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HR Behind Bars

May 29, 2000
Related Topics: The HR Profession, Featured Article
It's Thursday morning, March 23, and I'll be spending the day at the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center, one of 23 prison facilities managed by the Colorado Department of Corrections. As I back my car out the driveway, I notice tulips and daffodils starting to push their fresh green tips through the hard-crust dirt of my neighbor's yard. It snowed earlier in the week, but the snow has melted and the sun is now shining with the kind of bright-chrome brilliance Colorado is famous for. It's the kind of spring day that makes you believe in God, and glad you haven't committed any felonies. Not that I ordinarily spend time obsessing about breaking the law, but today, I'll be talking to people whose jobs are to manage the flow of inmates through the state's prison system. Crime is on my mind.

I'm eager to talk to these people because I can't imagine a less enticing place to work than a prison, especially on a day like this. Like many Americans who vote, recycle, and go to bed at the same time each night, when I think of prisons I envision beer-bellied Southern guards and tin cups clanging across metal bars. Prison is a place bad people are sent. It's not the kind of place where you'd willingly spend time.

How does the Department of Corrections keep its prisons staffed in an economy where fast-food workers are making $10 an hour? I'll spend the next six hours trying to find out. The Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center is a 400-bed maximum-security compound located on treeless, high-desert ground in east Denver. Here, all newly sentenced inmates run through a battery of physical, psychological, and vocational assessments before being assigned to a regular prison to serve their time. Diabetics may be sent to one facility. Schizophrenics may go to another. But the goal of the center is not just to recognize physical needs and mental disorders. It's also to identify and recommend education and training programs for each offender.

Unlike penitentiaries where prisoners are sent to do penance -- to think about what they've done wrong -- the Colorado system appears to take its goal of corrections very seriously. Inmates may enter the system as twitchy little car thieves in orange jumpsuits, but if the state has its way, upon release they'll be ready for work in such respectable jobs as check-out clerk, highway worker, or computer technician.

It's the job of employees at the DRDC, which processes 35 new inmates a day, to determine the best way of correcting these offenders.

Upon arriving at the center, I park facing a two-story metal fence topped with coiled razor wire and enter the glass-and-cinder-block reception office. Behind the counter is a sign alerting visitors that no glass, Corning Ware, tin foil, or metal utensils are allowed. Corning Ware? I wonder what they do with that.

After exchanging my driver's license for a plastic security badge, a tall, fair-skinned young guard marches me through a metal detector and two locked gates, and deposits me in the prison's administrative offices to wait for Al Weber, my host for the day. Al is a personnel manager for the Department of Corrections. Although he works from the department's central office in Colorado Springs, about 90 miles south, he is here today to conduct a "personnel assistance visit." These visits, which began five years ago when the DOC centralized its personnel function, give Al the opportunity to answer human resources questions and see if any workplace issues need his attention. At this point, I'm assuming prisons are brimming with employment issues.

Al arrives, offering me a broad grin and a firm, warm handshake. He reminds me of the actor Brian Dennehy -- granted, a nicer-looking and friendlier version of Brian Dennehy -- but he has the same silver hair and firm, barrel-chested presence. I like him immediately. He offers me a tour and I accept eagerly.

Being self-employed, I like to play this little game whenever I visit a new workplace. It's called, "Could I work here?" If my throat constricts and I begin to visualize employees pacing their cubicles like tawny zoo lions, I win and vow to keep my work situation as is. I've been playing this game for 16 years and I still file a Schedule C, which may provide some indication how I feel about most work environments. This one will be no different, I'm sure.
I straighten my jacket, follow Al, and start playing my game.

Colorado inmate statistics

70% of inmates are first-time offenders.

The average sentence length is 5.3 years.

More than 92% of offenders are male; however, Colorado s female prison population has tripled in the last 10 years, from 392 in 1989 to 1,179 last June.

The highest percentage of offenders, male and female,are between 30 and 39 years of age.

Over 24% of inmates are incarcerated because of drug offenses.

First, we meet Dawn Hausner, an eager 20-something with straight brown hair who manages the inmate phone system. Now, I've met people who are born actors or born politicians, but this is the first time I can recall meeting someone who is a born inmate-phone-system operator. Dawn swoops up a stack of phone logs and describes to me in great, fluttering detail how many numbers each inmate is allowed, how often they make calls, and how darn crafty they can be. "We catch 'em trying to arrange drug deals while in prison," she laughs. "You have to watch 'em every minute." I nod gravely as if this is the kind of thing I know all too well.

We leave Dawn happily arranging forms on her desk and come to Ramona Toomey's office. Ramona manages a sundry array of personnel duties at the facility. She's calmer than Dawn, and we have a very adult conversation about the state's prison system. I learn there are approximately 15,000 incarcerated inmates in Colorado and 5,000 more in community corrections. To manage these offenders, the DOC staffs more than 6,000 employees, two-thirds of whom are "blue suits."

"Are these the guards?" I ask hopefully, looking for a way to segue into a discussion about the dank interior of prison life.

"We never use that term," Ramona admonishes. "We call them 'correctional officers.' We're working hard to overcome the stereotype of the brutal prison guard made famous by Hollywood."

In addition to the guards -- or officers -- the DOC staffs people in more than 200 occupations, including chefs, electricians, doctors, dentists, nurses, clerical workers, psychologists, and laundry personnel. "It's like staffing a small city," Al explains.

I find this all very interesting, but because I'm playing the could-I-work-here game I urge Ramona to tell me what it's really like to work in a prison. I want to hear about grit and fear and evil.

"I like it," she says simply. "I've been given a lot of opportunity. Most people associate prisons with what they see on TV, but it's not really like that. It's actually a very relaxed working environment."
I'm skeptical, but her boss is standing nearby.

We leave Ramona's office and Al introduces me to a string of office workers, including a personnel liaison, the plant manager, an office manager, and the warden. They talk breathlessly about their jobs. They press business cards into my hand, flip open newsletters, point to articles, and arrange for me to view a Power Point presentation on the facility. They tell me how long they've worked for the DOC, surprising even themselves with the statistics. Six years! Nine years! "Over 20, if you can believe it!" They laugh at each other's jokes and urge each other to tell me stories.

Listening, I start to sense that the DRDC doesn't get many visitors who aren't in handcuffs. Any minute now, I just know I'll be handed a paper plate and told to help myself to the cupcakes and Jell-O salad in the lunchroom. This isn't at all what I expected.

My face must give me away because Al starts reciting some amazing statistics. The employee turnover rate here is between 6 and 7 percent annually, making the workforce at the Colorado Department of Corrections the most stable of all prison systems in the country. Furthermore, the level of absenteeism is the lowest of all state agencies, including the parks and recreation, housing, and transportation departments.

The low turnover and lack of absenteeism is remarkable on its own, even more so when you consider the phenomenal growth the department has experienced. Over the last five years, the number of employees has swelled from 3,500 to over 6,000. During the same time period, the inmate population has grown by 43 percent due to tougher sentencing laws.

I'm intrigued, and as Al leads me out of the offices toward the jail cells, I wonder aloud what it is that makes people want to work here. "I'll introduce you to some folks," he smiles. "You can ask them yourself."

First, we meet Larry Jenkins, kitchen supervisor, a squat 57-year-old recently hired by the department. "The DOC doesn't care about my age," he says, while proudly showing me the facility's glistening stainless steel and white tile kitchen. "Here, I'll qualify for retirement in five years, and the state has a good pension plan."

As Larry talks, I notice several women in yellow jumpsuits quietly placing fried fish patties on aluminum trays. First, I think they are food-service employees. Then it dawns on me that they are prisoners, and I catch myself thinking how normal they look.

"What is it like managing inmate employees?" I ask."Interesting," he says, "but not all that different from managing employees in any other restaurant. Of course, you have to keep the male and female prisoners apart. Otherwise, they start acting like junior high students."

Next we meet with Peter Salus, a correctional officer who works in one of the inmate housing units, which, by the way, have no bars -- only inch-thick layered glass. I'm struck by how small Peter is. I'm 5-foot-8 and I'm looking down at this slight, dark-haired man in the blue suit. There goes my image of brawny guards. A 14-year veteran of the department, Peter tells me what he likes best about his job.

"Inmate behavior is fascinating," he says. "They have their own priorities and value system." Intrigued, I ask him to describe a typical inmate's values. "Mail and personal visits are important, and you don't dare mess with their personal property. Even a little thing like a bottle of shampoo is a big deal."
I nod, thinking how much my shampoo matters to me.
"The other thing I like about working here is that I never take my work home with me," he says. This is something few people I know can say with a straight face.
"Do you find the environment stressful?" I ask. "Yeah, but you get used to it, and things don't come up too often. In the last four months I've only had to use force once with an inmate. They're pretty relaxed here."
Relaxed? In prison?

As the day progresses, employee after employee confirms that prisoners here are relatively content, all things considered. Why?

"Because we treat them with respect and dignity," says one officer. "They have better food and medical care here than they do on the outside," says another. "The facilities are nice, the cells are clean, and each inmate has a window and running water. Because they are happy, they don't give us any trouble."

I don't know about other prisons in the state, but I have to agree if you're going to be incarcerated, this particular facility doesn't seem that terrible. Take away the cameras, barbed wire, and brick guard tower, and the DRDC looks a lot like a college dorm wrapped around a green-grass quad.

Even the director of the medical clinic, another 14-year veteran of the department, talks about her job enthusiastically. "I feel much safer here than I would at a city hospital," she says, standing in a windowless office surrounded by bales of stacked paper. "Here, the inmates are dried up, cleaned up, and have to check their weapons at the door."

It's now about 2:30, and as Al and I head toward the exit, two officers stop him to chat. This has been happening all day, not because employees have problems to discuss, but because Al, himself a former correctional officer and 20-year DOC veteran, is like an old friend. In fact, at one point an effusive black woman with tiny perfect braids and clothing the color of rainbows ran up to Al and hugged him as if she were eight and he was the Easter Bunny. I don't know many personnel professionals who provoke that kind of unrestrained joy in employees.

As Al talks to the officers, I stand to wait for him near six orange-clad inmates who are lined up along a sunny brick wall waiting to get inside the medical center. They are not handcuffed. There is no guard keeping them in line. And surprisingly, I'm not afraid. One of them looks at me, looks at Al, looks back at me and asks earnestly, "Is he the warden?"
"No," I quickly reply. "He's the human resources manager."
"Ah," nods the inmate knowingly. "Human resources for us," he asks pointing toward his chest, "or for them?" pointing toward a group of employees.
"For them," I say, silently amused by the thought of HR programs for prisoners; like they need to worry about compensation and benefits programs.

But as I think about what he said, I realize that human resource management in a prison is all about the human resources here. And in a weird sort of way, the prison environment provides a great lesson on how HR should work in any organization. Treat people well, they won't cause problems. Give them a nice environment, they won't act up. Develop their skills, they'll become more valuable citizens.

Driving home, I realize how wrong I'd been about working in a prison. The prison environment is really no more or less remarkable than any other workplace -- with one key exception. The employees here don't convey the caged-lion sense of entrapment I get from employees in many of the other workplaces
I visit. How ironic.

Just the Facts

Organization: State of Colorado, Department of Corrections

Responsibility: Managing the state's prison system, including 23 facilities and 20,000 total offenders

Headquarters: Colorado Springs

Employees: 6,000, two-thirds of which are correctional officers

HR Staff: 34 staff members, all located at department headquarters. Instead of maintaining an HR staff at each prison, the DOC appoints an employee at each facility to serve as personnel liaison.

HR Challenges:

Overcoming the dark prison stereotype when recruiting new employees.

Staffing nurses and other specialists who can make more money outside of the state system.

Encouraging employee initiative and creativity in a system that still uses a quasi-military hierarchy.

Working within the state's rigid personnel regulations. Colorado is one of two states that make specific reference to personnel activities in the state constitution.

The state locates new recruits: "Anywhere we can," says Al Weber, personnel manager. Because the DOC uses a military employment model:

Correctional officers are promoted through five levels equivalent to officer, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, and major.

Local U.S. Army bases provide a good source of new recruits.

You should know: To aid in filling correctional officer positions, the DOC recently dropped its requirement for two-year college degrees. Instead, the DOC puts each new officer on a year-long probationary period.

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