Prison reform: executive leadership is the missing link

YOU don't have to be a management expert to know that an organization's performance suffers when its leadership is absent or unstable. And you don't need to be an expert on prisons to recognize that institutional reforms languish when corrections chiefs play musical chairs. But that's precisely what's been happening. So many of the nation's prisons are crowded, filthy, violent, and unproductive because so many of its corrections agencies are without stable, caring, and creative executive leadership. Between 1973 and 1987, less than one-third of all adult corrections agencies had commissioners with an average tenure of five years or more; in more than one-third they held office for an average of three years or less. In most places, a prison director is beating the odds if he stays in his post long enough to break in his staff, establish alliances with legislators, and orchestrate a single positive change in conditions behind bars.

Even if the people who headed our ``barbed wire bureaucracies'' were more talented and accomplished than most of them are, it's not certain that things would change for the better. It's the nature of the job, and not just the scant skills of most individual leaders, that makes prison reforms so hard to bring about.

Prison commissioners have the most difficult executive management task in the public sector. Corrections agencies are expected to accomplish multiple and contradictory objectives ranging from punishment and incapacitation to deterrence and rehabilitation. Public opinion on prisons is fickle, and legislative shifts are frequent. As the late practitioner-penologist Richard A. McGee noted, contemporary corrections commissioners face a perplexing assortment of ``coaches, customers, and critics'' - officer unions, inmate gangs, prisoners' rights lobbies, federal and state judges, oversight bodies, academic opinionmakers, sensationalizing journalists, jumpy governors, and several others.

It's not surprising, therefore, that most corrections chiefs quickly ``burn out,'' quit, or get fired; what's amazing is that any of them succeed. For example, for the first 57 years of its history, the Federal Bureau of Prisons had only four directors. Norman A. Carlson led the agency between 1970 and 1987. An energetic, active leader, he institutionalized new management and training regimens, expanded prison industries, formed good working relationships with key congressmen, and saw to it that each of the prisons met or exceeded constitutional standards. Similarly, William Leeke led the South Carolina Department of Corrections between 1968 and 1988. A tough-minded and politically astute executive, he surrounded himself with able staff and managed to effect a series of significant improvements in what was one of the South's worst prison systems.

Undeniably, however, Carlson, Leeke, and the dozen or so other contemporary corrections commissioners that had long and fruitful tenures are exceptions that prove the rule. What is to be done?

While the National Institute of Corrections has sponsored training sessions for top prison officials, more is required. In addition to expansion of funding for these executive programs, I would urge state decisionmakers to choose their prison directors with the utmost care, and then to give them a full measure of political, financial, and administrative support.

Next year Americans will spend about $20 billion on convicted criminals, much of it to administer much-needed prison reforms. Let's hope that corrections can begin to develop a cadre of first-rate executive leaders so that these efforts are not in vain.

John J. DiIulio Jr., a professor at Princeton University, is the author of ``Governing Prisons: A Comparative Study of Correctional Management.''

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