Self-Assessment of Professional Capacity, Competence and Values of Prison Officers in Slovenian Prisons

In this paper the author present the provisions of Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners in Slovenia, on the basis of which prison officers in Slovene prisons have established self-assessment of their work load, competence and values. The author is a former social pedagogue and believes that there are important parallels between the recruitment and training of prison officers and social pedagogues.

The results show that the prevailing tasks are typical for workers in total institutions – inspections of rooms and units, rounds, various forms of su­pervision. Furthermore, the dominant activity is supervision of prisoners during walks and meals, and verification of presence. The persons participating in this study also mentioned the frequency of their conversations with prisoners, which is intended to have a therapeutic effect. Simultaneously, they also cooperate in the treatment with other services and experts in their institutions. Other tasks listed by prison officers include: distribution of medications, mail and supervision of tele­phone calls.

In order to be more competent they would like to receive more training in the following fields: martial arts or self-defence, foreign languages, communi­cation, andragogy, group dynamics, computer sciences, criminology, criminal in­vestigation and psychology. With respect to the values of the observed persons I established that their answers on the scale of morally questionable behaviour imply that prison officers are persons whose value compass is directed by laws, but that they are also lenient with those who are different. The paper deals also with effects of in-prison socialisation and possibilities to mitigate negative socialisation of prison officers.

Introduction : understanding prison officers and their roles

“What makes a good officer? …I don’t know. It must be a pretty hard balance because I mean you’ve got to try and develop your interpersonal relationships with others so that you can control an environment without resorting to violence every minute of the day. And you’ve got to be aware of security requirements as well. I think… you need somebody who’s very comfortable with themselves so that they feel secure enough… I’m sure a lot of it comes with experience and time in the job and… you know, learning from the past errors and so forth, but I think you need people with brains… I don’t think it’s just a matter of being able to turn up here… I think there’s a lot more to it.” (Liebling, 2001:1)

Staff are gatekeepers, agents of criminal justice, peacemakers, instruments of change and deliverers and interpreters of policy (Liebling, 2001:37). Working in a specific institution, working conditions and with specific populations require well selected personnel, good basic and advanced training, anti-stress pro­grammes and supervisors. Work in prison is a high-risk job because prison officers have to deal with people who have been sentenced to imprisonment, and imprisonment brings problems to prisoners. Prisoners and prison officers are people who have to live and work together (sometimes for several years, sometimes for decades), knowing the roles of each group.

Gilbert (in Liebling, 2002: 47) divides prison officers into four groups:

  • the professional is open and non-defensive, makes exceptions when warranted, prefers to gain co-operation and compliance through communication, but is willing to use coercive power or force as a last resort;
  • the reciprocator wants to help people, assists them in solving their problems, prefers clinical or social work strategies, may be inconsistent when making excep­tions, prefers to ‘go along to get along’ and tends not to use coercive authority or physical force when it is justifiable;
  • the enforcer practices rigid ‘by the book’ aggressive enforcement, actively seeks out violations, rarely makes exceptions, has little empathy for others, takes unrea­sonable risks to personal safety, sees most things as either good or bad, and is quick to use threats, verbal coercion and physical force; and
  • the avoider minimizes offender contact, often does not ‘see’ an offence, avoids con­frontation and coercion, views interpersonal aspects of the job as not part of the job, often backs down from confrontation, and blames others.

In addition, factors common to the ‘role model’ prison officers are as follows (ibid.):

  • having known and consistent boundaries. It did not matter so much precisely where these boundaries were, provided they were effectively communicated to prisoners and consistently policed;
  • a quality for which we were unable to find a better term than ‘moral fibre’ -confi­dence, integrity, honesty, good judgment (flexibility);
  • an awareness of the effects of their own power;
  • an understanding of the painfulness of prison;
  • a professional orientation; and
  • an optimistic – but realistic – outlook; the capacity to maintain hope in difficult cir­cumstances.

After a literature review (Liebling, 2001: 45; Houston, 1999) I can conclude that role model characteristics of prison officers are as presented in figure 1.

The profile is an aspirational one – no one person can be all of these things. If these are the attributes of the ‘perfect’ prison officer, can such an officer exist?

Selection and training of prison personnel is of a great importance because high expectations can be achieved to a certain degree with the selection of candidates and proper basic and advanced training of prison officers.

Selection and training of prison officers

The selection and training of personnel working in penal and correction institutions carries great responsibility. According to the UN and European Council collections of documents (Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners : 32), special attention should be paid to the new role of prison staff, which has been changing from that of a guard to a member of an important service in the society requiring capacity, suitable education and good cooperation between group members.

This new definition should be also reflected in the endeavours to increase the number of specialists, e.g. physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, teachers and instructors, among prison staff. However, the introduction of increased specialisation could hamper a uniform approach to the treatment of prisoners and also create problems in coordinating the work of different specialist staff members. Our objective is to ensure that all specialists as a group participate in the treatment of prisoners. It is also necessary to ensure that all specialist services share a common view of the treatment through a committee or by means of coordination, or in some other way. In this way the prison staff can gain a deeper insight into the various aspects of a problem under consideration.

The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners : 1 stipulate that supervis­ing personnel must have suitable education qualifications and characteristics in order to perform their tasks efficiently, and continue with education and training. Expert evaluations of professional capacity, and intellectual and physical abilities are recom­mended in these Rules. The candidates accepted must be offered the possibility of a trial period during which the competent authorities may form an opinion on the candidate’s personality, character and abilities (ibid: 34).

Prison officers must have a suitable professional education, and their training should be organised in the following three phases:

  • The first phase is organized in the prison, in order for the candidate to learn about the problems associated with the relevant type of work and for his superiors to establish if this candidate has the required qualities. During the initial period we should not burden a candidate with responsibility, but rather appoint a regularly employed staff member for constant supervision. Prison directors should organise basic training courses for candidates, focusing on practical issues.
  • During the second phase the candidate should attend school or courses organised by the central prison administration. The latter is also responsible for the practical training of prison staff in their profession. Special attention should be devoted to understanding appropriate attitudes towards prisoners, which must be based on the fundamental principles of psychology and criminology. Training courses should, among other matters, include sessions on penology, management structure in prisons, criminal law and related subjects. In the first two phases, training should be organised in groups, since it is easier to observe whether they are prepared for this kind of work, and it also facilitates the orga­nisation of training.
  • The third phase targets candidates who have successfully passed the first two phases and shown personal interest in this work. In this phase the candidates perform the actual tasks. They must be monitored and their capacities evaluated. They must be afforded the opportunity to attend more demanding courses in psychology, criminol­ogy, criminal law, penology and related subjects.

The Rules also define the significance of in-service training, i.e. to maintain and improve the level of knowledge and professional capacity after assuming a post and during employment by attending more demanding courses in work-related topics. In-service training of prison officers must focus on issues of principle and problems concerning methods, and not solely regulations and rules (ibid: 37).

Total institutions

In addition, we must be aware that prisons are total institutions where, due to the way of life, organisation of work and inter-personal relations, it is possible to speak about values that are different from those of the majority population in a certain society.

Goffman (according to Flaker and Urek, 1988) defines a total institution as an institu­tion that is usually perceived as a place (building, room, area) where an activity is regularly carried out, where an institution so to speak comprises all the aspects of an individual’s life cycle (work, entertainment, recreation, etc.). Because of this they can be called total institutions. The fence erected by these institutions between themselves and the external world symbolises this total coverage. These institutions are physically distanced from the rest of the world (using walls, forests, swamps, fences, etc.).

In our society institutions can be classified into five broadly defined groups:

  • institutions for those who cannot take care of themselves and are not dangerous (institutions for the blind, the old, the poor, orphans);
  • institutions for those who are unable to take care of themselves and are dangerous to the community (hospitals with TBC patients, psychi­atric institutions);
  • institutions protecting the community against certain danger (pri­sons, camps for prisoners of war);
  • institutions in which certain jobs are performed (ships, military barracks, boarding schools, work camps); and
  • institutions for religious retreat (monas­teries).

These institutions have the following in common:

  • all the aspects of work are carried out in the same place and under the same authority;
  • each phase of a daily activity is carried out in front of a large number of people who are treated equally and requested to do the same tasks simultaneously;
  • there is a timetable for everything imposed by the superiors through a system of explicit rules and a body of officials;
  • different imposed activities form a uniform rational plan aimed at attaining the official goal of an institution.

Houston (1999: 83-87) discusses the importance of values in prison and their impact on behaviour of the staff and prisoners. In correction, staff values revolve mainly around staff solidarity, safety of personnel and perceived dangers.

Kauffman (in Houston, 1999: 85) describes how members of the guard force stick together and become a tightly knit group with its own rules and code of conduct. Violation of the rules is likely to cause the group to invoke sanctions to one degree or another. Kauffman identifies nine norms that reflect the values of the prison officer subculture.

In the following part of the paper, I will deal with self-assessment of professional capacity, and competence of Slovenian prison officers. The Law on the execution of penal sanctions (2001) defines basic skills that prison officers most obtain before starting a job in prison, permanent training and re-evaluation of prison officer’s work abilities and skills. In addition to this, before starting a job in prison, every prison officer must swear that he/she will perform his/her job with respect and honour.

Slovenian legislation is in accordance with international treaties, standards of the UN and recommendations of the Council of Europe regarding treatment of prisoners and training of prison officers.

Results : the work of prison officers

The work of prison officers is somewhat mundane and their primary responsibility is to prevent escapes and fights or other types of mayhem. The work of prison officers goes beyond guarding and preventing fights. The following results imply the most prevalent daily activities of prison officers.

We selected those answers that were most frequent and best reflect the actual situation, namely the workload and tasks of prison officers in Slovene prisons. The answers were classified with respect to frequency, and no changes were made as to the contents. The total number of answers does not match the number of respondents, since some answers were missing and in some instances several answers were given.

The most prevailing daily duties of the studied prison officers concerning prison security are inspection of rooms, units, communal room; inspection work posts, changing rooms and wardrobes; rounds; supervision over food distribution; night checks and supervision of the courtyard. Prison officers supervise prisoners while on walks, during meals, by verification of presence, personal inspection, while accompanying prisoners, controlling telephone calls and controlling them at work.

Prison officers are involved in treatment of prisoners and participate in discussion groups, provide prisoners with crisis assistance, are active in work with prisoners and participate in implementation of treatment programmes. Prison officers also cooperate with expert services and provide them with observations of prisoners, cooperate with other departments within the institution, attend expert group meetings and participate in problem solving meetings. Beside control and therapeutic activities, prison officer’s daily tasks are also to distrib­ute mail and medications to the prisoners.

Regarding analytical skills, a prison officer does about the same job as a dormitory tutor or a military officer – collects data on the number of prisoners, reads reports of other departments/experts, assigns prisoners and takes care of discipline.

Prison officers do not perform their job in a social vacuum. In addition to close cooper­ation with fellow prison officers, they are also involved in many activities of other de­partments (health, treatment, administration, etc), so they cooperate with physicians, psychiatrists and psychologists. In addition, they cooperate with social workers and ‘edu­cators’, prisoners’ relatives, criminal investigators and others (priests, ombudsman, representatives of embassies).

Skills of prison officers

Prison officers who participated in this study assess the need for additional training/ education in the following domains (ranking from the most to the least important): self-defence, foreign languages, communication skills, andragogy, group dynamics, use of computer, criminology, criminal investigation, psychology, penology, solving drug-related problems, administrative procedures, criminal law, psychiatry, first aid and anti-stress techniques.

Time needed to carry out the work of a prison officer

The prison officers studied estimate that it usually takes at least a year of practice in prison to carry out the work of a prison officer in a professionally competent manner. Prison officers take basic training, then go to prison where they work for another six months and finish the training outside the prison. After finishing the training a prison officer starts working as a relatively competent staff member in prison.

According to the prison officers nearly everything that is prohibited by law and sanctioned is inadmissible (fraud, theft, bribes) including the morally questionable behaviour that can be observed in society, in the form of minor human weaknesses (free transportation, lying for your own benefit, keeping the money you found, etc.). Different and less desired behaviour (homosexuality, prostitution – with the exception of the use of drugs) was more moderately assessed. The officers were also tolerant towards the right to abortion and divorce, but this is acceptable also to the majority of people in our environment.

A reasonably high degree of intolerant attitudes – in particular towards behaviour restricted by regulations and laws – was observed in prison officers; this matches the conditions of their work, which is predominantly supervisory and restrictive. The reasons for their low level of tolerance could be found in their primary personality structure or in their socialisation in the professional environment as well as work re­quirements. We may assume that their value system affects both their performance and their relations towards prisoners.

Concluding remarks

The results of the analysis of the self-assessment of professional capacity, competence and values of prison officers in Slovene prisons show that their predominant activity is to supervise prisoners and provide security in prisons. The officers also mentioned dis­cussions with prisoners, assistance to prisoners in crisis and cooperation with expert services in prisons. Among other tasks, the distribution of consignments was ranked first, followed by the distribution of medications and supervision of telephone calls.

In order to improve their competence, prison officers would like to receive more training in the following fields: martial arts, foreign languages, communication, andragogy, and different techniques for conflict resolution. In their opinion, it is necessary to work for 1-2 years in order to become competent at the job.

The predominant daily tasks include: verification of presence, assignment of jobs, su­pervision of prisoners and their activities, ensuring compliance with the house rules. All these activities are very similar to those performed by teachers in homes for secondary school students, officers in military barracks and other similar institutions where strict rules apply.

Pe?ar (1988: 130) wrote that the basic role of the mechanisms of formal supervi­sion is to make a comparison between the behavioural compliance and the regulations or rules. This is the key activity of any mechanism that is for our purposes associated with this role. Thus the many different activities of numerous professions, including those of prison officers, are highlighted. They all constantly observe, evaluate and – in the form of corresponding “feed back” – react to the client’s behaviour with available means for individual phases or procedures in the supervisory activity. This activity is also reflected in the study results on the values of Slovene prison officers.

Pe?ar (ibid.) states that the bottom line in a supervisory activity is to observe people and what they are doing. On the basis of an investigative formula dating back centuries, a scheme was designed a long time ago telling us what we need to find out in order to be able to say that something in the behaviour of the client – the observed person – is really what enables the officially guaranteed possibility of interference in the privacy of an individual on the grounds of suspicion that he committed an unlawful act (in our case these are the reasons for personal investigation, investigations of work places, changing rooms, wardrobes/cupboards, supervision of food distribution, etc.).

Pe?ar (1988: 193) also speaks about the significance of the supervisor’s personality, since in cases where there is discretion – when decisions are being made on how to treat a prisoner – the personality of a supervisor plays an important role. He/she may be good or bad, merciless or not persistent, relaxed or introverted, kind or arrogant, just or unjust, impartial or honest, accepted or undesired and the like.

The responses on the question about the desired training courses in this study manifest the deficiencies expressed during self assessment in relation to quality performance of a prison officer’s work: martial arts or self defence were most frequently mentioned, which might indicate the desire to be more self-confident, physically more fit and better capable of mastering prisoners.

The wish to speak foreign languages, gain knowledge of social skills, understanding of the treated population and the ways to assist prisoners were in the second place. This raises the question – as with other pro­fessions dealing with risk groups – of what comes first: the motive of help, or supremacy, or the wish to demonstrate one’s power, both physical and mental.

Professionalisation should also be noted, since it is closely linked to professional education and training and is an imperative which should enable control mechanisms to treat deviance more successfully (Pe?ar, 1988: 205). Professionalisation is twofold and has an impact, both on an individual in the organisation in which he performs his job and on the organisation that was assigned the task of carrying out legally based responsibilities concerning supervision.

Professional education and training are increasingly becoming more indispensable and requisite – be it for policemen, criminal investigators, prosecutors, judges or prison officers. Different qualifications are required for enabling experts to perform their work. In addition to specialisation for specific tasks in criminal justice, a comprehen­sive programme for learning about the functions and roles of supervisors, individuals and institutions alike, should indeed be considered.

Gorazd Meško lectures at the Faculty of Criminal Justice and Security, University of Maribor, Slovenia

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