Changing Prison Culture: Aggression and Violence in Dutch Penitentiary Institutions, by Ton de Graaf

When crisis upsets the equilibrium of individuals and institutions, it readies them for deep cultural change. A 2004 survey of staff members (including prison guards, security personnel, and administrative and medical staff) conducted at all penitentiary institutions in the Netherlands brought just such a crisis to light. According to survey results, staff members suffered from intimidation (25%), undesirable sexual attention (10%), and physical violence (4%) in the workplace. The lightning-rod finding: These acts of intimidation and violence were perpetrated not by inmates, but by colleagues and prison leaders.

Survey respondents reported serious emotional consequences. Thirty percent said they had lost all pleasure in working in a prison environment and 25% seriously considered resigning. Eleven percent reported frequently feeling seriously depressed and miserable about their jobs. Clearly, employees suffered from toxic effects of the prison workplace culture. When two former directors leaked these shocking results to the Dutch media, a nationwide broadcast news program devoted an entire show to the issue. In response, the Attorney General promised to turn the tide. This article describes what steps were taken and the aims and results of the initial phase of this program.

The Culture Change Process

Executive leaders of the Department of Penitentiary Institutions studied the data and collaboratively established goals for improvement. The overall objective of the two-year program is to reduce reports of intimidation, undesirable sexual attention and physical violence caused by prison employees by 50% and incidents caused by prison leaders by 80%.

The project management team, in collaboration with the education and training department, decided that the desired change could not be accomplished through a training program for personnel and prison leaders. This problem would require swift and effective intervention by experts in workplace social behavior, and here is where the business coaches entered the scene.

Seasoned coaches who were experienced in working in a 'macho culture' and could connect easily with both well-educated leaders and employees who had, in the past, a 'hard time making it through kindergarten' were recruited to work intensively on this project. Selection criteria emphasized experience with coaching organizational leaders, coaching teams, and working in residential settings (such as military bases or healthcare or psychiatric facilities). Coaches were also expected to have experience handling 'non-hierarchic powers' (informal organizational leaders who maintain influence through charisma, intimidation and/or manipulation), coaching for culture change, and using a variety of intervention strategies. A vigorous selection procedure identified 37 coaches to accomplish the job. Each coach was assigned to a prison two days per week for a period of four months.

Before going to their assigned prison, coaches attended a two-day seminar to familiarize themselves with the organization, the problem, and the goals for coaching and facilitation. With all these experienced coaches assembled, it wasn't difficult to create a toolkit with theories, tests, and methods to be used during the intervention period.

Coaches were expected to facilitate culture change by:

  • Introducing 'normal' values from 'the outside world';
  • Helping prison leaders expand their repertoire of leadership styles to include more social/emotional and supportive styles of interaction;
  • Teaching leaders how to intervene tactically and strategically when problems arose, by addressing issues instead of covering them up;
  • Coaching leaders through resistance, both within themselves and in the organization; and
  • Creating internal social support networks for prison leaders.

The project preparation was great fun to do! Even after coaches went out into the penitentiaries to work, we met each month to compare notes and discuss the best practices.

The Experience

I had the opportunity to work at two locations—one Maximum Security Penitentiary and one Standard Correctional Facility. The survey results colored my expectations of what I would encounter when I entered these prisons for the first time. As a former captain of the Royal Dutch Military Police and Royal Dutch Air Force, I don't scare easily. I wouldn't have been 'caught off guard' if I had found prison personnel chasing each other with baseball bats, cheered on by the prison leaders. Instead, I encountered only hard-working professionals struggling with the pressures of dealing with hardened criminals on the one hand and a demanding organization cutting budgets on the other.

I started in both prisons with a 'kick-off' meeting for all management and prison leaders. We discussed the survey results, project expectations, and our respective roles. Early in the assignment, I talked extensively with the location director, the unit directors, department heads, team leaders, guards and personnel in all layers of the organization. I walked among the prisoners, drank coffee and chatted with the guards and, most of all, I listened. I listened very carefully. I asked myself, "What do these people need? What causes this undesired behavior? What prevents them from taking action?"

I concluded that safety concerns were the paramount issue—not only physical safety in dangerous and sometimes life-threatening situations, but also feeling secure in giving constructive feedback to team members. Fear could prevent personnel from confronting problem behavior. If you confront a colleague, will that colleague still come to your aid when you get into trouble with inmates? What if you address your team leader or director on prison issues—will that boomerang right back at you when you seek a promotion? And what about team pressure? What happens if you speak up when you see goods changing hands, or notice a female team member spending more time than necessary with a male inmate?

These fears and questions were addressed during an eight-hour team session. Each team was given the opportunity to discuss these issues at a location outside the prison. Management showed their commitment by addressing each team at the start of the day.

In my role as facilitator, I asked questions of personnel at all levels of the organization, probing their understanding of leadership and team dynamics. Not many people could tell me the difference between a good team and a great team. And few leaders understood the stages of team development and the style of leadership that was appropriate at each stage. I found Hersey, Blanchard and Johnson's "Situational Leadership" theory particularly useful.

Situational leadership theory identifies four styles of leadership that vary in terms of relationship and task focus. Highly task-focused leadership (authoritarian style) is prescribed for teams with low levels of readiness (unable and unwilling or insecure), whereas a style high in social support but low in task focus is prescribed for teams at stage 3 of readiness (able but unwilling or insecure).

I used this theory with all teams and, without exception, they found it very helpful. This theory expanded awareness of the different leadership styles available, and identified which style would be most effective considering the readiness level of the team. Most of the leaders had relied on only one style for many years, and they came to understand why their leadership style was often ineffective. For instance, one team leader whose style was very directive learned his team wanted and needed a more delegating style. The model helped leaders explain what teams would have to do to progress in their own development. And it was obvious to all that at the highest level of team development there is no room for aggression or violence.

I coached the teams in formulating new 'team codes of conduct,' and each team member had to explain their role in team development. They practiced giving and receiving feedback using relevant examples I gleaned from listening. Some sessions were very emotional. When strong men who deal with hardened criminals on a daily basis burst into tears because they have had enough of the existing situation with their colleagues, you know there is much work to do. Change is challenging and taking responsibility for the 'here and now' situation takes time and a certain maturity.

The Work Continues

We have completed only the first step of the program. In the next phase we will do one-on-one coaching with organization leaders to make them more effective in their roles. Some leaders must be persuaded to overcome their resistance to change and take an objective look at their own performance. As I told one of the unit directors who felt reluctant to examine his style of leadership, "You don't have to be sick to get better!"

For me as a business coach this is a formidable project. How often do you get the chance to facilitate more than 50 team sessions and coach more than 70 leaders in only four months? Changing prison culture means changing people's lives, giving them greater control of their future, and making them happier people. It's a 'finger-licking' great job I have!

This article first appeared in Business Coaching Worldwide (2006, Volume 2, Issue 3). Copyright © 2012 WABC Coaches Inc. All rights reserved.


Ton de Graaf, Chartered Business CoachTon de Graaf, Chartered Business Coach, is a seasoned business coach. Following a military career with the Royal Dutch Military Police and the Royal Dutch Air Force, he worked for a number of years as a line manager, crisis manager, change manager and HRD manager before starting Quest Coaching, his own coaching business. Read more about Ton in the WABC Coach Directory. Ton can be reached by email at ton@dutchcoachapproach.com

If you wish to reproduce this article in any material form, you must first contact WABC for permission.

Posted by Ton de Graaf ChBC

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