How did you decide to test the SCF model?
It was the summer of 2015 and Secretary John Wetzel wanted to address the issues in Pennsylvania of long-term segregation and reducing violence in our facilities. He brought together approximately 400 PADOC employees that ranged from corrections officers to superintendents and many other job classifications. BetaGov was included in subsequent meetings of this entire group of employees, and Angela gave a presentation about SCF. At the end of that meeting, the secretary told us to go back to our facilities and figure out ways to help with these issues. I was assigned to chair a subcommittee for sanctions and interventions. Our committee initially focused on interventions and looking for ways to help address discipline leading to time in segregation. Committee members from SCI-Somerset (SMR) wanted to think outside the box and asked BetaGov for their guidance on a “Swift, Certain and Fair” (SCF) pilot. In a matter of a few months we started SCF on one of our housing units and leaned on BetaGov to figure out the structure of how that should look to ensure we were minding our research p’s and q’s. Dr. Bret Bucklen, the director of the DOC’s Planning, Research & Statistics visited us and was heavily involved early on to ensure correct research methods were being applied and that we were following the guiding principles of SCF. Our goal was to dispense discipline more effectively, but at the housing-unit level, and to give our staff on the SCF unit ownership and oversight over the pilot process as much as possible. We started it on J-unit on January 1, 2016.
What were some of your initial concerns?
Our main concern was staff buy-in, because at that time Somerset was a 22-year-old facility that had never tried something like SCF. It was very out-of-the-box thinking. With more than 500 employees, you need buy in to new ideas and initiatives. Sometimes with certain staff you have pushback. We knew we had the right core staff in place to pull it off, but were concerned with the other staff, including the frontline folks who would be administering SCF on a daily basis. We had to educate our staff about what SCF was and then had to be consistent with continuing education for all involved. One person involved in the process but who is not on board can use their position to set the process back.
How did your staff take to the new SCF program?
We structured SCF on one unit first and we educated employees with every opportunity we could through emails or newsletters. The newsletter at SMR is well received by the staff so we used it to introduce the SCF concept. We went out there and talked, discussed, really hit the middle management hard; these middle managers were going to make or break the trial. We broadcast what we were doing and there was complete transparency. From fall 2015 to the spring of 2016, there was a buzz among inmates and staff, people were talking about it, which we welcomed.
We didn’t want to cherry pick our best staff and say “run with this program and make sure that it works.” That was the farthest thing from our minds. We didn’t want to present something shiny and not realistic. We kept the same staff in the housing unit that had been working there for years and it went better than expected. The key to that was the staff accepted it and embraced it, and they became our mouthpieces for it. As other units went online, the staff from both units would meet and discuss the issues and concepts related to SCF. We believed that was key; for them to listen to their peers about how it was going. They could listen to me all day long, but then it becomes forced. When they hear from their own people, that’s where we got the staff buy-in.
It’s very important to understand, we wanted a culture shift at Somerset, and SCF was one of the vehicles that came to us, and it was perfect timing. There were other things we did in concert, and there wasn’t this us-versus-them dynamic and pushback that you sometimes see at other facilities.
What were some of the other things you did?
In concert with SCF, we were also implementing a new service-puppy/dog program that allowed inmates to raise and train puppies for a year inside the facility. We also, through our activities department, decided to allow inmates to paint murals in staff and inmate areas around the facility. This initiative really took off and at last check, Somerset has more than 100 murals around the institution.
Did you experience any challenges or problems after launching?
They weren’t major obstacles, but we started off the program on only one unit. The officer, sergeant and unit manager would handle unit-based, lower-level discipline on their housing unit. The disciple was progressive and would result in the inmate being placed on cell restriction if he did not adjust his behavior. After a few months we modified this cell-restriction sanction to “loss of dayroom” because staff were reporting issues related to a cell-restriction sanction. Staff such as teachers, activities, and psychology were calling the unit looking for inmates. Adding additional tracking paperwork would make the process cumbersome and adversely affect the initiative. This modification came only after much discussion with the unit staff and inmates about how to make the program less intrusive to the facility, while maintaining validity and the principles of SCF. Staff came up with the idea to modify the sanction from cell restriction to “loss of day room.” The inmate phones are located in the dayroom, meaning this sanction would prohibit the use of phones while on this SCF sanction.
What advice would you give to another institution who wants to run an SCF trial?
The buy-in from the staff has to start at the top with the administration. All facilities are different, but if the senior leadership doesn’t believe in it and doesn’t learn about it, your staff will not follow. Staff who are in the facility trying to facilitate the initiative will see right through a superintendent or a captain who doesn’t believe in it. Once you have the buy-in, you can pull it off. The rest of it is making sure you’re consistent and the research is being done. The nuts and bolts will fall into place.
I could give 10 other pieces of advice, but none of it’s going to happen if your senior staff are not supporting it, selling it, marketing it, and being sincere about it. SCF can make a difference but it will not get off the ground if the senior staff aren’t out there showing their support.
It was important to meet with the unions too. Their members will be the ones running the unit and administering the sanctions. We believed talking about it to everyone was important. This included the inmates. Along the way, you have to present examples of how it’s working. If the superintendent is the only one talking about it, then it isn’t going to succeed. We spent a lot of time getting the senior-level staff and middle managers to understand and buy into why we were doing this, and the principles behind it. You’re not going to pull it off, your line staff are going to pull it off, but only if your senior staff are on board and are leading staff through the changes.
What system did you have in place for collecting data?
We made it is as simple as possible with a spreadsheet. The unit manager would track the infractions on the pod that was doing SCF; they would track all the data for the month and then we would dissect it. It was interesting to watch because the first month or two, the infractions were in the hundreds, but then the numbers dropped. And same with the grievances. We averaged 15–20 inmate grievances a month on the one unit, and that’s time-consuming to address because someone has to research and respond to each one. We saw dramatic decreases in the grievance numbers as SCF was rolled out.
Data that are difficult to collect is the impact on your staff. One officer on that unit said the best thing about SCF is that it increased communication between the staff and the inmates. SCF requires the inmates to be called down, talked to, and informed what would happen next time. There’s a set list of rules and consequences. Inmates and staff appreciated that. We collected all the data every month, and we saw some really positive things. As much as I appreciate data, I also appreciate what they don’t tell you, and that is the better communication between the staff and inmates.
Anybody can pull off SCF in their facility. You just have to try it. It can’t hurt, that’s for sure.