Prison Guard Cell

AVP Trainings for DOC Staff

From a talk given by John Shuford, August 13, 2019.


I HAVE BEEN INVOLVED WITH AVP since 1989 and in 1993 was asked by the Delaware Department of Corrections (DOC) to provide similar trainings for their staff. I modified the focus of the trainings to be on teamwork, but the design is that of an AVP workshop. Another change from AVP is that I train solo and not as part of a team and I do it for a fee, rather than as a volunteer. I have provided over 200 TACT (Team-Building, Attitude, Conflict and Transformation) trainings over the past 26 years.

Staff are normally mandated to take the training, but this does not negatively affect the impact of the training. As we all know, prisons are toxic environments and this has a serious negative impact on both inmates and staff. This kind of coercive culture in prisons creates high stress levels in staff resulting in:  high divorce rates, high addiction rates, high suicide rates, high blood pressure and heart conditions, 30% PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder], 30% Major Depressive Disorder, chronic anxiety, high staff turnover and sick time use, and a life expectancy 20 years shorter than the general population [59 years vs. 79 years]. The high turnover and sick time use results in staff shortages, which further increases the stress on staff.  In fact, when staff are asked why they leave correctional services, it is not because of inmates, but because of poor supervision and stress caused by other staff.

Because of the toxic culture that exists in many, if not most correctional facilities, staff develop an us vs. them attitude. It starts out at the training academy as being taught not to trust inmates. The problem is that in time it expands to not trusting anyone, including other staff, supervisors and administration. It even expands to their life outside of work, including friends and at home with family. With this lack of trust, they often believe they must always be in control and become aggressive, always wanting to be top dog. They close off to others, which means they also close off to themselves and shut down, becoming indifferent to those around them or being frequently frustrated or becoming excessively irritable with anger outbursts.

The outcome of this negative transformation is social isolation from their friends, family and the community in general and they may feel connected only to other staff, whom they may not trust. They may even question their spiritual belief system and use as their only coping mechanism escape through abuse of substances, food, gambling, sex, internet pornography or other high-risk behaviors. This feeling of disconnection is a major contributor to the morbidity and mortality statistics.

Psychologically, this chronic stress and disconnection can cause decreases in the immune system, emotional management, empathy, memory, motivation and cognitive processing, and increases in anxiety, arousal and aggression. It also negatively affects concentration, reasoning, judgment, planning and decision making, considering future consequences of current actions, working toward a defined goal and exhibiting social control. The antidote for all this is the experience of a TACT [AVP] training, just as with inmates who experience many of the same consequences.

Some typical comments from staff after experiencing the training are: “This training was life altering. Best I have ever had in my 25 years with the state;” “Not only equipped me to be a better manager, but also a better person;” “I now know how to deal with problems in a different way than I learned in the past;” “I learned to trust when I didn’t think I could;” “Life transforming. I will carry this training for the rest of my career;” “I ask why? Why did this training take twenty-eight to come into play with the department?” From the director of a training academy, “Words cannot express the value of the training you have conducted at the Academy. There is actually a paradigm shift from the rigidity and inflexibility ingrained in Corrections, to the understanding and acceptance of the value of community and teamwork.”  And from a warden, “It is generally thought to be the best training program that staff has participated in. the labor unions are strong supporters of it and employee grievances have dropped to an all-time low. Thank you for helping us change the culture at MCI. It is the best investment of resources that we have ever made.”

This type of training model is actually an emotional intelligence inoculation and can be easily learned by staff, line staff as well as training academy staff. It can literally raise the EQ of an agency, department or organization and staff love it. Post training evaluations are 97% excellent [70%] or very good [27%] and over 80% say they are using the skills on and off the job 6 months later. Experienced AVP facilitators can provide this training and it is my hope to encourage and train others to provide TACT trainings nationally.