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Improve Your Facility by Changing Your Leadership Style

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By Michael Pittaro, assistant professor, Criminal Justice at American Military University

It’s no surprise that working as a corrections officer is stressful. Working in a prison is dangerous and officers are constantly concerned about physical violence. In addition, many prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, forcing officers to work mandatory overtime and inconsistent rotating shifts.

[Related article: Stress Management Strategies for Correctional Officers]

While these are legitimate sources of stress, it turns out the two leading stressors associated with corrections work are:

  • Organizational and structural issues within the prison administration.
  • Weak or inconsistent leadership practices.

Does it surprise you that the primary source of stress, dissatisfaction, and discontent among corrections officers is with prison administrators, not the inmate population?

Ways to Improve Morale and Satisfaction
Those of us who have worked or are currently working in corrections agree that job satisfaction and morale in corrections is, and always has been, low in comparison to other criminal justice professions. The corrections field has high rates of burnout and turnover among officers as well as very high suicide rates.

Something must be done to improve the morale and satisfaction among corrections employees. This change must come from an overhaul in the leadership style and governing practices within the corrections field.

Adopt a Transformational Leadership Style
Correctional institutions have historically relied on punitive and authoritative styles of leadership. However, I believe correctional leaders must adopt a transformational leadership approach to governing correctional officers, staff members, and inmates within their facilities. Shifting leadership styles to focus on transformational, coaching, and mentoring practices can help to:

  • Empower corrections staff to accept the organization’s mission in correcting socially unacceptable criminal behaviors through rehabilitative efforts and means
  • Create a sound therapeutic, rehabilitative atmosphere
  • Provide opportunities for inmates to acquire the social skills and values necessary to become productive law-abiding citizens
  • Enhance rehabilitation efforts and prepare inmates for community reentry, which could conceivably reduce escalating recidivism rates

Transformational Leadership Works
According to a 2012 National Institute of Corrections publication, transformational leadership enables higher performance in correc­tional organizations as leaders create a safe environment in which followers can take risks that result in positive change. Effective correctional leaders realize that individuals are motivated differently and they strive for bal­anced leadership that emphasizes firmness, fairness, and consistency.

A search of the National Criminal Justice Reference Service database pertaining to corrections officers’ workplace attitudes affirms that officers who feel stressed exhibit punitive attitudes toward inmates. Since transformational leadership appeals to social values and encourages collaboration toward goals such as crime reduction, a correctional institution is an ideal location for widespread social change to occur.

Making this shift to transformational leadership practices could likely lead to the reduction of overall inmate-upon-officer assaults and inmate-upon-inmate assaults, thus increasing overall workplace safety.

AMU Criminal Justice Professor Michael Pittaro

About the Author: Professor Michael Pittaro is a 26-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of setting. Pittaro has lectured in tertiary education for the past 12 years while also serving as an author, editor, and subject matter expert. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in public safety/criminal justice at Capella University’s School of Public Safety Leadership.

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