Human dignity and corrections staff

On a practical level, prison staff play the most significant role in how a prison functions and how incarcerated people experience their loss of liberty. To be faithfully enacted, the application of human dignity must extend beyond incarcerated people and include frontline corrections staff and administrators. As Andrew Coyle, a prison reform expert and former prison warden in the United Kingdom, has admonished: “If staff are to be expected to treat prisoners decently then they themselves will have to be treated decently by their management.”Andrew Coyle, Humanity in Prison: Questions of Definition and Audit (London: International Centre for Prison Studies, 2003), 14.

Achieving a system based on human dignity will require a transformation in how prison staff relate to people who are incarcerated. For a system to successfully shift from one focused on security to one that prioritizes human dignity, it must provide its staff with training and education that supports this goal. Staff education must be reoriented away from tactical training focused on commanding and controlling people—such as use of restraints, arrest and control techniques, and disciplinary processes—toward a greater emphasis on the social and behavioral management of human beings. European prison systems generally reflect this understanding. For example, the European Prison Rules require that prisons are “managed within an ethical context which recognises the obligation to treat all prisoners with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person,” pointing out that the roles of corrections staff “go beyond those required of mere guards,” and staff must focus on helping people rehabilitate and reintegrate “through a programme of positive care and assistance.”European Prison Rules, Rules 72(1) & 72(3),; and Council of Europe: Committee of Ministers, Recommendation Rec(2006)2 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the European Prison Rules (January 11, 2006). The Council of Europe subsequently developed a code of ethics for prison staff requires that “prison staff respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons.” See Council of Europe: Committee of Ministers, Recommendation Rec(2012)5 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the European Code of Ethics for Prison Staff (April 12, 2012) § C: Respect For and Protection of Human Dignity, Recommendation 11,

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Corrections officers in a system based on human dignity will be doing difficult and taxing work that requires significant training and a high level of social skill. They will be working with people going through some of the most difficult periods of their lives—people who struggle with behavioral and mental health issues; histories of trauma, abuse, and addiction; and educational deficits. A number of possible reforms, listed below, are called for in relation to corrections staff.

  • Given the nature of their new role, prison staff must develop the social and technical skills that are usually required of social workers and behavior specialists.A similar shift in focus is happening in the field of community corrections, although the impetus for the change is not a devotion to human dignity, but rather research that demonstrates that a more individualized approach results in better outcomes for individuals and communities. See Alison Shames and Ram Subramanian, “Doing the Right Thing: The Evolving Role of Human Dignity in American Sentencing and Corrections,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 27, no. 1 (2014), 9-18, 13-14 (citing research that shows that strong, positive working relationships that are based on mutual respect, openness, and honesty can increase peoples’ compliance with rules and decrease recidivism; and officers who develop a “firm, fair, and caring” relationship with supervisees have seen a decrease in recidivism). In Germany, the 24-month corrections staff training curriculum emphasizes the practical side of the profession as well as, among other topics, psychology, social education, and the legal framework of corrections. Equally important will be trainings that stress positive reinforcement and interactions, teach critical strategies that defuse tension or de-escalate potentially dangerous situations, or reinforce a therapeutic approach to correctional management.Some corrections agencies in the United States are implementing similar training models. For instance, several state departments of corrections have modified the Crisis Intervention Training model (originally designed to help law enforcement officers safely and effectively respond to people with mental illness) to apply to a prison and jail setting. A main focus of such training is de-escalation skills and techniques. See for example Gary Cattabriga, Ronald Deprez, Amy Kinner, et al., Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Training For Correctional Officers: An Evaluation of NAMI Maine’s 2005-2007 Expansion Program (Portland, ME: Center for Health Policy, Planning and Research, University of New England, 2007), Also see Dean Aufderheide, “Crisis Intervention Teams Improving Outcomes for Inmates with Mental Illness,” CorrectCare 26, no. 1 (2012), 10-12,
  • To match the expectations of this position, as reimagined, corrections officers will need not only adequate compensation that reflects the technical skills required of the job, but also community respect for doing difficult and important work.
  • Because working in prisons can be physically and emotionally challenging, corrections staff must be provided with opportunities and resources to help improve their well-being and manage their stress. Some strategies include providing easily accessible and affordable counseling and therapeutic services and support, and limiting overtime to reduce stress and mistakes due to lack of sleep or inattention.
  • The culture of the prison must support staff making use of such wellness resources. Institutionalizing a culture of self-care and safety may take some time to accomplish. Executive leadership, middle managers, and union representatives all must adopt this reoriented ideology. 
  • Prison administrators and oversight bodies should solicit staff feedback, for instance by conducting staff surveys, in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of what is working well and where they might be able to provide better support and training to employees.Some oversight groups, such as the John Howard Association of Illinois, survey prison staff to assess their prevailing attitudes and opinions of their work, the facility, and prison administrators. See John Howard Association of Illinois, “Prison Inmate & Staff Surveys,” Also see Andrew Coyle, Humanity in Prison, 2003, 65. Staff will be more satisfied and committed to their work if organizational culture supports collaboration with management and input into operations.Seble Getahun, Barbara Sims, and Don Hummer, “Job Satisfaction and Organizational Commitment Among Probation and Parole Officers: A Case Study,” Professional Issues in Criminal Justice 3, no. 1 (2008), 1-16.