiral notebook of a rookie correctional officer who had quit his position the day before after only three weeks on the job. The entry was a real eye-opener: "Yesterday was my first day in general population at [a maximum security penitentiary]. I can now imagine what hell would be like. All the new guys would joke and try to relieve some of the pressure that kept building. There's so much to write about, I'll have to weed out what won't jar memories later on. You're on your toes all the time. I felt like I was burning myself up. My first official duty was to supervise the steam line for dinner. Never in my life did I experience anything like it. It's new. It's terrifying. I didn't know what to do, so I took an authoritative stance and stood there, occasionally telling the inmate who worked the line to give only one portion of meat, that was my official order. I dread walking back into that place. It's like going to work in a coffin. All eyes are on you. I had a stare-down contest with this 350 lb. guy on the line. My stomach turns when I think of it. The dining facility is explosive. Imagine hundreds of murderers in one room sitting down for dinner, and a handful of officers are there to make things go smoothly. No weapons, just your mind, and your own physical strength to get you through any incident. I spent most of the night in the Cuba unit. These are the same guys who took over the prison in Atlanta. I handcuffed about 30 guys, two at a time, and escorted them to showers after dinner. Don't ever grab a guy for a shakedown. Ask him!"

It was a serious mistake placing this officer on the line without adequate supervision or instruction. If he had not resigned, he would have been an ideal candidate for inmate manipulation or intimidation.

Another essential element to balance within a facility is a good communication process - one that allows inmate and staff concerns, questions and complaints to be heard by top-level institution administrators. At a high security facility where I worked, the warden was notified one morning that rumors were being spread that inmates were going to engage in a food strike beginning at noon. The warden called his department heads together, discussed the issue, and decided that there was reason to believe the rumors were accurate. The warden ordered that a questionnaire be produced immediately and distributed to inmates for feedback on what their issues were concerning food service. The forms were distributed and collected prior to the noon meal. The warden also made himself available, along with his executive staff and all department heads. The inmates ate lunch and a crisis was avoided. Good communication between staff and inmates and the warden's reputation for listening to inmate concerns prevented the food strike.

Another form of communication within a facility is the use of inmate informants. Although most corrections professionals agree that inmate informants are necessary, they can be a two-edged sword if used inappropriately. In writing about the 1980 riot in New Mexico, Colvin notes the problems of using a coercive "snitch system" as opposed to a volunteer system. Colvin writes, "The breakdown of communication patterns between inmates and staff after 1975 created a situation in which the custodial force was under greater pressure to gather information, especially with more escapes and increasing incidents of violence. Since inmates were not forthcoming with voluntary information, many members of the custodial staff, especially some of the captains, began soliciting information through threats and promises."

Colvin also reports, "Another coercive tactic was to intimidate an inmate by threatening to 'hang a snitch jacket' on him." The coercive information system lead to an increase in inmates requesting protective custody, produced questionable information, affected associations between inmates and inmate groups, and bred mistrust between inmates and staff. This system eventually played a critical role in sparking the 1980 riot.

Preparing for Crisis

Planning is everything. As Mayer Nudell and Norman Antokol indicate in The Handbook for Effective Emergency and Crisis Management, "The term 'crisis management' has become quite popular in recent years. . . . Unfortunately, most of what passes for crisis management is reactive and ad hoc. Often, there is little advanced planning, or what planning there is consists of untested assumptions filed away until an emergency occurs. This is precisely what crisis management should not be."

By its very nature, a correctional environment is a high-risk system. Escapes and suicides are going to be attempted, staff and inmates are going to be assaulted, inmate cliques and gangs are going to form, and management mistakes are going to take place. It isn't a matter of whether a crisis or emergency will occur, but when.

To prepare for the eventual crisis, correctional administrators should consider the following steps:

Establish a pre-crisis response team. Before setting up emergency response programs, correctional administrators first should establish a pre-crisis response team (PCRT). The PCRT is different from a crisis response team (CRT), although PCRT members also can be part of the CRT. PCRT is responsible for developing emergency plans and strategies before the actual crisis.

The CEO of a facility normally will create the PCRT. The team will include the associate warden (PCRT leader), chief correctional supervisor (PCRT assistant leader), executive/special assistant to the warden, chief medical officer, chief psychologist, facility manager, attorney, safety manager, food service director, business manager and chaplain.

Scan the horizon. This step is one of the most difficult - looking into a crystal ball and trying to determine which crises are likely to occur. Scanning the horizon goes beyond assuming that an inmate will attempt an escape or that an assault will happen in a housing unit. Scanning the horizon means looking at the bigger picture. For instance, administrators need to consider what kinds of crises can arise because of renovations to a visiting room scheduled to begin in six months. Rather than waiting for the renovations to start and the crisis to occur, administrators need to develop a clear, well-planned crisis response. The key is to be proactive, not reactive.

Assess risk. After scanning the horizon, administrators must assess risks and ask themselves the following questions:

* What are the possibilities that a particular situation can evolve into a true crisis?

* What are the best- and worst-case scenarios?

* To what extent will this crisis affect institutional operations?

* What is necessary to recover from this crisis?

* What resources are necessary to respond to this crisis?

* What can be done now to avoid this situation?

Develop emergency plans. After scanning the horizon and assessing risk, administrators need to develop written plans that clearly establish how to respond to the types of crises identified thus far.

Emergency plans should be written in clear, concise language that spells out the steps that need to be taken in the event of a particular crisis. The plans should list staff responsibilities, contacts to notify, timelines and other particulars related to the emergency. It is imperative that staff be well versed in these plans before crises occur.

Crises, however, tend to take on lives of their own. It is unlikely that every contingency can be planned for. Therefore, emergency plans also should allow staff the flexibility to mold their actions to meet the issues particular to a certain emergency.

Establish a crisis response team. After the emergency plans have been developed and approved, the CEO will need to establish a crisis response team. The CRT normally will be made up of the following staff:

* chief correctional supervisor (CRT leader);

* senior correctional supervisor (CRT assistant leader;

* correctional officer (to handle log and radio communications);

* correctional officer (to provide video equipment support);

* executive assistant (to handle public affairs and law enforcement liaisons);

* safety manager (to handle fire and safety issues);

* medical specialist (to handle issues related to medical concerns);

* legal specialist (to handle issues related to legal concerns);

* clerical support (to handle administrative issues); and

* psychologist or chaplain (family/victim liaison).

The CRT is the onsite management team whose responsibility is to direct facility staff during emergencies. The CRT usually will act under the authority of the CEO and will direct escape hunt team, special operations response teams, disturbance-control squads, fire-fighting crews and other crisis control groups.

Train staff. To prepare staff for crisis response, training normally will be conducted at two levels: (1) crisis response teams and specialty response squads such as disturbance-control squads and escape-hunt teams and (2) regular correctional staff who will play a role in responding to facility emergencies.

The CRT members and specialty squads rest have a keen understanding of facility emergency plans and established procedures for responding to facility emergencies. The CRT and squads must prepare and train together so they are molded into one well-defined, confident, professional response force.

All institutional staff will need to be familiar with their facility's emergency plans. Staff must have a basic understanding of the contents and requirements contained in the plans and be confident in their knowledge of the plans when a crisis occurs.

Common Pitfalls

Good crisis management is built on a foundation of clearly written emergency plans and procedures, effective communication, well-trained staff and sound risk assessment. Conversely, it must be understood that there are some problems that can derail a good crisis management program. Although not comprehensive, the following are some issues that are of concern to appropriate crisis management:

Acting without total available information. In a crisis, you must react quickly. However, this does not mean that managers should rush into a situation without a full awareness of what is transpiring. Intelligence information, inmate informants, staff perceptions and other evidence are necessary to get a "big picture" view of the crisis.

"Groupthink" or the "herd mentality." Irving L. Janus states, "The more amiability and esprit de corps there is among the members of a policy-making ingroup, the greater the danger that independent critical thinking will be replaced by groupthink, which is likely to result in irrational and dehumanizing actions directed against outgroups."

Call it the "herd mentality" or the "yes-man" complex, it occurs when the subordinate members of a group wish to please the leader by agreeing with whatever he or she may want. In a crisis situation, the leader must be able to count on his or her experts to give the best advice available through independent critical thought. Anything else may allow the crisis to spiral out of control.

Failing to audit the crisis response process. Crisis situations often take on lives of their own. What may start as a food strike could easily evolve into a work stoppage or worse. Crisis managers must continually audit their response processes to ensure that they are responding to the current emergency. They must be prepared to change directions or methods if the crisis situation escalates or changes.

Confusing activity for action. During a crisis, there is always a lot of activity: correctional staff running back and forth, supervisors issuing orders over mobile radios, towers beaming bright lights around the perimeter of the facility, inmates yelling from their locked-down cell positions, and a multitude of other prison noises. But is the activity action? Is the activity being directed to control the crisis? Is the activity necessary to respond to the emergency?

Activity for the sake of activity during a crisis is wasteful. It creates an impression of pandemonium and can subvert the crisis control process. Action to control the crisis, not useless activity, is needed to restore the balance.

After the Crisis

After a crisis is resolved, a debriefing process and an investigation should be undertaken as soon as possible. Correctional staff who played active roles in the crisis response should be interviewed, videotapes should be reviewed, and intelligence gathered so emergency plans and procedures can be modified as necessary.


Correctional administrators know that in the early stages of a crisis two things usually happen: (1) Murphy's law, whatever can go wrong will go wrong, will prevail; and (2) Well-thought-out emergency plans, processes and procedures will be forgotten as staff respond instinctively to the emergency. Therefore, staff must be well trained, professional and competent, and line supervisors must have good correctional wisdom and common sense, because their initial responses may determine whether a crisis is resolved quickly or whether it degenerates into a disaster.


Colvin, Mark. 1992. The penitentiary in crisis: From accommodation to riot in New Mexico. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press.

Henderson, James D., and Richard Phillips. 1989. Ensuring a safe, humane institution. Federal Prison Journal (Summer).

Janis, Irving L. 1989. Groupthink: The desperate drive for consensus at any cost. Classic readings in organizational behavior, ed., J. Steven Ott. California: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Nudell, Mayer, and Norman Antokol. 1988. The handbook for effective emergency and crisis management. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books.

Turner, Barry A. 1976. The organizational and interorganizational development of disasters. Administrative Science Quarterly 21.

Wright, Kevin N. 1994. Effective prison leadership. Binghamton, N.Y.: William Neil Publishing.

Peter M. Wittenberg is a deputy chief with the Federal Bureau of Prison's Office of National Policy Review. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the opinions of the Federal Bureau of Prisons or the Department of Justice.
COPYRIGHT 1996 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:In Search Of...Security; Annual Security Issue and Buyer's Guide July 1996
Author:Wittenberg, Peter M.
Publication:Corrections Today
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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Next Article:Pre-emergency planning for post-emergency litigation.

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