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Media Stereotypes Hamper Prison Employee Hiring, Retention Rates

Experts dived into the environment faced by corrections workers and discussed potential solutions for improving employment rates during a webinar hosted by the Urban Institute.

TaLisa Carter, a faculty member of American University's Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology, said it’s crucial for workers to develop accountability.

Accountability, professional development, and understanding “the real role of a supervisor in terms of developing people rather than punishing people,” is what Andie Moss, Founder and President of The Moss Group, called important.

Carter said that a corrections career is a profession that must be respected. She said that the exposure jails and prisons receive in the news and entertainment media may not accurately reflect the experiences of the inmates and workers.

While the average experience of incarceration is relatively boring, the media dramatize prison encounters. Programs like ‘” Love after Lock Up” or “Law and Order SVU” have sensationalized prisons and jails and offer unrealistic depictions by using clickbait and highlighting outrageous behavior, Carter said.

She said the implications of these types of media exposure affect recruitment and the retaining of workers. “My research shows that college graduates by and far think corrections is the least attractive profession in the criminal justice system,” Carter said.

The inaccurate portrayal of what correctional officers must face and deal with can lead to layers of burnout and fatigue that Carter says can contribute to low retention rates. “It's exhausting to be a correctional officer and exhausting to fight the stereotypes,” she said.

Moss said preparing staff to understand media strategies helps to prevent it from affecting their work.

She said the criminal justice system needs to reset its expectations and maintain its values during a time of low employment.

Another issue penitentiary staff members face is balancing their work and home life, Moss said. While trying to ensure that their families are healthy, at work they often must deal with double shifts and exhaustion. “We're not at our best,” Moss said. “Our judgment is not good.”

Supervisors should engage with staff constantly and consistently to help decrease stressful aspects of working in the criminal justice system.

“It's just so important that we listen to our staff, but also think what can we do that we haven't thought about before to really maintain professionalism.,” Moss said.

Carter said that although a key to retaining workers often relates to salary issues, it does not solve the employment turnover problem. Moss added that research shows that workers decide to leave because of poor supervisors and a lack of order in the facility.

Trauma-informed care and responses to the conditions staff faces will have the most value on staff retention rates, Carter said.


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