Employee Involvement’s Missing ‘X-Factor’: Respect and Trust

Tom Peters

Every federal prison has shakedowns. Guards typically tear apart cons’ cells. But after a shakedown at the Federal Correctional Institution in McKean, Pennsylvania, guards must replace everything exactly as they found it. Once, an inmate found that a new officer had trashed his cell. He told a lieutenant that he was irritated at having to clean up the mess. “Don’t bother,” the lieutenant responded, “the officer will put it back.”

FCI McKean has a staff of 302 to support 1,266 inmates; about 65 percent are inside for drug-law violations, with an average sentence of 10 years. Opened in 1989, it’s already overcrowded. Yet McKean’s record for community harmony makes it a paragon within the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Warden Dennis Luther sets the tone. The inmates are his “constituents,” he says, and “should be treated respectfully. I don’t think prison has to be a constant negative experience for staff and inmates.” Incarceration is the prisoners’ punishment, Luther adds; demeaning prisoners is not the objective. He insists that if he can get this one idea across, everyone involved will be able to work and live productively.

Several prisoners’ comments to my colleague Deborah Hudson suggest the idea is working: “I’ve been locked up 15 years. I haven’t seen people get along together regardless of race, creed or color except here.” “The warden channeled the staff so they treat the inmates like human beings.” “There are very few incidents here. Why? Because inmates can use their skills and talents to benefit themselves and the institution. Where else could the inmates have a club with an office, their own phone, and the ability to talk to the administration whenever they want?” “This is as good as it gets inside. It’s the best place in the system.”

Establishing the new, more trusting culture hasn’t been easy. Conservative staff members fought change, accusing Luther of “compromising security.” For example, the warden decided, as a minor perquisite, to allow popcorn for special events like movies. Several guards objected. Inmates would stuff the popcorn in the locks, they insisted. The popcorn was distributed. The locks remained popcorn free.

Front-line staff’s respect for inmates is, of course, a direct product of respect given to the staff by the prison’s top managers. Luther sees employees as his constituents, too. Senior federal prison managers, he laments, repeatedly overlook the importance of attention to staff: “There’s no correlation between creativity, intelligence, and federal pay-grade level. That’s sweet music to most (McKean workers)—but no one’s ever told them that before.” Mike Eger, warehouse foreman and head of the American Federal Government Employees Local, pays tribute to the atmosphere Luther has established. “I’ve never had a grievance since we opened,” he says. “The best thing about the warden is he never lies.”

Luther gets employees—and inmates—involved in everything. Regular “town hall” meetings with prisoners are an essential ingredient. Furthermore, all proposed changes in regulations or procedures are brought to inmates first; they typically point out various subtleties that can make or break any program. Inmates’ suggestions are also a routine part of McKean’s day-to-day culture—for example, recommendations about commissary stocking. (Sound small? only if you’re oblivious to oppressive prison psychology. There are even quarterly “customer” (inmate) surveys!

Attitude is critical, but structure also helps, especially the inmate “clubs.” The Inmate Benefit Fund (IBF), the clubs’ umbrella organization, represents all inmates and raises money for cultural affairs, leisure activities and special programs. Prisoners select representatives to the IBF’s board of directors, which includes one prison staff member; the fund is annually audited by an outside CPA. “The strength of the Inmate Benefit Club,” the prisoner heading the Vegetarian Club says, “is that we can contribute to the running of internal affairs of the prison.”

The IBF is always up to something. Last July, it was negotiating to become the prison’s laundry vendor. And the Music Appreciation Club was raising funds to start a sheet-music library and expand its 75- person membership. Besides providing useful outlets for inmates, the clubs serve as “intake organizations” for arriving inmates—they’re central to passing along the unique McKean culture.

Father Andre, the Catholic prison chaplain, reports he’s gotten more “thank yous” from McKean inmates in the last two years than during 12 years of teaching Catholic students. “The philosophy,” he adds, “is ‘whatever we can do to make this work better, let’s give it a try.’ What’s not accepted is, ‘no, no, no, we can’t have it, it doesn’t work, go to your corner and shut up.’ The philosophy is the same for staff and inmates.”

Numerous studies conclude that most employee-involvement programs fail. Statistical process control training may be accomplished. And organization charts are sometimes radically revised. But something’s missing. I call it the X-Factor: respect and trust. Trust was the lubricant for radical change at Union Pacific Railroad. At Harley Davidson. At NUMMI. At Johnsonville Foods. And it makes all the difference with prisoners at FCI McKean. Do you suppose the rest of us will ever learn?

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