Jackson County Executive Frank White with members of the most recent class of the Jackson County Corrections Officer Academy
AUGUST 8, 2016 - jacksongov.org
Department Takes Calm, Coll & Collected Approach Toward Training
Trace Abraham winces. He vividly describes the military training he has endured as an Army National Guardsman in terms of how loud — and profane — the trainers could be.
“In the military you’re always getting yelled at… screamed at… cursed at… all the time,” he says. “There’s all kinds of crazy stuff, and a lot of it is just ridiculous.”
He prefers his civilian employer’s saner, quieter approach to training. When not wearing his Army khaki green, Abraham dons the smoky gray uniform of a Jackson County Corrections Officer.
A Quiet Learning Environment
Every morning session of the Jackson County Corrections Officers (CO) Academy begins with a military ritual — the uniform inspection. But the county Corrections Department’s intensive training program rarely, if ever, gets loud. Veteran CO Bryan Carroll doesn’t even raise his voice when teaching “Use of Force III & IV: Ground Fighting & Knife Defense,” a class one might expect would entail a few high-volume shouts.
“It only makes sense that our training be calm, cool and collected,” says Corrections Director Joe Piccinni. “Those are the attributes we want to instill in our COs and the type of environment we want in our facilities.” (The department operates the Jackson County Detention Center and the Regional Correctional Center, as well as holding facilities — within the Detention Center — for Kansas City Police Department arrestees.)
Absorbing what’s being taught, Abraham notes, is easier when you’re not always being yelled at, screamed at or cursed at. Last Friday (Aug. 5), he and 14 other recently hired “COs” completed the fourth academy class that the Corrections Department has conducted this year.
All CO training — from orientation and the academy to ongoing training — stresses teamwork, especially when dealing with inmates.
“During orientation, we’re told to picture ourselves as inmates,” says CO Johanna Garcia, one of Abraham’s academy classmates. “Because we work 12-hour shifts, seven days every two weeks… we are basically living with the inmates. We live here in the jail. We just get to go home.
“And we, the COs, have to work together. We want to work together, so that we all get to go home safely at the end of our shifts.”
Firm, Fair & Consistent
The academy’s instructors include veteran COs like Carroll, FBI agents, health care professionals, attorneys from the Prosecutor’s Office… “We love having different points of view from outside instructors from the law enforcement community and other organizations,” says Sgt. Steve Owen.
Owen and Lt. Christopher Wolfe head up the CO training program for Corrections. Each academy covers a lot of ground over the course of two weeks with 100 total hours of classroom lectures, field trips, self-defense training and more. The syllabus features a wide-ranging curriculum. More than 25 classes are taught, too many to list them all here. These are a few examples:
Mental Health In Corrections
Psychology of Communications
Inmate Culture and Interpersonal Skills
Use of Force V: Riot Control & Baton Tactics
“The things we emphasize the most throughout the academy are communications and being firm, fair and consistent,” says Lt. Wolfe. “Those are the defining traits of what a corrections officer should be — firm, fair and consistent. You’ll find that in any jail or prison those are the pillars everything else is built upon.”
All Working Together
Frank White, Jr. goes for a short stroll in downtown Kansas City — from the Jackson County Courthouse to the Jackson County Detention Center, right around the corner. He wants to say a few words to the 15 Corrections Officers gathered in a training room.
Since being sworn in as Jackson County Executive in January, White has made a point of stopping in like this to chat with each class of the county’s Corrections Officers Academy. His timing couldn’t be better as the fourth academy class of 2016 (and 115th overall) concludes a lecture entitled, fittingly, given what White wants to say, “Working Together Productively.”
“We don’t take what you do for granted; we don’t take it lightly,” White tells the men and women seated in front of him. Each has the Correction Department patch, featuring the scales of justice, on his or her uniform. “I want you to understand that I’m right across the street. The county’s staff and I… we all really appreciate the job you’re doing now and the job you’ll be doing for Jackson County in the future. We want to make sure that you know you have our full support whenever you need it.”
Sgt. Steve Owen helps coordinate the CO Academy. He calls White’s visits a “real morale booster.”
Corrections No Longer 'Closed Off'
Yes, some of the new COs simply want to talk baseball with Frank White, the Kansas City Royals Hall of Famer. He gladly obliges them. They are all, Owen stresses, grateful that Frank White, the County Executive, understands that theirs can be an especially difficult job.
“The staff loves it,” Owen says. “They pull out their cell phones and want to get pictures with Frank. It’s great. Historically speaking, Corrections has been kind of closed off from the rest of the county. Frank is changing that. We know we’re all working together.”
White wishes all the COs success as their academy nears a conclusion and they prepare to resume working their shifts in the Detention Center or Regional Correctional Center.
“This is one area that we want to be as perfect as possible,” he says, “knowing it’s never going to be perfect…. We recognize that this is a valuable service you provide our community. So with that, I’ll say thank you again.”
'Making Something Positive Happen'
Corrections Director Joe Piccinni also thanks the COs, saying, “Thank you for doing a very tough job. Thank you for working weekends. Thank you for working Thanksgiving and Christmas, when other folks are home with their families.
"Most of all, thank you for keeping the community safe because that is what you do here — you keep the community safe and you keep our inmates safe.”
Piccinni and White’s kind words prompt one of the academy COs, Onome Onoshire, to raise his hand. “I want to thank you,” he says. “It’s a good leader who has the interests of his employees at heart.”
White smiles. “We don’t look at you as employees,” he says. “We’re all associates because we are all in this together, working together — all associated with making something positive happen.”
The CO Academy includes defense tactics training, including classes taught by veteran Corrections Officer Bryan Carroll, a professional Muay Thai fighter.
The Jackson County Corrections Department puts all new hires through its intensive customized three-day orientation. Everyone — nurses, kitchen staff, everyone and not just the rookie COs — is taught basic self-defense tactics and inundated with information about department policies, procedures and philosophies.
The new COs then spend two weeks shadowing a sergeant. They learn on-the-job in the Detention Center or Regional Correctional Center while literally following in their more experienced mentors’ footsteps.
“We actually refer to the orientation as a mini-academy,” says Sgt. Owen. “When I started here in ’04 they basically threw a packet of information at me and said, ‘Here, you’re a corrections officer.’ We’ve expanded that to three days with a little bit of defense tactics, a little bit of behavioral health, a little bit of our health services unit, a whole lot of safety and security, a facility tour… Our new officers walk into the job knowing what they are getting into.”
He adds, “I don’t expect them to retain 100 percent of the information from orientation. I throw a lot at them — about basic rules as far as the dress code goes, what they can and cannot bring into the Detention Center. What I give them is a foundation to build on. Then during that two-week shadow program… we meanshadow to the fullest extent of the term. They follow their sergeants around just like a shadow.”
Fifth Class Planned For Later This Year
Ideally, Wolfe says, new officers would go from orientation directly into the academy, before shadowing a sergeant “as a follow-up to the academy.”
“We’re working toward that ideal,” states Piccinni. “As we get fully staffed and improve our retention of our COs, we can have the new ones go directly into an academy class before they work their first shift in the jail.”
Currently, new COs, like Abraham and Garcia, will work a few months before being assigned to an academy class. The logistics of running the two-week academies can be daunting as 15 to 20 COs are pulled off their regular shifts and away from their normal duties to attend the training. Others have to fill the void “on the floor.”
“We try to keep the number of people per academy class to a minimum,” Owen says. “About 15 is ideal. The training is more effective with a smaller class size. Also, we have to sometimes recruit our case managers who used to be COs to fill in on the floor during an academy, especially if we have a larger academy class of 20 or 21 students.
“Of course, that just reinforces that everything we do here takes teamwork.”
Piccinni commends Wolfe and Owen for coordinating four academy classes already in 2016 — with a fifth one being planned for later in the year. “That is a feat, that many academies in one year,” declares the Corrections Director.
Taking Care Of The Inmates
Among the biggest challenges facing Wolfe, Owen and others training the new COs is the false expectations the newbies might have when starting their careers in Corrections. They’ve seen prison movies. Some, like Garcia, have taken Criminal Justice classes.
“It’s totally different in here,” Garcia says. “We are literally running around taking care of the inmates. On TV, they don’t show how the guards take care of the inmates and keep them safe.”
Abraham raises his hands and grasps imaginary prison bars. “I expected everyone to be like this, behind metal bars. They are not behind bars — just locked doors. Some are in dorms. I expected the facility to look different physically. And I expected the inmates to be more depressed. A lot of them really keep themselves uplifted.”
The Jackson County Detention Center does hold inmates awaiting court dates for murder and other violent offenses. Others might be being held for trespassing or loitering. All inmates are classified based on the nature of the charges against them, then are housed accordingly.
“We don’t just throw everybody together in here,” Wolfe says. “That’s another common misconception. We’ve had serial murderers and rapists. The violent offenders are segregated from everyone else. The fact is 99.99 percent of the people we deal with in here are just normal people you might run into out and about in the community.”
Owen chuckles as he says, “I do run into former inmates, when I’m filling my gas tank or doing something else. I’ll say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ They’ll do the same.”
Wolfe nods his head. “We’re members of this community, Jackson County,” he says. “Our inmates are members of this community, too. We want our new COs to understand that. It’s a point of emphasis in their training.”