My most recent, past, work experience has been two years spent working as the Human Resources Coordinator in a correctional prison setting. It was an experience unlike any other I have ever had, and it challenged me in more areas than I could ever have imagined.
When I resigned, on my last day of work, I gave a little goodbye speech, and mentioned that I knew the first week I worked I was going to hate the job. That is very much the truth. I knew right away the position as it had been presented to me was not exactly as presented. I may have a doctorate, but it is decidedly NOT in accounting, and much of the position involved processing payroll and all that goes along with that process. My background is in organizational leadership psychology, the OTHER side of human resources that works on developing and empowering staff, working to eliminate turn over and employee resistance to change.
I can tell you that the powers that were, were not interested in the side of human resources I came from. Even now I marvel at the nearsightedness of the leadership in that organization. I was continually told to “work” on morale. But here is the thing about morale…
it exists in an intrinsic state, meaning it is intangible and is different for each person. Yes you can hit on generalities that impact morale one way or another, but morale is largely contingent on how and individual interprets and feels about a situation. Prisons by and large have huge issues with turnover, so morale thrown about as the answer to a problem when, in fact low morale is a side effect of a bigger issue, is ignorant and should not be present in top level leadership.
The phrase continually thrown about by leadership was, “Do we do what we say we do.” The longer I was there the more I came to seriously detest that phrase, because it did not apply to anything consequential.
Lesson 1: We do NOT do what we say we do, or low morale and turnover would have been addressed in a manner that actually encouraged staff and let them know they mattered to the organization.
What I learned? I learned to endeavor to be authentic in what I do and to remember that people are what matter. They are not commodities that are interchangeable.
I was sitting at a table in Cheyenne with lots of important people discussing the processes involved in training and hiring. I mentioned a particular process that was being given way to much credit in the hiring process and mentioned that while it was a good measure of a certain period of time, it could not represent a good assessment of the individual. The instrument was not being used correctly. One of the individuals leading the forum pointed out to me, in a manner indicating I had no place to question, the instrument had been created by “all kinds of qualified individuals as well as academics, even…”
“Doctors?” I finished the sentence for her and continued, “Yes I’m well aware who develops these instruments, as I have been trained to do so as well. I’m questioning the use, not the integrity of the instrument.” At that point one of the other staff said, “I think Dr. Noonan is probably the only person here qualified to assess the instrument.”
In the time I was with the organization, I was never asked to use any of my advanced skills. I volunteered, was willing to do anything to try to make things better for my staff, but my knowledge base was never tapped, and I saw that happen with people across the organization. It was as if leadership was threatened by having diverse and knowledgeable staff, yet that is the kind of staff they like to hire.
Lesson 2: The abilities you bring with you will not be developed, and if you attempt to think outside of the box, the box will be flattened, and you will be categorically dismissed as a viable option for advancement in the organization.
What did I learn? This was a tough one. I learned I must not look at other people and places to validate the work I have done, because they may very likely discount me or be so threatened by what I have worked for, I will be considered a trouble maker and not considered for promotions. I learned I must define my abilities and grow myself.
I have never loved a group of work colleagues as much as I love the people out at the Farm. I did everything in my power to make things better for them, to protect them in their jobs, and to help them in areas where they were suffering. Leaving was very difficult in the sense that I felt I was abandoning them. Don’t get me wrong. I was no savior, but I felt very responsible for their well being at work. It just got to a place were I was being pulled too many directions, my mental health was deteriorating rapidly, and I had been asked to represent a side of a an issue with an employee I felt was a breach of my ethics both in my professional status and my personal code.
At some point you have to really face the “beat them or join them” mentality. I was faced with either joining in on something I felt was unethical and implemented by the ego-maniacal with support from pure cowardice, or quit. There really was no way to beat them, as the structure is corrupt from the top down. Everyone wants to wash their hands of a situation and say, “Not mine.” No one ever wanted to stand up and say, “This is wrong. This should not be happening, and I refuse to budge on this, no matter the cost.” I guess in a way they did me a favor, because I had no qualms about my stance in the situation. My resignation was a definite period on the end of a too long, drawn out a sentence, but I made my reasons for leaving very clear.
Lesson 3: It is impossible to truly support the unethical with ethics. People become passive aggressive in situations where they have no recourse, and passive aggression is not good, because it perpetuates deception, lying, and manipulation.
What did I learn? I learned that even when I’m in a place where I’m suicidal on a regular basis, fighting for, well, my life really, I’m still capable of drawing lines in the sand for things I know are not right. It’s often ugly. I’m not especially graceful at it, but I will do it when I know I must.
Working in Corrections is a thankless job and so very difficult. The culture is really, truly dark. But if you have a prison in your community, do not mistreat and badmouth those who work there. For one thing, they are the reason you can sleep at night without worrying about inmates running amuck. Another reason, is that they are the back line of law enforcement. Yeah, I know things happen and not everyone is interested in operating with ethics in all levels of an organization. I get it, but we need to show those who work such jobs that we appreciate their commitment, because I can tell you first hand they are not well treated by the organization that employs them, and we should be thankful someone is willing to work in those facilities!
I learned lessons at the Farm that broadened my scope of understanding of a culture that is very private and closed off from society at large. Part of the way inmates are kept in line and part of the way staff are kept in line is the “need to know” mentality where very little information is given. If you keep people in the dark, for the most part they will make few waves, because they are stumbling about, unable to see what is going on. I also believe that the culture is extremely reactive rather than pro-active. That is dangerous in any culture, because people are not prepared, and things that could be avoided with prudent planning are simply not addressed until the aftermath.
Now that I am no longer employed in the correctional setting, the walls of the culture have closed back in over themselves, leaving me standing on the outside. There is so much I cannot talk about that happens in prison culture, and I suspect it’s not just about keeping what is confidential, confidential. It is also very much about what I heard staff mention many times, “The community hates us,” and I would agree that communities do not like having prisons within view, but the employees there make it safe. It is important to support the staff at prisons, encourage them to be involved in the community as accepted members, and let them know they are appreciated.
So I guess that is the 4th lesson I learned. I learned to pay attention to cultures and systems that are different to my own and to always be cognizant of the fact that people need to be accepted and part of a community even if where they work is not especially applauded by the community at large. We all play a role in life; in our communities; in our homes. I don’t ever want to be the reason someone else struggled to succeed in any of those areas, and now having been there, I am especially aware of this in the correctional setting.