By Scott Kernan, CDCR Secretary
I have described in previous articles and speeches my goal to change the culture of our prisons. I hope you have not taken my desire to professionalize our organization to mean that I fully accept (or completely deny) the inmates and critics who perceive systemic corruption, bias, insensitivity and abuse. While we must admit our problems and proactively address them, when I speak of culture change in a larger sense, I’m referring to governance of prisons and everybody’s responsibility to be a leader.
Prisons are among the most difficult organizations to run. Stability and control are essential. Change in our profession challenges those essentials. We are built on tradition and unbending rules and regulations. I grew up in an autocratic system that demanded adherence to those rules and the orders of my supervisor. Vitality within contemporary organizations depends on staff to perform as leaders. Without such vitality, agencies (including prisons) become unimaginative, sluggish, rigid bureaucracies prone to failures. Some will argue that a good prison is a paramilitary, hierarchical, top-down organization with formal rules and regulations that govern staff behavior and give them little discretion or creativity. I disagree.
Prison leaders cannot successfully run a prison alone; they need the support, commitment, and contributions of line staff. Staff must be motivated to achieve excellence and feel responsible for what happens in the prison. Let me be clear, I do not expect democracy as that would bog us down. But people like to be consulted, to have a say in their work environment, and have opportunities to solve problems and try new ways of doing things. Effective prison leaders balance the need for supervision with the need for self-expression and creativity. The primary role of leadership should be to foster a sense of ownership in the mission among our staff.
Let me share an example that I have seen myself. I recently visited Kern Valley State Prison (KVSP). I know the history there and the challenging population. I talked with inmates and staff who had clearly experienced the stress of a Level IV yard. But what I felt and heard from them all was a greater level of teamwork, commitment to programming, and a professionalism that was unbending to a particular incident or bad behavior from an inmate. An officer said that the difference at KVSP was that every staff member from all disciplines on the yard worked together. It was a family that shared the same goal to operate a safe, clean and programming facility. Inmates had nothing but positive things to say about staff and staff had nothing but good to say about the inmates. Violence among inmates is drastically reduced; inmate participation in programming is off the charts; and staff safety is enhanced. I also believe this enhances public safety. Congratulations, KVSP.
Prison teamwork brings success
I want to acknowledge where team-work is having a tangible impact on organizational success. With a ton of hard work and leadership, medical care in four prisons has been delegated back to CDCR responsibility. Through the leadership of all disciplines at those prisons we have proven to the Receiver, the Plaintiffs and the courts that we have the command and control to provide care to our inmates. There is much more to do, but this is an example of what organizational leadership can accomplish in our difficult environments. Congratulations to those prisons and especially the CEO/Warden relationship that makes it happen.
Let me suggest that one of the elements that help us get our medical system back is the same cultural governance I mentioned at KVSP. How hard must it be for our doctors to regularly deal with inmates who are sick? Treating them as patients, when the environment around them treats them as inmates, has to be a significant challenge. But treating them as human beings with illnesses is the primary goal. Maybe that’s the difference when it comes to providing a constitutional level of health care. To our doctors, nurses, and health care staff, your compassion in providing care to patients is essential to organizational success. All disciplines need to support that effort. We are depending on your professionalism and compassion.
Incredible people doing dangerous jobs
I swear, lastly, it is not lost on me that we have had staff seriously injured at the hands of inmates in the last couple months. We have a dangerous job and I’m committed to ensuring that we get the resources and tools to mitigate that danger. To those staff, our collective prayers are with you for a speedy recovery. I am humbled to work in this organization with such an incredible group of people. Thank you for what you do.