The Human Side of a Correctional Facility

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  • Jennifer Cobbina, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor, School of Criminal Justice
  • College of Social Science

Jennifer Cobbina's research focuses on issues related to corrections, prisoner reentry, recidivism, and desistance from crime.

Much of her work is framed by the issues faced by those who are incarcerated. In 2016, she accepted a request by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's office to join the Correctional Officers' Training Council for a three-year term. Of eight members on the board, she is one of two representing the academic community.

Her appointment has added context and perspective to her research about those affected by corrections policies and procedures.

In the crucible of a state correctional facility, the men and women who serve as corrections officers face the daunting task of overseeing the security, compliance, and treatment of people in prison, while trying to model positive behaviors in an environment that is often very stressful. The task of recruiting, training, and retaining these officers can be challenging.

The Michigan Correctional Officers' Training Council is tasked with all aspects of training that correctional officers receive, including approving, developing, and updating course content, requirements for recruitment, as well as standards of certification, recertification, and decertification. According to executive secretary Gary Manns, the council was created in 1982 as a result of the 1981 riots in Michigan's prisons. "In order to address all the issues that were happening in the prisons themselves," said Manns, "the Governor's Office got involved, and they wanted to upgrade the standards for the prison system." He explained that going back many years, not only was there no standardized training, but at one point, the long-term prisoners, themselves, trained the staff. So it was necessary to develop standards and requirements for all state corrections officers, which involved the creation of the Correctional Officers' Training Council to oversee the standards of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

"Every new person coming in has to have 15 semester credits or 23 term credits to qualify for a correction officer," said Manns. "They go through a full background check, and then they go through a 320-hour training academy. Once they pass the training academy, they are designated out throughout the State of Michigan."

Serving on the Council

Dr. Cobbina's role on the council is to examine the qualifications of those who wish to manage one of the many community college criminal justice programs.

"We have a lot of community colleges that have criminal justice," said Manns. "And people have to meet standards in order to participate as somebody who runs the program at a community college corrections program. Dr. Cobbina sits on the council, and as people bring in their credentials wanting to be a program manager in the community college, she reviews their credentials and is part of the group that either approves them or disapproves them."

While the council's focus is largely on the physical training and certification requirements of the officers, Cobbina brings another layer of expertise that particularly relates to the treatment and living conditions of those incarcerated.

"The council is really concerned about establishing and maintaining standards of certification and making sure the correctional officers are meeting the criteria," said Cobbina. "But for me, given my research on the people who are incarcerated, who are marginalized, I do try to go into the council with the lens of, how can I try to improve the lives of people who are in prison and don't really have a voice?"

According to Cobbina, the vast majority of individuals in prison have themselves been victimized, have mental health issues, substance abuse problems, and have limited education. As she has opportunity, she works to keep an awareness of these realities faced by those in prison as part of the discussion about training and recertification.

"Just being aware of these issues, which can cause people to act the way they do," she said, "will help make lives a little better for those incarcerated…so that rather than, for instance, always writing up a misconduct ticket for them, to think about, how else could one get people who are incarcerated to be compliant without being so punitive?"

Another Dimension to the Research

Because her work on the council allows her to hear a number of perspectives, Cobbina is both sympathetic to, and increasingly aware of, the challenges faced by correctional officers, an awareness that is helping to inform her own research.

"What has helped me is to better understand the issues that correctional officers face," she said. "They don't have an easy job. They are also incarcerated, in a sense, for a period of time, so there really is a high turnover rate. It can be stressful working with people who are not always compliant. So for me, it has helped to understand the perspective of those who are incarcerated, as well as those trying to manage a large number of people who are in prison with felony convictions."

Cobbina became interested in studying the corrections field as a doctoral student. "It might sound like a cliché, but I wanted to try to make a difference," she said. "Sometimes the way we set up the system makes it very hard to look beyond felony convictions. It often times becomes one's ‘master status.' That's what someone is known as, even after they've served their debt to society. So I wanted to try to give people a voice who are, or who have been, in the criminal justice system, who are trying to improve their lives, and to try to make that transition smoother for them. Because the reality is, not only does it help those who are returning back to the community—and 95% of those who are incarcerated will return back to the community—but it also helps citizens in the community, because if we can help people successfully integrate back into society, it means that it reduces the odds that they will reoffend, therefore keeping members of society safe as well."

While her work in the areas of reentry and recidivism don't directly impact her work on the council, she does see an important connection, both for her own research, as well as for long-term potential to better the lives of those in correctional facilities. "If I am asked to serve again, it's something that I'll consider because I do think it's an important job," said Cobbina. "And I'm happy to serve, if it means trying to improve the lives of people, both correctional officers and people who are in prison."

  • Written by Amy Byle, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of Michigan Corrections Organization

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