Why is it so difficult to effect change in correctional practices?
As the previous blog posts indicated, the research is in and it’s pretty clear. Resources should be prioritized to the higher risk populations; programming should be targeted to address individual risks and needs; lower risk populations should be supervised with less intensity; mixing high and low risk populations in community-based programs or prison facilities is bad, bad, bad.
I could go on.
Which points back to the opening question: why is it difficult to effect change correctional practices?
Change is Hard…. and Necessary
I’ve been doing some research on this question and have come across some interesting resources. Before delving into their findings and musings, it’s first worth acknowledging that ‘change is hard.’ This is true for individuals and it’s true for organizations and bureaucracies (collections of individuals).
As the Stages of Change spells out, the first step (after pre-contemplation) is to recognize the need for change. Here, the evidence is clear. Although recidivism is an imperfect and blunt instrument, current levels of re-incarceration are dismal under any light. Given the amount of public dollars invested in corrections, we should be able to expect better outcomes.
Recidivism statistics are the easy part of the story. Look inside the walls of a prison facility and the need for change becomes even more clear. Prison life and culture are dehumanizing, for everyone involved. This harsh reality is hard to square with many of the stated missions and values of correctional agencies, or the expectations of the public. Although politicians may still espouse getting ‘tough on crime’ (and by extension ‘criminals’) to get elected, evidence indicates that this slogan both produces bad outcomes; and diverts attention from our collective responsibility. We can, we must do better.
Make A Plan
Recognizing the problem is the first step. The next step is more difficult: coming up with a plan and then effecting change. As I mentioned above, I’ve been doing some reading on factors that enable and support organizational change; and some of the change-averse characteristics inherent to corrections. I want to highlight elements from the readings and add a few observations of my own.
In 2011, CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) conducted a study of organizational culture change at six different European public and private entities. Each of these organizations had undertaken a change process after recognizing that their existing practices and culture were no longer effective, efficient, or sufficient to advance their core interests.
After surveying and evaluating the organizations, CIPD issued a report that detailed the successes and challenges of their change initiatives. The report finished by highlighting seven recommendations for organizations that want to undertake broad culture and practice change:
- Have a Plan: When undertaking an intentional shift in organizational culture and practices, there should be a carefully considered plan that details why the change is necessary; what values inform the change; and what current practices are worth keeping and why.
- Be Transparent: Staff and stakeholders should understand why the change is necessary; the underlying motivations for making the change; and where and how their voice and perspective will be included in the change process and decision-making
- Leadership: Leadership must be engaged, empowered, and committed to the change process at all levels of the organization; and also include policy-makers and political leaders who have a stake in the change process.
- Buy In: Gaining buy-in from line-staff is essential to a change process. Employees should perceive the process as being fair; and see how the change can support their growth, skills, and potential compensation.
- Be Clear Eyed: Going into a change process, the organization should understand and address potential resistance. The organization should also review how its internal structures may limit the impact of the change.
- Be Accountable to the Change: Leadership and employees should be able to see a direct connection between the culture shift and what is expected from their performance. Training should be recalibrated to meet the newly-defined needs of the organization.
- Measure the Change: Change is a process; progress should be systematically tracked through both quantitative and qualitative measures.
Recognize and Address the Challenges
In a 2004 talk, Ed Latessa takes a more anecdotal approach in highlighting the challenges to changing the culture and practices specific to Corrections. Interestingly enough, however, Latessa comes to some similar conclusions as the CIPD report:
- Organization Readiness: Recognizing that change is difficult, change agents should understand the ‘politics of change’ at all levels; and then make a plan that takes these politics into account.
- Leadership is Essential: Correctional change needs champions and ‘heroes,’ including politicians and policy-makers who can provide ‘cover’ for the Corrections staff who are embracing risk with a change process.
- Data, not Personal Experience, should Inform Change: Latessa acknowledges a challenge that is, in some ways, unique to Corrections: ‘everyone is an expert’. Culture and practice shifts, he asserts, should be driven by data-informed policies, not ‘arm-chair expertise’.
I’d like to add a few of my own reflections, also anecdotal, about the challenges of implementing change in Corrections.
- Risk Averse: “A good day in Corrections is a day we’re not in the news.” This common refrain belies a deeper truth: Corrections typically only makes news when something goes wrong. Change, however, invariably involves risk-taking; it also begins with a recognition that current practices and culture are neither effective nor efficient.
- Top Down: As with many large bureaucracies, Corrections’ decision-making structure flows downward (often in the form of ‘directives’). Enabling and empowering leadership and expertise at all levels (CIPD Recommendation #3) doesn’t come naturally.
- ‘Siloed’ Services: Corrections is often a compilation of ‘sub-departments’, each with their own culture, priorities, and practices. In spite of a commonly-framed mission, these cultures and practices may in fact be at odds with each other, undermining change efforts.
- Initiative Fatigue: Seasoned Corrections staff have witnessed a lot of change initiatives come and go. A healthy dose of skepticism (and passive resistance) is a natural response to yet another change initiative.
How do we move forward? This question both points to my next post, which will look at ways that the Restorative Approach can facilitate and enable change in Corrections; and invites a summary of the core issues at hand:
The research is clear about what we should be doing…
The harmful consequences of inaction are readily evident…
Culture and practice change in Corrections is difficult…
…and critically necessary.