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Standard measures: Scholar developing new ways to gauge corrections systems

Think about the term “prison warden” and the 1950s stereotype of a cigar-smoking, overbearing, authoritarian, middle-aged man will likely come to mind. The stereotype survives, but the reality that spawned it is long gone.

Today’s wardens are correctional managers who run highly complex organizations where senior staff are responsible for a wide variety of functions that cover personnel, safety, educational treatment programs, recreational facilities, food services, industrial and environmental protection, physical facilities maintenance and budgeting. In addition, correctional systems are much bigger players in state and federal budgeting than they were two and three decades ago.

Increased responsibilities and larger budgets bring with them an increasing amount of scrutiny and frequent audits by legislative budget offices and the executive branch. The corrections business has become highly policy driven and the need for standardization across prison facilities within a system has grown.

Charting the changes in this new world of corrections management is Kevin Wright, professor of criminology in the School of Education and Human Development. Wright is currently involved in two projects that explore how prisons are functioning in this new world of less independence and more accountability.

The first project deals with performance. “The nation’s prison executives have set as their number one priority the development of a performance measurement system,” Wright said. “In doing that, they’re taking the accountability model present in their states and trying to institutionalize it at a national level, so there are clear standards and a clear understanding of them.”

Kathleen Hawk Sawyer, director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, recruited Wright as the lead consultant for the performance indicator committee. “Kevin’s work in the area of organizational management has contributed significantly to the field of corrections management,” she said.

The performance indicator project is funded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics and will have far-reaching impact on corrections management in the United States. “At the national level, we’re currently not capable of comparing the prison system of any state with that of another on any performance indicator,” Wright said. “Safety? Cost? We can’t compare New York to Pennsylvania. I’ve been asked to develop performance indicators.”

Three areas have been targeted initially — public safety, institutional safety, and mental health and substance abuse programming. Wright and a team have been developing a series of indicators within each standard.

For public safety, the indicators are escapes and recidivism; for institutional safety there is a series of measures including assaults, inappropriate sexual contact by staff, homicides, suicides and major disturbances. The difficulty, Wright said, is there are considerable differences in the organization of prison systems state to state. “Because of the vast differences among state correctional systems, this task is exceedingly complex,” he said. “Our goal is to develop and implement a national reporting system.

“Right now there are lots of measurement issues because states define things differently. For instance, Vermont has a unified prison system where the state department of corrections houses all inmates, while in New York, the state houses only felons and others are in jails run by sheriffs. So, who gets counted?”

To develop indicators for inmate assaults on staff, Wright and the team needed to make several decisions. “One of the things we had to do was talk about which inmates get counted,” he said. “Those that are on furlough or those on electronic monitoring in the community? We’re probably not going to count those. Also, what is a staff member? We had to define a staff member as someone receiving a salary, not counting visitors, interns or construction workers on a project within the facility. There needs to be careful delineation of what’s being measured so there will be consistency among the states.

“Under escapes, when does it stop being an attempted escape and become an escape?” he asked. “One thing we’ve really struggled with are the seven unified systems that hold prison and jail inmates, whereas the other 44 only hold sentenced felons, so we have to not count the non-sentenced.”

Wright said the performance indicator definitions help determine what and how to measure. “Will we look at all assaults the same, or only serious events?” he said. “Only those that require medical attention? Or those that involve weapons? We need the specific definitions for consistency.”

Wright and the team have completed development of the standards and indicators and are close to being done with the counting rules that go along with each sub measure. “Once we have agreement on that, we have to bring along the states to implement them, applying them across jurisdictions, and we have less than a year to finish,” he said.

Joseph Lehman, director of the Washington prison system, is chairman of the performance indicator subcommittee. “We’re making headway,” he said. “We’ve identified performance indicators for the standards, and we’re working on coming to consensus on the definitions of those indicators. “After we overcome that hurdle, we’ll then hold the performance indicators out as a standard,” Lehman said. “As a profession, we need to be accountable, and, as arduous a task as it is, I feel we’re making very good progress.”

The second project Wright is involved in relates to prison culture. The National Institute of Corrections (NIC) is often called on to assist systems with some sort of major problem, Wright said. “A prison might be dealing with an issue such as excessive use of force, high staff turnover or sexual harassment,” he said. “What NIC has learned is that we cannot simply address the presenting problem, such as sexual harassment. We have to study the entire culture. You can’t go in and do a training program on creating a safe workplace and expect the problem to go away. Rather, you have to find out what’s going on in order to find out what allows that problem to exist, and then address the culture. “We’ve been asked to develop a procedure to measure and explore what the underlying culture is.” Wright worked with a team of representatives from the Criminal Justice Institute, current and former corrections leaders, substance abuse experts and academics to develop the procedure to systematically evaluate prison cultures. After assessing and modifying current procedures, Wright evaluated the new model during on-site prison visits.

“We’ve now gone to three institutions — two state and one federal — to test the instrument, and we’re in the second cycle of funding,” he said. “We made a three-day visit to each institution, meeting with the wardens, touring the facilities and conducting focus groups on each organization’s culture. We met with five separate groups of staff and inmates at each facility, looking at a variety of field indicators such as schooling, medical facilities and food services.”

Phase two of the project has begun, according to George Vose, former director of the Rhode Island and Massachusetts prison systems and head of the NIC prison culture team. NIC will provide technical assistance over the next 18-24 months and then NIC-trained culture assessors will return to measure the model’s success.

“Kevin will assist in this phase of the project as well,” Vose said. “He developed the protocol, a primary role very frankly, and now he’ll assist in the training of individuals in the protocol and continue with site visits.”

This year, 15 cultural assessors will be trained in the program, Wright said. “Once they’re trained, they’ll go to four institutions that have major presenting problems and do an assessment,” he said. “Then, they’ll provide technical assistance to bring about change.” The people to be trained will be people already knowledgeable about corrections. “It’s all kind of an organic process, not rigid,” he said. “We look at information from diverse sources. In our assessment so far, we’ve found some interesting issues. Some big differences among correctional staff from one shift to another, for instance.

“We found considerable stress among middle administrators coming from the external pressure to do more with less. We found institutions that had been managed by a senior group of individuals for a number of years, and when they began leaving, there was a lot of instability and insecurity around that. We were able to detect that.

“One of the institutions’ line staff felt they had been there for a long time and they knew how to run the facility. With wardens and chiefs coming and going, they were going to be resistant to change,” Wright said. “This is an important process in that it will give NIC an important tool and a cadre to use the tool to look at a system in a consistent way before they try to provide technical assistance. It’s all incredibly valuable information in trying to effect change when you have a troubled prison.”

Wright continues his work on both projects, which are expected to have enormous effects on corrections management in the United States.

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