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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

What’s the Scariest Part About Being a Corrections Officer?

Ask any corrections professional. They’ll tell you that the scariest part about being a corrections officer is when safety and security hangs in the balance.

Still, that’s a one-size-fits-all answer to a complex question. Many factors play a part in the dangers faced by a particular facility. If you asked those same corrections professionals to elaborate, each one would offer a fresh insight.

One such insight came from Jail Administrator Jeremiah Harmon. He’s in charge of the Adams County Jail in Hastings, Nebraska. He points to a noticeable rise in methamphetamine use in the state. This has caused a Jekyll and Hyde effect among inmates who are no strangers to the Adams County Jail.

“Before, they came in calm, cooperative and respectful,” he says. And now that meth use has gone up? “It’s the exact opposite. They want to fight and are agitated.”

That makes an already unpredictable situation even less predictable, putting officers directly in harm’s way. Of course, this is not some new phenomenon corrections workers are dealing with. However, they are now fighting a battle on two fronts.

This past July, The Marshall Project published a story, detailing the worsening issue of inmates dying from drug overdoses. Between 2015 and 2018, the number of deaths resulting from overdoses in jails and prisons has shot up 207 percent. Looking at the numbers over the last 17 years, the death toll increased by a staggering 611 percent.  

Pretty scary stuff.

That’s not the only corrections-related trend that is possibly the scariest part about being a corrections officer. Jails and prisons everywhere are grappling with an exodus of corrections officers, leading to largely unresolved staff shortages. Even a glance at research on corrections staffing shows that the problem grows increasingly dire each year.  

Take North Carolina, for example. In 2018, state records revealed that $45,553,818 was paid to corrections staff just to cover overtime hours. It’s worth noting that this was also prior to the pandemic. For added context, North Carolina prison officers earned $31,621,107 in overtime pay a year earlier—a 45 percent increase.

And that’s a very small snapshot of the unfolding crisis. Look anywhere—Nebraska, Texas, or Florida, just to name a few others—and you’ll find a familiar trend.

More than the financial strain put on state governments, a corrections crisis of this magnitude invites a host of other concerns. The most obvious among them is the threat to safety and security. Unsurprisingly, violence within the walls of jails and prisons has reached a fever pitch, with many turning to non-corrections workers to fill in.

According to a recent report from The Associated Press, some facilities have enlisted the help of cooks, nurses and teachers to pick up the slack. This has not only created a scary situation for non-corrections staff, but for corrections professionals as well. It begs the question of whether these staff members have received restraint training or have been trained to respond to correctional emergencies.   

Chronic staffing shortages have also taken a toll on new hires and experienced officers determined to remain at their post. Most are scheduled for 12-hour (sometimes 16-hour) shifts, leaving them with extreme fatigue and unable to stay sharp on the job.

As this crisis accelerates, a “chicken-or-the-egg” situation has developed. Veteran officers continue to quit en masse as corrections leaders struggle to adequately staff their facilities.

Are they leaving due to low retention and pay?

Or do jails and prisons have low retention because reliable, experienced professionals are leaving?

No matter which corrections crisis we’re talking about, questions need to be answered and solutions reached. It’s hard to imagine safety and security remaining at the forefront given the circumstances.

And as someone who’s served in a correctional setting, that’s a scary thought.

Check out our Paper.li, and never miss any corrections news!

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Press Releases

Encartele adds “CIDNET Letters” Inmate Mail Scanning Solution to Upgrade Lee County Jail

MONTROSE, IA – February 17, 2021  

Inmates at the Lee County Jail will now receive their mail electronically, and without the inclusion of contraband materials. Parent company Encartele, Lee County’s correctional communications vendor, has provided CIDNET Letters, a new application designed to digitize inbound inmate mail, which was enabled on Tuesday 2/2/21.

In the few days since, more than 100 pieces of mail have been digitized by jail staff.

As Encartele President Scott Moreland explained, “CIDNET Letters is a low-cost alternative to other inmate mail solutions. With our app, there is no mail-forwarding, meaning facilities don’t pay for third-party workers to sort through their mail. This means facilities of any size can afford to digitize their mail.”

The county’s partnership seems stronger than ever, and both sides are excited for the increased efficiency CIDNET Letters will bring in the years to come.

“This will drastically increase safety by limiting the possibility of contraband,” Jail Administrator John Canida said, “It also limits the amount of extra property the inmates will have in their cells.”

Affordable Mail Scanning for Corrections

The first letter was scanned by Lee County Jail staff on Tuesday 2/2/21, and being so close to Valentine’s day, it’s appropriate that the message was a love letter from a contact to an inmate. But unlike a normal letter, it’s possible that the writer knew exactly when the inmate had read the message, thanks to the “read-receipts” native to CIDNET.

The document scanner was already owned by the correctional facility, meaning they didn’t need to purchase any additional equipment to start using this new inmate mail scanning feature. Under some contracts, Encartele will provision a scanning device.

Pen-pals outside of the jail can still write letters to the address listed below, but from now on, all mailed correspondence will be scanned into CIDNET. To create a CIDNET account, inmate contacts can visit this website: https://www.cidnet.net/friends-and-family-portal.

2530 255th Street

PO Box 218

Montrose, IA 52639

One unexpected bonus of CIDNET Letters is the tie-in with inmate messaging app CIDNET Mail. The physical correspondence uploaded into the system is organized into a conversation view, so the external party who sent the letter can tell exactly when the inmate read their letter.

Combine that with the fact jail staff don’t need to wheel a cart around and pass out mail and it’s easy to see why Lee County Jail was eager to start using the upgrade.

To learn more about CIDNET Letters, or any other Encartele products, visit: https://www.cidnet.net/inmate-mail-scanning.

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Correctional Insights

The Musical Chord of Incarceration and Music Therapy

Music is a powerful and timeless stimulant, uniting body and mind in rhythm. Eliciting strong memories, it can be used as a therapeutic method to deal with stress, reshape behavior and encourage emotional development. In the 2011 movie, The Music Never Stopped, estranged son Gabriel is no longer able to form new memories due to a brain tumor. His father, Henry, seeks help and reunites with his son through musical therapy. Father and son are able to enjoy a relationship again while listening to the Grateful Dead because of the memories the sounds invokes for Gabriel. In real life, music therapy is used in a variety of settings, and some jails and prisons have incorporated it in an effort to rehabilitate offenders of all ages. Learn how music therapy can be used in prison reform to help achieve civil behavior both inside and outside the prison walls.

What is Music Therapy?

According to the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), music therapy is the “clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an approved music therapy program.” It can be used to improve:

  • Emotional development
  • Social skills
  • Cognitive functioning
  • Motor skills

Therapy methods can include:

  • Listening to songs
  • Singing alone or with a group
  • Playing instruments
  • Dance and movement

How Music Therapy Can Help Inmates

Inmates represent all ages, races, and backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common: memories associated with music. Because incarcerated populations experience a variety of behavioral, social, psychological and communicative challenges, music therapy can strike the right chord to connect the notes and create positive change for multiple needs simultaneously. Research has shown that anxiety was reduced in participating inmates after only two weeks of music therapy.

Just as music can assist in physical rehabilitation, it can also mark time in the prison setting to sculpt cognitive and behavioral rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is facilitated through memory when inmates hear the songs they remember from their lives before prison. The therapist understands that these memories may not all be positive and can use negative reactions to provoke discussions and encourage change. Harmonies experienced for the first time, or created by the inmates themselves, can be used to counter negative behavior and thought patterns and introduce new positive ones.

Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) can help with memory training through a variety of techniques:

  • Echoic Mnemonics Training works with memory recall and the senses registered by the memories.
  • Procedural Mnemonics develops an understanding of rules and the skills necessary to abide by them.
  • Declarative Mnemonics deals with episodic memories.
  • Associative Mood and Memory Training helps identify moods and how they shape behavior.

By identifying mood and behavior, the inmate and therapist can work together to rewrite responses so the inmate can function as a law-abiding citizen. Some specific goals in correctional facilities that are encouraged by the AMTA include:

  • Increasing self-awareness
  • Improving reality testing and problem-solving skills
  • Improving respect for others, including peers and authority figures
  • Developing healthy verbal and non-verbal communication skills
  • Decreasing impulsiveness through practical techniques
  • Accepting responsibility for thoughts and feelings
  • Learning relaxation and coping skills
  • Improving physical conditioning
  • Developing effective leisure skills
  • Exploring feelings and making positive changes in mood states

Additionally, many inmates battle with drug addiction and psychological disorders. Music therapy may also assist in specialized rehab treatment in these cases. For inmates with substance abuse problems and mental health problems, this kind of therapy can provide treatment in the five stages of diagnostic treatment:

  1. Engagement
  2. Crisis intervention
  3. Stabilization
  4. Active treatment
  5. Recovery

The Down Beat

Like any therapeutic treatment, the outcome depends not only on the expertise of the practitioner but also the willingness of the patient to make the necessary changes to achieve his or her goals. Multiple factors determine the effectiveness of any therapy, including music therapy:

  • Age, gender and socioeconomic background of the offender
  • Cognitive, physical, emotional and psychological state of the offender
  • Amount of time spent in correctional facilities
  • Degree of connection with family, friends, and community
  • Social pressures to conform or not conform to the environment
  • Substance, physical, sexual or emotional abuse

Some offenders may not respond to music, or they may respond negatively due to negative memories elicited by it. Although a well-trained therapist will have proven techniques at his or her disposal to counter negative responses, the final responsibility lies with the inmate to change the response to a positive one.

Another downside to music therapy is the effect of “escaping reality.” Although this can be a positive result and help the inmate feel empowered to make the necessary changes in life, it can also have negative effects. If not carefully monitored, the freedom factor of music may empower the inmate to revolt against the pressures of conformity and choose to revert back to a life of crime. Careful documentation of every inmate’s progress may or may not alert practitioners to this circumstance.

Music is a universal language that can be used and enjoyed in many ways. With the help of qualified therapists, prison reform may be possible for some inmates. Only time will tell.