Practitioner Interviews

Interview with Debra Sahd

Photo of Debra Sahd

Date:   August 29, 2019

You've been with the Department for 31 years—you must have seen some big changes. What is the biggest change you have seen?

Because change must be encouraged by top leadership, we are fortunate that Secretary Wetzel is innovative and progressive. One of the biggest changes I've seen is the Secretary's perspective that innovation should start with frontline staff; if staff own the idea, they will help to ensure its success. Secretary Wetzel has invited staff to take ownership of ideas for improving the DOC, including staff outcomes. In the past, the agency was also very policy- and procedure-based without the frontline staff input for innovation. An important part of this new perspective is to allow for, and even build in, a margin of error. That is, let's try something new but allow for the possibility that it may not happen as we expect. The option of creating a margin of error recognizes that we may have to adjust the plan or change our expectations as we move forward. This way of thinking makes it safe to pitch an idea, test it, and there is no judgement when it either fails or succeeds. This way of thinking is in line with BetaGov— every idea tested gives us information about the way we should be progressing.

Given efforts to make improvements and innovate, what kinds of changes have been implemented?

Recently, we recognized the importance of addressing wellness—both in our staff and in the people we serve. This is an important component of how the department wants to move forward. In the past, we have addressed the hardscape of our environment but now we need to focus on softscape skills in order to address the areas needing change in the corrections culture. We recently had an opportunity to visit and imbed staff in prisons in Scandinavia, including Denmark, Sweden, and Norway. The focus at these facilities is on wellness and they have created serene spaces to encourage a peaceful mindset and communication skills, which is their greatest violence-reduction tool. We want to replicate/customize this system at one of our facilities. In our quest to facilitate wellness, we have also conferred with other agencies. For example, we learned that the Oregon Department of Corrections has already implemented mindfulness and virtual reality for staff as a method for addressing wellness. Although we recently completed a mindfulness pilot for staff, we have not yet incorporated the option of using virtual reality into our staff-wellness initiatives. We are planning chill spaces for corrections and parole staff, which will include VR. We are planning on testing more ideas for staff wellness as they evolve.

How have staff responded to these changes?

In general, staff seem pleased with the opportunity to have a seat at the table and suggest and even test new ideas. Feedback indicates that staff are encouraged that they have more of a voice.

What challenges have you faced in some of your recent projects?

The challenge with most of our trials to test new ideas is the coordination of efforts and the logistics of making things happen. We need to line up efforts and procedures. We need to provide a clear explanation of what is being proposed and how it will be tested. We need to ensure that we have staff buy-in so that we don't experience barriers to moving forward. A recent example is our plan to test therapy dogs for central-office staff to see whether staff-dog interaction can reduce anxiety and make people feel better. To get this off the ground, we needed to get approval from the facility owners, the unions, human resources, and from legal. The preparation stage to get all the pieces lined up may take a lot of effort, even for a small idea, and may take a lot longer than expected. However, it is worthwhile on many levels.

What are some of the most rewarding changes that you have seen?

One rewarding change is how staff have more ownership in their work because they are invited to have a seat at the table. They are more engaged as they see positive outcomes, such as the results of the trial called Swift, Certain and Fair which more efficiently addressed misconducts on the blocks, giving staff more control and inmates immediate information to know their outcomes. With BetaGov's help, they can suggest a new idea or innovation and develop a way to test the idea and can even lead the efforts to test the idea. In giving staff a voice, they also learn that it is safe to identify problems, to disagree, and to find that their solutions may not be as beneficial as they expected. Although it may be scary to think about talking with experienced researchers about your idea, BetaGov's team are always encouraging and helpful.

A second rewarding change that I have seen over my time with the DOC is the increasing numbers of women in our ranks. Research shows that women have different communication styles, and this is positive for the department as it increases transparency. Additional female staff, and in leadership positions, provides for female role models that can be impactful to the department.

Another impactful change is the consolidation of the Pennsylvania Department of Probation and Parole (PBPP) with the Department of Corrections. This was a huge undertaking to coordinate the shift and address all the nuances of consolidating two distinct departments. Staff were open and dedicated to making a smooth transition and it has been a really positive experience due to a great team. Out of that the Consolidation Committees were born to align and make efficient our practices to better serve our staff, the population, and the taxpayers. We are looking forward to more innovation trials launched on the PBPP side of the house.

What advice do you have for others who may be hesitant to effect change in their organization/agency?

Change is necessary. Why not embrace change and find the best ways to make things better? If our efforts to improve are done using thoughtful, empirically validated methods, what is the worst that can happen? Even if the idea isn't successful, we have still learned something important, and the staff member was empowered to submit the idea, which will encourage others to do the same. We think that if a promising idea for improvement isn't illegal or unethical, is financially sound and won't hurt anyone, then we should consider testing it.