For the past twenty years, I have been teaching criminal justice courses, generally as an Adjunct Professor, and recently as a full-time faculty member. As a person who worked for the Federal Bureau of Prisons for more than thirty years, I am always interested in directing students to the possibility of a career in corrections, and specifically, institutional corrections.
I had a great mentor who led me to the possibilities. When I began teaching there was always a handful of students who expressed interest, but for the past several years, there have been none. Many students discuss the desire to become probation officers or juvenile court counselors, but none express the desire to go into institutional corrections, especially if that means being a correctional officer.
So what has happened? Institutional corrections has never been a sexy profession, but for a certain number of publicly service minded students, it has been an opportunity. What has caused that to change? Well you can say the low pay, but policing doesn’t pay well either, you can say the media’s portrayal of correctional personnel, you can say the danger faced by personnel and so much more. But rather than to pontificate on the reasons this seems to have occurred, what can institutional corrections do to change this perception?
First, correctional administrators, who for the past thirty years have been struggling just to survive, must market institutional corrections. This is much more than recruiting. It is selling not only the importance but the unique opportunities institutional corrections provide. Those who work in institutional corrections protect the public, impact the lives of offenders, enhance the public health of the communities they live, and provide economic impact for the locales and states where they reside.
Correctional agencies should expect that their administrators get out of their comfort zones and get out into the community to represent their profession of providing constitutional care, custody and correction.
Agencies must embrace and incentivize internships. Not only for medical personnel and psychologists, but for the criminal justice major who is looking for employment? If it had not been for such a cooperative agreement between my university and the Bureau of Prisons, along with my mentor, who knows what I would have completed as a career?
Professional organizations such as the American Jail Association and the American Correctional Association have to do a much better job in not only offering students the opportunity of membership, but to solicit and embrace student membership. These associations need to provide scholarships for students to attend conferences. Offer five to ten scholarships each year, make the selection competitive.
I guarantee if you send out to criminal justice departments nationwide an opportunity for students to participate in a conference where they do not have to foot the bill, or all of the bill, you will have takers. Schools of criminal justice can and should expect students to bring back what they learn.
In this same vein associations, agencies and institutions must not only embrace but solicit help from criminal justice departments when completing research or policy analysis. Short term projects and victories are possible. But it takes collaboration and perhaps a bit of compromise between the agency or institution and the university or college.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if agencies and universities partnered to create win-win opportunities? From a university perspective, this would go a long way and also invite students to get involved in institutional corrections, and from a student perspective, perhaps they can become involved in something which has meaning rather than just completing a course requirement. They have to go out and find those schools who are willing to partner.
In my home state of North Carolina there are sixteen undergraduate programs teaching criminal justice. When I recently attended the local meeting of those who desired to discuss and present criminal justice research, not one active correctional administrator was in attendance. Why?
Transparency is not going away, and the sooner we realize this we will enhance the image of institutional corrections. But at the same time, we have to challenge the media every time they reference someone being a “guard” or a joke about “soap on a rope in prison.” I do not know how many times I have written emails after a story about a guard or a joke on late night television. Does it change anything, probably not, but it tells them someone is watching. And more importantly it tells students.
Is a career in institutional corrections ever going to be for everyone, no. But students in schools of criminal justice need to be provided with the entire story and not just what is presented to them by someone who has never walked behind the walls. Those of us who have walked the walk must present a career in institutional corrections as something not many can do, but something which presents unique challenges and opportunities.