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Enhancing Corrections Spaces and Cultures

The Bureau of Justice Assistance's (BJA) Visiting Fellows Program invests in current and future leaders in the criminal justice field to advance priority national policy issues and offer cross-developmental opportunities for Department of Justice (DOJ) staff and criminal justice practitioners and researchers. Each fellowship aims to make significant policy and programmatic contributions in a criminal justice focus area. Fellows collaborate with BJA and DOJ staff members to provide critical outreach, data, research, and subject matter expertise to inform the development of new BJA strategies, policies, and programs to benefit the field.

Dr. Danielle Rudes
Dr. Danielle Rudes

In this episode of the Justice Today Podcast, former fellow Danielle Rudes, Ph.D. discusses her recent fellowship, which focuses on enhancing corrections spaces and culture. Dr. Rudes concentrates on supporting correctional agencies in developing and transforming jail/prison environments, physical spaces, and staff culture to assist residents in all institutional units, such as jails and prisons, with preparing for and successfully navigating reentry with particular attention to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Staff shortages have long been a challenge for prison agencies given the work's low pay and grueling nature. However, the coronavirus pandemic pushed many corrections systems into crisis. Correctional staff retired or quit in droves while officials struggled to find help to recruit new employees. Despite starting her fellowship during the pandemic and having difficulty scheduling in-person interviews, Dr. Rudes was eventually able to interview more than 600 prison staff and residents in large and small facilities nationwide. One overlapping theme identified by staff and residents was the need for more humanity and dignity inside correctional facilities.

"The way the prisons and jails are designed, the way the policies are enforced, creates a situation where they [staff and residents] often feel disrespected, put-upon, definitely harmed. It was fascinating how much the staff wanted to be helpful to each other and the residents—and something that most people probably don't know, the residents want to be helpful to the staff, and they want to be helpful to each other." — Dr. Rudes

With a staffing crisis, Dr. Rudes found that the staff members say they want more communication and appreciation from leadership. In her interviews, countless staff relayed stories of captains who no longer made daily rounds, or managers who didn't check on staff and try to find ways to let them sleep for a few hours when staff worked shifts back-to-back. According to Dr. Rudes, when these stories go unchecked or there is no communication between staff and management, these stories become a staff’s perceived reality.

"One prison in Texas has a grill day, where the correctional staff grills all day, and then you just go get some meat off the grill. It makes them feel appreciated for the day. They also do ice cream socials. Those are super important, but I don't think an ice cream social will make up for feeling disrespected or unheard in my workspace," Dr. Rudes said.

Institutions must ensure the safety of staff and incarcerated or detained persons. With limited staff, programming is often cut to ensure the safety of every person in the facility. According to Dr. Rudes, one possible solution is expanding the use of technology to help with health, education, and other programming. With many residents stuck in their cells for up to 23 hours a day due to a lack of people to escort them around the facilities, tablets can provide learning and personal development opportunities.

To learn more, listen to the entire Justice Today Podcast:

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Date Published: May 7, 2024