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Careers in Criminal Justice: Corrections - Issues In Correctional Careers

unions stress institutions workers

Employment of women and minorities. Historically, prison and jail staffs have been principally white males. However, the demographics of correctional employees have changed dramatically during the past two decades. In 1999, women comprised 32.5 percent of all agency staff in adult correctional agencies, while 29.6 percent of all agency staff were nonwhite (Camp and Camp). Today, minorities and women are a vital part of the correctional workforce. What is more important, they function in every capacity of the work environment, as correctional officers, supervisors, and senior managers, as well as superintendents and wardens. Although women, African Americans, and Hispanics remain under-represented when compared to their presence in the general population, correctional agencies are committed to spending time, effort, and resources to make their institutions culturally diverse. These efforts are based on the conviction that effective institutional management depends on a heterogeneous staff that can relate to and communicate with an equally heterogeneous inmate population.

Labor relations and unions. Public unions in corrections are a relatively recent phenomenon. While correctional officer unions did not emerge until the late 1950s and 1960s, they are now established in almost every state. Operating under the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), first passed by Congress in 1935, correctional employees have the right to organize and to be represented by a union of their choice. Employers, in turn, are required to enter into agreements with the union regarding their workers' terms and conditions of employment. Both employers and unions must follow established collective bargaining procedures. While private-sector union members have the right to strike as a last resort during labor negotiations, public-sector workers such as correctional or police officers are prohibited, for the most part, from any strike activities. One of the fastest-growing unions is the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents a large number of corrections employees. There are many other unions at the national, state, and local levels, each of which is committed to improve working conditions for their members. Most unions are concerned with issues of safety, pay, fringe benefits, performance evaluations, disciplinary procedures, job protection, training, recruitment, and career advancement. Unions have also been a driving force behind the previously discussed accreditation of many correctional institutions by the Commission on Accreditation for Corrections.

Compared with previous practice, unions have made labor-management relations more complex. Employers can no longer hire and fire workers in an arbitrary manner. With the help of the unions, workers are now entitled to legal representation in all work-related matters. On the negative side, unions have on occasion taken strong adversarial positions toward management. And when management and labor are bogged down in protracted and stormy disputes, the ensuing mutual distrust serves to corrode the mission of corrections. Since unions are likely to remain a permanent part of the correctional landscape, management's best approach will be tolerance, coupled with the development of sufficient collective-bargaining skills to preserve its administrative prerogatives.

Working conditions. Work in correctional institutions can be stressful and at times hazardous. Jails and prisons, with their fences, barbed wire, gray walls, incessant din, artificial lighting and stale air, are gloomy places at best and highly inhospitable, dangerous abodes at worst. While newer institutions provide more pleasant work environments, the majority of facilities are older, overcrowded, and lack air conditioning. In 1998, there were almost fifteen thousand assaults committed by inmates on staff. Over two thousand of these staff members required medical attention (Camp and Camp), which averages out to 304 such assaults per week. Given the large number of inmates held under lock and key in the country, the rate is not inordinately high. Nonetheless, it speaks to the difficulty of the job.

Supervising and managing difficult, distressed, and sometimes dangerous inmates, whether they are located in institutions or in the community, make corrections work a difficult and demanding profession. It is interesting to note that most stress experienced by correctional workers emanates from, or is influenced by, the correctional organization. For example, a major source of stress is role conflict and role ambiguities. This is because officers must strike a delicate balance between maintaining control and providing assistance to inmates, probationers, and parolees. Characteristics intrinsic to the job are other sources of stress. For example, security levels of prisons and work assignment to specific shifts are highly correlated with stress. Perceived dangerousness and officer-client-inmate contact go to the heart of corrections work. There is evidence that probation and parole officer stress and burnout are consistently tied to such stressors as hostile and antagonistic client contracts, critical decisions involving dangerous offenders, work overload, and insufficient resources (Champion). Finally, organizational characteristics as they relate to administrative and supervisory matters are still another, major source of stress. Included here are flawed supervisory activities and leadership, faulty communications between departments, institutions, program staff and the officers, lack of decision latitude, feelings of alienation and powerlessness, and a lack of participation and input in the organizational decision-making process. Given the many challenges presented by working in this field, it will be the task of today's correctional managers to improve their organizational climates so that stress is either reduced or eliminated. In addition, managers must marshal to the fullest their workers' commitment to their work and to the mission of their organizations.

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