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What it Means to be an Active Listener in Corrections

Spend a little time in a corporate setting, and you’ll probably come away knowing a thing or two about being an active listener. That’s because it’s become a bit of a buzzword in workplace training curriculum.

But in a correctional environment, active listening is more than some overused, trendy word.

On the contrary, it’s fundamental to working directly with the inmate population. Corrections officers are regularly—sometimes, daily—placed in stressful, high-pressure situations, and it’s at these times that active listening is most vital.

No universal definition of active listening exists. However, it’s generally defined by four key ingredients: being aware of your body language, suspending judgement, listening intently to understand and responding when it’s appropriate.

Here’s how each applies to the corrections space:

Be Aware of Your Body Language

Though it might sound counterintuitive, nonverbal communication is a critical component of active engagement. Your body language gives clues as to where your attention is directed when communicating with an inmate.

Make eye contact to demonstrate that you are engaged, have removed distractions and are interested in a solution. Really, body language sets the tone for the whole conversation. It could even be argued that mindful body language is a powerful de-escalation technique, putting out a fire before the match is even lit.

Giving credence to this sentiment, Dr. Jenna Curren states, “Your body language, facial expressions and gestures can contradict what you are verbally saying, so remember to match your non-verbal cues with your words.” 

In other words, you could be saying one thing verbally while your body language says another.

Suspend Judgement

The importance of suspending judgement in your interactions with inmates cannot be overstated. Take the time to learn about the inmates in your charge. Doing so empowers you to develop empathy—an extremely powerful soft skill.

Passing judgement when communicating with an inmate, whether silently or out loud, works against your ability to be an active listener. Not to mention that it risks dehumanizing, belittling or angering the inmate on the receiving end.

Now, suspending judgment doesn’t mean you’re legitimizing certain behavior or tacitly agreeing with the inmate. The Center for Creative Leadership puts it best: “Even when good listeners have strong views, they suspend judgment, hold any criticisms, and avoid interruptions like arguing or selling their point right away.”

Unfortunately, inmates—both former and current—are often written off. Many come from rough-and-tumble backgrounds and difficult circumstances.

Listening with an open mind could make all the difference in future interactions, contributing to a safer correctional environment.

Listen Intently to Understand

There’s a difference between hearing and listening; the former is passive and one of the five senses while the latter is an active, learned ability. Active listening involves drilling down as the speaker is talking to understand the meaning behind the words.

As you interact with the inmate population, pay close attention to whether you’re listening or simply hearing. Ask follow-up questions and express curiosity about what is being said.

This creates mutual empowerment: The inmate feels empowered because they feel heard and their concerns are taken seriously. You, as the officer, feel empowered because you’re learning about individual inmates and the population you supervise.

Asked if active listening has a noticeable effect on inmate attitudes and behaviors in his facility, Sergeant David Ruiz says, “Definitely.”

Sergeant Ruiz serves as the administrator of the Ferry County Jail in Republic, Washington. “Active listening helps build a sense of rapport between officer and inmate,” he adds.   

Developing rapport can be as simple as, in Sergeant Ruiz’s words, “doing our hourly walks and stopping to talk to inmates.” On those walks, his staff makes a point of asking inmates how court or a visit went or talking to them about their day.

Then, they listen.

And Sergeant Ruiz will tell you from firsthand experience that inmates appreciate having someone ready and willing to listen.

Respond When it’s Appropriate

If you’re reading this, you’re likely a problem solver in a correctional capacity.

However, to be an active listener is to know when to put your problem-solving cap on and when not to. Here’s what I mean: Sometimes, inmates simply want to express what they’re feeling.

Perhaps they’re having a tough time or suffering from depression. Rather than cutting the speaker off or coming up with an answer right away, listen to what’s on their mind and only respond when the time is right.

This is an often forgotten part of active listening not just in corrections but across the board.

But “the key to active listening,” Tonya Echols of Thrive Coaching Solutions points out, “is to stop talking and stop thinking about talking.”

Be in the know about corrections news by checking out our Paper.li!  

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Articles Correctional Insights Recidivism Tips & Facts

Three Words to Live by: Knowledge is Power

I’ve always had a profound love of sayings and proverbs in language. Few are as to-the-point and thought-provoking as this one: Knowledge is power.

The pursuit of knowledge opens so many doors. It gives us power over our lives and futures, the ability to learn from the past, the ability to learn about others and the world around us and the opportunity to pass on what we’ve learned to others.

On top of that, knowledge (to be more precise, education) staves off stagnation and helps break cycles that impede individual progress.

One of the most crippling and vicious cycles facing our nation is recidivism. Unfortunately, our jails and prisons bear the brunt of this, as they house millions of reoffenders each year.

We know that the temptations for inmates to continue engaging in behavior that put them behind bars in the first place are strong. But we also know that empowering inmates with the means to education counteracts those temptations, making the road to rehabilitation smoother.

Education and rehabilitation are practically one and the same; it’s tough to imagine one without the other. And in their darkest hour, unfettered access to information and academic literature provides inmates with a beacon of hope.

Frankly, the collective effort to combat recidivism starts from within—specifically, within the walls of our correctional facilities.

Three brothers—Cole, James and Robert Younger—recognized that knowledge is power as far back as 1887. Thanks to the Youngers, that year saw the birth of America’s oldest active prison newspaper, The Prison Mirror. Their story is nothing short of remarkable.

Just 10 years earlier, the trio led lives of crime alongside fellow outlaw Jesse James (Maybe you’ve heard of him). Together, they formed the James-Younger Gang. After their involvement in an armed bank robbery that went awry, the Younger brothers were tracked down and jailed.

Having barely dodged a death sentence and serving life in the then-Minnesota State Prison, they sought to redefine their legacy. Each of them worked their way up and obtained resume-building jobs in the prison. Eventually, this led to a love of literature and a desire to launch a newspaper.

While others had a hand in The Prison Mirror, it was the Youngers’ name recognition and funding that made the publication possible. It’s believed that one thing convinced them most: The lion’s share of the profits would be put back into the Minnesota State Prison’s library.

The rest, as they say, is history.

This revolutionary idea came at a time when inmates were underserved and often ignored. Today, the need for education in our correctional system is just as pressing. We at Encartele have highlighted the importance of prison libraries in encouraging intellectual curiosity among inmates in past articles.

When we think of structures that exist to educate, we automatically think of schools and public libraries. We attend schools and visit libraries to advance our job prospects and expand our knowledge.

If rehabilitation of inmates is the ultimate goal, why shouldn’t they be afforded that same right?

In “Books beyond bars: the transformative potential of prison libraries”, author Lisa Krolak asks that very question. She argues that prison libraries should functionally be no different than any other library.

Krolak explains, “It is important that the prison library is a special space, separate from the rest of the prison, where inmates can experience an inspiring, creative atmosphere different to their everyday cell life.”

How tangible is the impact when education is emphasized in correctional settings?

One study cited in “Books beyond bars” revealed that inmates provided with an opportunity for sustained learning were 43 percent less likely to wind up back behind bars.

For perspective, a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that nearly 45 percent of former inmates are arrested no more than a year after release.  

The evidence suggests that as access to informational resources for inmates goes up, recidivism goes down. And if that’s the case, it’s about time the phrase “knowledge is power” echoes in every hall and housing unit of jails and prisons across the country.

Find out what’s happening in the world of corrections by checking out our Paper.li!

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Tips & Facts

What is Voting in Jail Like?

The past midterm election brought voters to the polls in huge numbers. In fact, voter turnout for the 2018 midterms was over 50 percent of the voting-eligible population, which is the highest voter turnout for a midterm election in over a century.

But for a significant portion of U.S. citizens, voting wasn’t an option.

Voting in jail is a right mainly granted to inmates convicted of misdemeanors, or those who currently reside in pre-trial detention. Many states revoke a Felon’s right to vote, and that fact has sparked much debate.

Should Prisoners Vote?

The general idea behind inmate disenfranchisement is that if prisoners vote, then those who have broken the law will be able to shape and change the laws to their liking. The majority of Americans do not believe that voting in jail is a right that should be given to all inmates.

However, there has been a growing trend in recent decades to reinstate voting rights for former inmates. According to a Cambridge study only 31 percent of Americans endorse allowing people currently in prison to vote, while 60 percent favor allowing those who have exited prison to vote.

One of the highlights of this past midterm was the approved Florida Amendment 4. This amendment was written to “automatically restore the right to vote for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, upon completion of their sentences, including prison, parole and probation.”

ProCon.org explains that only two states currently extend full voting rights to those with felony convictions (Maine and Vermont). In these states, voting rights are guaranteed even while the citizen is in prison.

The majority of states allow voting rights to be granted back to released prisoners after both the completion of their sentence plus parole/probation. However, sometimes additional action (like a Governor’s pardon) is required to regain voting rights. In addition, there are 10 states in which felons lose their vote permanently (NV, WY, AZ, IA, KY, TN, MS, AL, FL, DE).

Because these rules are so different from state to state, many inmates may hear conflicting messages regarding their ability to vote. Some may not even bother trying to figure out their eligibility, let alone the specific procedures required to do so from their incarceration facility.

An Informed Voting Base

Take the case of Dustin Cordova of Denver CO who said, “I didn’t know I could vote, period, because I had been in jail for felonies.”

According to the local Channel 4 CBS Denver news, Cordova had served his time for his past felonies and didn’t know that he could vote while in jail for other charges. The Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition had to provide Cordova with information before he knew that he could vote in the 2018 midterm.

Information is extremely important when it comes to voting, especially when voting in a correctional environment, where information doesn’t flow as freely.

And though there are jails that make the effort to inform inmates when they are able to vote, sometimes that information is not available to inmates. According to the Oregon Public Broadcasting group, a 2016 investigation by Disability Rights Washington “found that only a handful of Washington state’s 38 county jails have a policy for letting inmates vote and few of those facilities actually follow those procedures.” This resulted in thousands of eligible voters being wrongfully disenfranchised.

The accessibility of information for prisoners — sometimes provided through communication with outside human rights groups — is essential to insuring that eligible voters know if voting in jail is possible for them.

Eligibility is only half of the inmate-voting question, however.

In order to be an informed voter, a person has to be exposed to the issues and the positions of the available candidates. This requires research on the part of the voter, and non-biased research is commonly conducted by visiting a library, reading the news, or by searching on the internet.

Unsurprisingly, internet access is often very limited for inmates.

Technology and the Voter

In a past blog post, we stressed the importance of inmates maintaining contact with their family and friends. It’s good for the inmates, their families, and society at large because consistent communication reduces recidivism.

Likewise, ensuring that eligible inmates have all the information they need to vote is also a public good.

The decisions that are made during elections have long-lasting effects. That being the case, many inmates want to be sure that their interests and the interests of their children are recognized.

Remember Dustin Cordova? Knowing that he could vote in jail not only surprised him, it also gave him a sense of responsibility. Channel 4 CBS Denver reported Cordova saying, “My kids are growing up, and I can have an input into their future so it was a shocker to know that I could vote.”

Whatever side of the inmate-voting debate you fall on, it’s vitally important that our nation’s incarceration facilities can deliver what the law requires. Should a state require substantive voting access for inmates, Encartele will be there ready to help jails and prisons provide it.

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Tips & Facts

How Law Enforcement has Adapted to the Digital Age

One could wager that technology has equally blessed and cursed law enforcement agencies around the globe.

On one hand, criminals are executing complex crimes behind the safety of a keyboard—moving money and people to new locations with a mouse click. On the other hand, the very technology giving criminals an arena is the same thing allowing law enforcement agencies to pinpoint drug cartel drop points and sex-trafficking routes.

Fighting Fire with Fire

At a basic level, the everyday patrolman has a myriad of technology options that, simply put, were luxury items at one time. Technologies, like dash cameras, social media outlets and information sharing platforms, are prevalent in the nation’s law enforcement agencies, according to research conducted by Kevin Strom for the U.S. Department of Justice.

Storm’s research indicated there are some major differences in what large agencies have at their disposal compared to smaller ones, but the reality is there are few agencies that haven’t seen some sort of a technology upgrade in recent years. And it would be safe to assume there likely is not a single agency that hasn’t been affected by the use of technology.

Criminals have capitalized on the fact that technology is rapidly evolving—a fact not lost on law enforcement agencies around the world.

From November 2017 to April 2018, 30.1 percent of web application attack traffic originated from IP addresses in the United States, according to Statistica.com.

These statistics also show that our nation was “the country most targeted by web attacks, suffering from over 238.6 million attacks during the fourth quarter of 2017.”

Because of this, law enforcement agencies across the United States and abroad are being forced to fight fire with fire, employ new strategies, implement new methods and change the way they handle cyber-crime, by becoming experts in the arena.

A new wave of computer science experts are making their way into the law enforcement ring to square up with terrorists, gangs, shady business owners and disruptive computer geeks looking to make a name for themselves.

For instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has made great strides in shifting its thought process by diving into the world of cyber security to meet threats head on.

Armed with Computer Science

According to the FBI’s Cyber Crime webpage, some of the changes the bureau has made to combat the ever-increasing threat of cyber-crime include: the establishment of an entire Cyber Division, specially trained cyber squads in its headquarters and in each of its 56 field offices, Cyber Action Teams, Computer Crimes Task Forces and several growing partnerships with other federal agencies such as the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security, among others.

Agencies across the nation are well-aware of the importance of cyber security, which is why job titles such as Information Security Analyst, Computer Forensics Investigator and Chief Information Security Officer exist today.

Thanks to degrees in computer science, law enforcement agencies are able to recruit highly skilled graduates with the knowledge necessary to stay one step ahead of the cyber-crime threats.

But that, unfortunately, does not mean the occurrences of cyber-crime will suddenly dry up and disappear. It means that criminals will be educating themselves and continuing to take things to the next level.

Instances of ransomware or “malicious software which locks a user’s device or data until they pay a ransom,” have steadily increased since 2013, according to a Forbes article written by Kate O’Flaherty.

Fortunately, many agencies offer recommendations to help combat the constant threat. The FBI’s Cyber Crime webpage encourages organizations to make sure preventative measures are being taken—“both in terms of awareness training for employees and robust technical prevention controls,” as well as having “a solid business continuity plan in the event of a ransomware attack.”

Recognizing the warning signs can be the difference between business as usual and files rendered useless.

O’Flaherty’s article quoted cybersecurity strategist Adenike Cosgrove, saying,‘“Cybercriminals have found new ways to exploit the human factor—the instincts of curiosity and trust that lead well-intentioned people to play into the hands of the attacker. This could be in the form of a disguised URL or seemingly benign attachment, but all it takes is one click and the ransomware can take hold immediately.”’

Humans make mistakes, but luckily law enforcement agents who are highly trained in computer science are on the front lines to ensure cyber criminals are caught when attacks do occur and make it their mission to stop additional attacks before they even start.

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Tips & Facts

Mental Health & the American Jail

“You can’t do anything right. You don’t matter to anyone. You’re worthless.”

Mental illness can be its own prison. When it’s your own mind making you feel trapped and hopeless, the difference between reality and fiction can begin to blur.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Nearly 1 in 25 (10 million) adults in America live with a serious mental illness.”

It’s incredibly likely that someone you know or meet will have experienced a mental illness at one point in their life. While there are organizations and individuals helping to de-stigmatize mental illness and champion mental health awareness, it’s still taboo and tough to openly discuss.

Asking for help can feel like the hardest possible course of action, but even when people do ask, access to mental health services can be prohibitively expensive and time-consuming.

Now imagine trying to deal with these issues while being incarcerated.

Mental Health in American Jails

The Bureau of Justice Statistics published a report concerning mental health problems, finding that “…more than half of all prison and jail inmates had a mental health problem, including 705,600 inmates in State prisons, 78,800 in Federal prisons, and 479,900 in local jails.”

These staggering figures reveal a tremendous problem. More than one million Inmates across the country must adjust to incarceration while dealing with their inner turmoil.

Offering more education and counseling programs could help afflicted inmates. Having a GED program or small-group meetings (like the ones used in Alcoholics Anonymous) could curb symptoms of mental illnesses like depression or anxiety. Learning about other people who have experienced similar hardships is a great way to set a person’s mind at ease.

In addition, discussing personal experiences with a therapist could also make the adjustment less harsh. Therapy and counseling carry the stigma of only being for people who have a “real” problem, but why not make services available to all inmates? Having a mental illness does not make inmates more hostile or any less human.

It’s important to think about these possible treatment options because many people turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with their mental health problems.

The National Bureau of Economic Research found that people who have been diagnosed with a mental health disorder consumed 69 percent of all the alcohol consumed nationwide, along with 84 percent of the consumed cocaine and 68 percent of the consumed cigarettes. This validates the theory that substance abuse and other addictions are used as a coping mechanism for dealing with mental illness.

In a Boston Globe article by members of the Spotlight team, “The Harvard-led Boston Reentry Study found in 2014 that inmates with a mix of mental illness and addiction are significantly less likely than others to find stable housing, work income, and family support in the critical initial period after leaving prison…” These risk factors directly affect an individual’s ability to resist criminal influences and escape the cycle of recidivism.

What can we do to help those with mental health disorders post-incarceration?

Outside Treatment Options

Currently, the criminal justice systems lack rehabilitation options for those on their way out of jails. Though there are transition programs in every state, funding and participation are huge factors in whether a program will endure.

Re-entry programs help to combat post-incarceration syndrome, but don’t necessarily assist in finding counseling options for ex-offenders. One reason that felons re-offend is because they fall into the same patterns and groups they were involved with pre-incarceration. But recidivism will decrease if inmates are prepared for the outside world.

Continuing therapy post-incarceration and offering community engagement opportunities could ease the isolation that comes with being released. Giving ex-offenders a purpose or place in society could make the difference as to whether or not they re-offend.

Using Technology for Mental Health in Prison

Video-chatting and live-streaming have become prevalent forms of inmate communication for many counties. Some correctional facilities now offer video visitation services and that can be used to help inmates dealing mental illness.

Offering a way to live chat with a therapist could be another incentive to acquiring such technologies. Inmates lose touch with the outside world during incarceration, and providing a way to stay connected could decrease their feelings of isolation. If the feeling of isolation increases anxiety and worsens depression in normal people, the effects must be exceptionally strong in a prison or jail.

Correctional facilities house many inmates who have mental illness and providing solutions like therapy and video visitation can help combat these emotions. Live video-chatting offers a way for inmates to connect with a therapist on the outside who could possibly help them post-incarceration.

Unfortunately, there is no “best” way to mitigate every mental illness, but providing options like therapy or video visitation in a correctional facility would be excellent first steps.