Dignity and respect go a long way in county jail, new research shows

August 12, 2020

A University of Wisconsin Oshkosh study indicates a little respect and decency can go a long way in improving some aspects of America's criminal justice system.

Matt Richie, an assistant criminal justice professor at UWO, recently published "Managing the Rabble with Dignity and Respect," in the Journal of Crime and Justice, a publication of the Midwestern Criminal Justice Association.

Richie, who studies jail recidivism and operations as well as pre-trial/post-conviction treatment diversion programming, reported the results of years of researching how correctional officers manage the jail population. His findings reveal a great deal of the work involves interpersonal communication skills rather than physical force.

So, in a sense, treating people like people makes life easier for both ends of the power dynamic.

The research involved 30 hours of observation inside a county jail and interviews with the jail employees. Richie chose to focus on a jail in a suburban or rural area because there's already so much known about what goes on in urban parts of the country. He instead wanted to look at a population where resources are limited and recidivism rates are high.

"If you leave the Milwaukee County Jail, there are 100 services--for mental health, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, human trafficking, you name, it they have something for it and some nonprofit wants to help you," he said. "But what we know about suburban and rural areas is that those services are farther and fewer between. So if you have some of these issues it's harder for you to find treatment."

The lack of support results in the same people cycling in and out of the jails. And the jail workers on site have learned that in order to make everybody's experience easier, it's best to take on a customer service-like approach.

Richie focused on jails instead of prisons because of the condition many inmates are in when they first land behind bars. When people begin prison time, they've been in the system for a while--they are likely clean and sober and receiving treatment for whatever ailments they face. That's not often the case for people in jail, who might be hours removed from hitting rock bottom.

With so many obstacles, it was amazing to see the difference a five-minute conversation can make in diffusing a possibly explosive situation, Richie said. Time and again he observed officers opting to explain what needed to happen, express some empathy and avoid further conflict.

Even though the order of operations now is to try to talk things through first, use physical force second, sometimes that first step is given up on too quickly or done half-heartedly.

"I would hope more jail administrators would take this approach. Instead of doing defensive and tactical training, really work on interpersonal communication--and not just having that cadence of what to say and the rules of engagement for communication," Richie said.

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

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