Having attended the American Correctional Association summer conference for nearly 30 years — including both New York City and New Orleans , in August — I can attest that the Kansas City conference in August this year won the prize for the hottest show in town. Not to belabor the heat issue, but a note of thanks to the very friendly bus schedule coordinators who stood in the “feels-like 107 degrees” weather all day long making certain delegates were comfortably seated before heat exhaustion occurred.
Attendees discussed business in the exhibit hall and during seminars and committee meetings.
Inside the vast and, thankfully, cool convention center, life was livable and attendees were offered as diverse a program as ever. Sunday was wall-to-wall committee hopping for me and provided a bit of insight into emerging trends. The backbone of ACA is the mass of volunteers that assemble at least twice a year to pour over the progress since the last gathering. The mid-winter gathering was formerly devoted to committee work, but the need for more frequent exchange coupled with the jingle of exhibitor change altered that tradition. The musings of just three of the more than four dozen committees captured my attention.
Exemplary Practices Council
Years ago under the leadership of former ACA President Wilkerson, ACA began to systematically identify examples of best practices. In subsequent administrations, the term “best” was altered to “exemplary” practices out of a notion that “best” seemed a bit arrogant. Trends include:
- The committee is seeking examples that are worthy of recognition. A survey will be sent to all states in the near future that asks researchers and planners to share their evidence-based experience with the corrections community. Trend or not, we seem to be reluctant to share successes and failures and ACA is the forum to do so with impunity.
- Virtually all of the examples of best practices 10 years ago are no longer in existence. This raises issues concerning the lack of an adequate evidence base, lack of sustainable funding, outcomes that were not measurable or complete success that eliminated recidivism.
- The Internet will be the best tool for sharing the evidence and outcomes for a variety of programs in real time. This eventuality can connect researchers and administrators throughout the country with examples that can promote successful programs while avoiding investments in ideas where results proved to be ineffective.
The Exemplary Practices Council is a viable vehicle to inform researchers, administrators and politicians on what works using empirical-based outcome data. While the council has struggled to document transferable results, this could be effectively altered by a greater response to the user-friendly survey arriving soon via e-mail. Please avoid the delete icon and enthusiastically reply.
International Relations Committee
The International Relations Committee exists, in large part, due to the participation of Canada . In so many ways, we should rename the American Correctional Association, the Americas Correctional Association. We need not only Canada, but also South America represented in our association. Attendance this year at the Committee included delegates from Haiti, Belgium, the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, Japan, and of course, Canada. Noteworthy news from overseas that may become trends include:
- In the planning of a new prison to replace a historic existing one in the center of Dublin, prison officials made trips to American prisons and, according to a spokesperson present, none provided examples of anything the Republic of Ireland wished to follow. Ouch.
- The second news from the Emerald Isle was that the starting salary for correctional officers is $100,000. Seems as though we may need to travel east in search of new trends for staff retention. As you might expect, staff attrition is remarkably low.
- A diminishing respect for corrections in the United States has been an emerging trend that, once lost, will be years in the recovery. This neither bodes well for our self-esteem nor for participation in the International Relations Committee. The loss of preeminence in corrections is not something to be taken lightly. If, as the Republic of Ireland offered, there is nothing in our system worthy of replication, then the work of the Exemplary Practices Council becomes even more important. I believe that these views are mostly held by western nations whose cultures are more similar to ours, and thus, more critical. However, that does not diminish the fact that either we need to stop exporting American-made films that depict our correctional facilities as “joints,” or do a far better job of demonstrating our truly exemplary practices.
Facility Design Committee
My last stop of the day was the Facility Design Committee. A principle role of the committee is to provide an evidenced-based review of proposed revisions to the ACA standards, along with chanting in unison the Churchill quote: “We shape our buildings and they in turn shape us.” Observations include:
- The role of peer review for proposed revisions to physical plant standards is being lost. In effect, the Facility Design Committee is no longer a part of the internal checks and balances for the Standards Committee. The opinion of the professionals who shape our buildings appear to matter less than jurisdictions being allowed to maintain an accredited status, even though compliance with conditions of confinement would be seen as a stretch.
- With the return to crowded prisons, the reliance on the private sector to lead us out of the wilderness has increased. Historically, a reluctance to acknowledge this role has existed, but either from desperation or enlightenment, the influence of the privately designed, financed and operated prisons is providing a new face to the built correctional environment. With few exceptions, most privately developed prisons are accredited.
- Without an evidence basis, the shape of our prisons will be based more on opinion than exemplary practice.
Trendspotting by committee hopping revealed an urgency of dialogue at this Congress because the continued rise in prison population is challenging our ability to focus on exemplary practices and the shape that prisons will represent in the next five years.
Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia , S.C.