Guarding the People Factor Behind Prison Walls

Human resources professionals are challenged enough with their duties. Imagine adding to the mix the daily worry about whether you’ll walk away from your job alive. HR professionals at the California Department of Corrections not only must do their job well, but live with the possibility that mayhem can occur at any moment.

James E. Libonati, assistant deputy director in the Office of Personnel Management for the California Department of Corrections, has turned a two-month temporary job into a 12-year career at this state agency devoted to public safety and public service. Below, he describes a unique situation in which 75 percent of the 550 HR staff work inside the prisons.

What is your range of responsibilities?
I’m responsible for a great portion of the HR management program in the Office of Personnel Management. It entails hiring, which includes testing for all of our entry-level, nonpeace-officer classifications. Then, there’s the testing for promotions of everybody in the department. In addition, I have responsibility for the classification and pay program for the department and its disciplinary processes.

How is human resources set up in the state agency?
We’re somewhat splintered. In the state of California, there’s a central department called the Department of Personnel Administration. It handles the more generic activities for state employees. For example, it’s responsible for benefits administration for all state departments. State agencies like ours, therefore, don’t need to worry about negotiating contracts with health providers.

Now, within the California Department of Corrections’ Office of Personnel Management, the human resources function is structured in a way that reflects the rapid growth we’ve experienced within the last 15 years. We have a special branch called Selection and Standards, whose sole function is the recruitment, selection and hiring of all entry-level peace officers. This classification refers to all prison-custody personnel, parole agents and special law-enforcement staff. Approximately two-thirds of our 42,000 employees are peace officers who must go through our academy, the Richard A. McGee Correctional Training Center in Sacramento.

How did you land your current job at the agency?
That’s an interesting story. In the early 1980s, I worked as the personnel officer for the California Department of Water Resources. There was a vacancy in the Department of Corrections for the personnel officer job. It was a two-month, temporary position. I thought, “Why not?” For me, it was quite a promotion. Then this two-month appointment turned into 12 years plus.

How has the job changed over those years?
One of the biggest changes—not because of me, personally—was centralizing the hiring process. Some years ago, most of the responsibility for hiring and firing rested at the institution level. In the mid-’80s, California had 12 penal institutions. Each institution had its own unique way of handling things. Standards were slightly different; procedures were different. There was no one way of handling things. Then the agency centralized all of the entry-level peace-officer hirings into one place. That created a more efficient pipeline.

How do you look at growth?
Growth is a challenge. I’ve never worked in an organization as big as this. In 1985, we had 12 prisons. Today, we have 32. Back in 1985, we had 14,000 employees. Now, we have 42,000. Our new prison program was legislatively mandated, obviously. It was the will of the people as expressed to their elected representatives. They wanted more prisons to lock up more people who do bad things to society. I don’t have a problem with that. That’s what prisons are for. I support the department’s mission of public safety and public service.

Which jobs are the most dangerous —and why?
When you work in a prison, you assume some risk to yourself once you get inside the perimeter. This is one thing that’s different from any other agency. You don’t have the same type of security issues in more typical work settings. The danger factor here is going to be more prevalent among the custody staff inside. But there are also possible assaults on other staff, too—the medical personnel and culinary staff—even HR. You can’t predict what’s going to happen. Working in a prison is inherently dangerous at all levels.

As an HR manager, I’ve visited every single prison. I don’t feel threatened by going inside the prison walls. You get used to it. Once you go inside, however, you take responsibility for your own safety. You have to be constantly vigilant about what’s going on around you.

How do you go about recruiting for some of the tougher jobs?
We actually have no problem recruiting the correctional officers who comprise the majority of our peace-officer staff. Their turnover rate is approximately 7 percent, which is very good. The State offers good salaries and benefits structures. Recruitment isn’t an issue for those classifications. But we have difficulty hiring medical staff for some locations. And that’s not just doctors, but psychiatrists, psychologists and psychiatric social workers. It’s quite a responsibility for the department to assume [comprehensive] medical care for all of our inmates. And it’s even more difficult to recruit for some of our more remote or rural areas, such as Crescent City, located near the Oregon border. So [the only leverage we have] is the salary to attract the right person. The State has some flexibility, but not a tremendous amount.

Are inmates who work managed under HR?
No. We don’t consider inmate workers as employees. They’re considered a separate group—not state employees. They typically work to reduce their sentences. Many of them provide public service by cleaning parks, fighting fires or making prison products. Inmates who work typically report to their first-line supervisors who are non-inmates.

How many HR professionals actually work at the prisons?
Our department is pretty decentralized. Approximately 75 percent of our 550-member HR staff is working inside the prisons.

Does that make it hard to recruit qualified HR candidates?
A little difficult. We have to compete with the salaries of our custody personnel. We’ve even seen some of our HR staff take the entry-level custody-personnel exam because of the better salary.

Does HR staff receive special training to work in a prison?
The department provides an orientation for all new employees, which includes information about the department’s mission, how to work in a prison setting and what HR staff can and can’t do in this setting. For example, employees can’t become involved in a relationship with an inmate—however innocent. You can’t hold an inmate’s money or have any business affair with an inmate.

What are the main HR issues facing the department today?
We’ve been growing so quickly over the years that we’ve needed to hire and train new people. But there doesn’t seem to be enough time to prepare those who will become the new supervisors.

Because we have a diverse inmate population and workforce, communication skills need to be addressed in any kind of supervisory training component. So we’re spending more time examining ways to improve the personal treatment of our staff and improve our supervisors’ communication skills.

We also want to improve the quality of our supervisory staff by increasing the time it takes to get to the next pay level.

If there’s a prison disturbance, how does it impact HR?
We have minor problems almost every day, such as inmates fighting with each other. When we face a larger disturbance, our line custody staff are the ones responsible for quelling them. Our prison staff calms down the inmates, breaks up the combatants or helps the injured parties. Other than handling workers’ compensation claims, human resources doesn’t play much of a role. Ours is a service role—after the fact.

What’s the most common misperception the public has of the California Department of Corrections?
Many people think [criminals] should be put in prison with the key thrown away. But the Department of Corrections doesn’t have that kind of discretion. The prison’s role is to track the sentences of all inmates. When it’s time to release an inmate, he or she is released—regardless of how we feel personally.

How have you changed your perception of prisons in the last 12 years?
I have a greater understanding and respect for the prison environment—especially for those who are responsible for the day-to-day operations, such as the warden. This is one of the most difficult jobs in the world. Not only is a warden responsible for thousands of inmates, but thousands of employees, physical plant issues and local community concerns.

What was the most frightening experience you’ve ever had?
I was down at one of Southern California’s institutions leading a tour of officials from another governmental jurisdiction. We went into the receiving and release area, where new inmates come when they initially arrive at the prison. Well, we got locked up in a room with two different busloads of inmates—many of whom got into a fistfight. Everything worked out in the end.

Seriously though, a prison is a prison —it’s not a country club. It’s not a very nice place to be.

Workforce, June 1997, Vol. 76, No. 6, pp. 115-119.