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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

Media Contact: Jan Wenzel, 401-874-2116

URI professor helps prisons make corrections

KINGSTON, R.I. -- August 1, 2003 -- When a correctional facility needs corrections, who can it call? The answer is a group of corrections experts, including criminologist Leo Carroll, professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island. The group will send a team to visit the institution, conduct a cultural assessment, and make recommendations for change.

Hold the cell door! What on earth is a cultural assessment? And how will it help solve problems in correctional facilities?

"The assessment, created and field tested by the Criminal Justice Institute of Middletown, Conn., is a map of an institution that doesn’t appear on the table of organization. It, along with focus groups and one-on-one interviews, helps us discover the institution’s sub-cultures. For example, we can learn who actually has the power and the influence and where the sources of resistance are and how they will resist change," answers Carroll, the lead academic consultant to the nationwide project funded by a three-year National Institute of Corrections grant.

There’s never one culture within any institution, but many sub-cultures, according to the professor. Because they perform different functions, for example, correctional officers and nurses would have distinct cultures. Other factors include race, gender, specialization, the hierarchy and orientations toward offenders. "It’s not the role of a leader to develop or impose a single culture," says Carroll, "rather the role is to develop and maintain a common informal culture that supports and enhances the mission."

When asked for help, a team, composed of three to five people with expertise in different areas, will visit a correctional facility—be it a jail, men’s or women’s prison or youth training school --for three or four days. As part of the arrangement, the team must be granted 24 hour unescorted access to all parts of the institution. The team will interview the warden and key staff and union leaders, conduct five to seven focus groups with staff and offenders, have a random sample of staff complete a questionnaire designed to measure cultural values, and spend hours observing staff and prisoner behavior.

"We make it clear that the team is not there to react to what is going on, but to understand what is going on." So far, the group has helped 14 institutions.

A team focuses on five factors when assessing an institution’s culture.

o Behavior: How well is staff behavior aligned with the institution’s mission? At one training school, the team found the stated mission was rehabilitation. Yet the youths were locked up 16 hours a day and given only a half-day of outdoor recreation weekly. At a jail, the mission was security, yet officers watched a steady stream of offenders and volunteers walk through the front door without searching them.

o Language: A team will listen intently to what is being said and how it is being said. For example, officers saying they want to "do their eight and hit the gate" signals burnout. Calling female prisoners "the ladies" as opposed to "the women" implies a traditionalist perspective. Terms such as ferrets, slugs, huggers, homesteaders, white hats, suits and give-aways connote derision and conflict.

o Symbols: Are the hallways sterile white? Are outstanding staff members recognized by plaques and such in the reception area? Does the institution display inmate artwork?

o Stories: Every institution has its own stories and an institutional historian. What stories haven’t been written, but still affect the institution? At one prison it was widely believed that the previous deputy warden had dealt drugs and used inmate gangs to silence staff who threatened to expose him.

o Explanations: How do staff members reconcile the conflict between their espoused values and actual practices? In the case of imprisoning youth offenders, most of the correctional officers were close to retirement. "They wanted to do their time as easily as they could," notes the URI sociologist. In the case of the open-door jail, Carroll says, the rationale was that it was such a busy place, that officers had learned to take pride in their efficiency even at the expense of security; they didn’t want to keep sheriffs and volunteers waiting too long.

Carroll is the author of two books and more than 30 articles. The Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences selected his most recent book, Lawful Order: A Study of Correctional Crisis and Reform, as the Outstanding Book of the Year in 2000. Currently, Carroll is a member of the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Task Force on Racial Profiling in Traffic Stops.


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Page last revised Wednesday, August 6, 2003 .