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Archive for March, 2013

Multi Tasking: “Juggling on the Job”

March 11th, 2013

When you work inside of a jail or prison, it seems at times that you are jumping from one problem to another, juggling one task to another. Inmates come to you with question after question, request after request. Your head spins and you can hardly hear yourself think.

A friend spoke to me recently about multi tasking and wondered about its application to corrections work. I replied that it is part of the job-but it does not have to be overwhelming. Correctional institutions are generally short staffed and in lean budget times supervisors are instructed to “do more with the less”, the translation being: fewer staff for heavy workloads.

What does this mean for the rank and file officer? Over time we see posts with one officer, officers unable to take breaks from the inmates, and over time officers experiencing stress and fatigue. And-rank and file officers are not the only ones affected. Any personnel that work with or around inmates feel the pressure. Medical staff sees more inmates on sick call; kitchen staff sees the increase in the meals that have to be prepared and classification and booking staffs have to interview more inmates, book in more inmates and handle more inmate problems. Everyone, from mental health to maintenance feels the “pinch”.

So-what can a correctional worker do to effectively juggle all of the tasks and responsibilities that come with the job? There are some methods-and they all start with the individual staff member. They take decision making skills, a sense of priority, a maintaining of calmness and a willingness to look at themselves.

So-in the interest of training, let’s have a short roll call discussion about “Juggling on the Job”:

Saying NO: This is probably the most important thing that you can do when dealing with a lot of inmate requests at the same time. You are the “traffic cop”. You can halt traffic at your post, secure the inmates and later listen to what they want in an orderly fashion. When inmates come to you asking for this or that-you can say no or tell them that you will come back [on your terms] and listen to what they have to say. Exercise control. Remember that inmates look to exploit any weaknesses in you that you display. By inmates doing so, you become flustered and confused, and may make a decision that is good for the inmate and bad for the facility, such as bending a rule or allowing an inmate to be in an unauthorized area. If you have trouble saying no you can do two things: either learn to overcome that or seek employment in another field.

Prioritizing: Correctional staff must develop a system of prioritization. Issues and problems of staff and inmate safety are top priority. But-many inmate requests are non emergency and can be handled by other sections in the institution. Inmates are not generally patient people: they want what they want when they want it, and will pester you to get it. Prioritize your assignments and keep in mind what is the most important aspect of your job: inmate accountability and security/safety for all. If inmates hand you requests either written or verbal, that can wait-they will have to wait. You can address many issues one at a time. As I used to say politely but firmly to inmates: “This is jail”. As stated above: you are the post “traffic cop”. You decide what traffic flows where. Sometimes serious situations happen fast. Emergencies and serious situations that demand your immediate attention can happen at a moment’s notice. Remember your training and responsibilities and handle them first.

Do not procrastinate: As I tell my trainees in my stress and time management classes: do the most difficult things first-no matter how distasteful or difficult. For example, an inmate wants to see you. You know that he is “slick” or a complainer and will take up a lot of your time with requests that you cannot or will not honor. Or-she may be an inmate who needs a lot of staff attention; some inmates want you to do things for them that they can do themselves. However, some inmates do have legitimate concerns about their safety, welfare, health or mental state that must be addressed. Whatever and whoever the case, you should deal with these inmates early in your tour or immediately as the requests come to your attention. DO NOT PUT THEM OFF! As your tour of duty moves along, you will be thinking more about wrapping things up and going home. The last thing you want with an hour before shift relief is to try to handle a lot of requests that you have put off and delayed. If you are a supervisor, delegate and get other staff to assist you.

Watch your stress levels: Correctional work can be overwhelming and it is no surprise that it can result in being stressed out, fatigued and burned out. Events and situations come at you fast-try to deal with them one at a time, and ask for help from colleagues whenever possible. You-the correctional officer- are not Superman or Superwoman. You are human. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to your supervisor. The best supervisors will both talk to you and try different management approaches to take some of the load off of their subordinates. Finally-you are number one. Practice good stress management techniques such as exercise, relaxation and time management, just to name a few. One good stress technique is to pause, collect your thoughts and take a deep breath before moving on with the task(s) at hand. If the situation is non emergency in nature-the inmates can wait until you are ready to deal with them.

Get training: Enhancement and improvement of job skills should be encouraged by supervisors. Correctional training right now is in a “golden age”. There are many subjects being offered at conferences, in academies, on line and in seminars and classes with live instructors. Staff can attend training in stress management, time management and inmate management. They can return to the job with some new ideas and fresh approaches. As a result they can work “smarter, not harder”. One of the hardest things about seeking training is establishing the need for it. Conduct a self inventory. Are you handling multiple tasks well? Do you say NO enough? Do you feel overwhelmed on the job? Ask your colleagues and supervisors for constructive criticisms of your work. If you have flaws, act on them and get training to correct them. You will be a better officer for doing so.

Finally remember: working inside a jail, prison, juvenile center or any correctional facility may seem to you at times to be a circus. You don’t have to be the juggler!

Published with permission of the International Association of Corrections Training Personnel