May 10, 2017
Jennifer Cobbina is an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice within the College of Social Science. Her primary research focuses on the issue of corrections, prisoner re-entry, recidivism and desistance from crime.
This is the lens through which I see my work: How can we improve conditions for those who are incarcerated, who often don’t have a voice? People in prison are often marginalized, which drives me to figure out what is necessary to try and improve their lives.
Based upon my expertise on issues of corrections, I was asked by Gov. Rick Snyder’s office to join the Correctional Officers’ Training Council in the State of Michigan for a three-year term that began in 2016. The board consists of eight members, and I am one of two that represent the academic community.
The council meets four times per year, and much of the work focuses on corrections officers who are up for recertification. The council reviews each individual officer to ensure they comply with the minimum standards. I have enjoyed my time on the council in part because I am beginning to see connections between its work and my research.
While my research focuses on corrections in terms of issues faced by those incarcerated, through the council it is interesting to see things from the correctional officers’ standpoint. We regularly review certification issues of officers. While I am learning more about issues faced by officers, I also try to be mindful when we’re going through council meetings to try to see if there is anything I can do to make a difference in terms of making sure corrections officers are adequately trained.
I take my council responsibilities seriously, and, in general, council meetings focus on the corrections officer. Issues such as how quickly can we get them through their physical training or classes are important and must be addressed. Through this council, however, I am working directly with people in prison management, budget, personnel and others from the Department of Corrections, and new partnerships often lead to new solutions.
When officers train, for example, there is typically a greater focus on physical training and a certain amount of hours in the classroom, but I have not gotten the sense that the classes are necessarily empathetic to a number of issues and barriers that a lot of people who are behind bars go through. Common problems among people in prison, for example, are that many of them have been physically or sexually victimized. Corrections officers are tasked to deal with whatever the issue is at hand, but through my work I attempt to always look at the root cause of the issue. That is not to say it is the corrections officers’ job to do that; however, increased awareness through training over the long term could be helpful to those behind bars and officers alike.
Based upon my interactions with those who are incarcerated, there is a culture in which whatever the officer says goes, often with no reason for doing something – a "because I said so" model. In the end, this makes the lives of those who are incarcerated more stressful. I am sympathetic to correctional officers. There is a high turnover rate, and it is a very stressful job. So, in general terms, I believe that if correctional officers are more aware of common reasons why people commit crimes – issues like victimization, mental illness, substance abuse, monetary needs and poverty – their jobs could become easier while also improving conditions for those incarcerated.
For now, I will happily continue my term on the Correctional Officers’ Training Council, focusing on the recertification and decertification processes as needed. As a researcher trying my best to improve the lives of marginalized members of our society, I hope that my insights and experience can begin the slow process of change that will benefit all involved in managing our prison systems. An ongoing certification or recertification process that is viewed by officers not as a punishment but as a means of making their jobs less stressful has potential to be part of the solution.