Department of corrections: Dan Pacholke at TEDxMonroeCorrectionalComplex

Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Madeleine Aronson My name is Dan Pacholke,
I’m the assistant secretary of the prisons division
of the State Department of corrections. We’re seen as the organization that is
the bucket for failed social policy. I can’t define who comes to us
or how long they stay. We get the people for whom
nothing else has worked, people who have fallen through all
of the other social safety nets. They can’t contain them, so we must. That’s our job: contain them, control them. Over the years, as a prison system, as a nation, and as a society, we’ve become very good at that, but that shouldn’t make you happy. Today we incarcerate
more people per capita than any other country in the world. We have more black men in prison today than were under slavery in 1850. We house the parents
of almost three million of our community’s children, and we’ve become the new asylum, the largest mental health provider
in this nation. When we lock someone up, that is no small thing. And yet, we are called
the Department of Corrections. Today I want to talk about changing the way we think
about corrections. I believe, and my experience tells me, that when we change the way we think, we create new possibilities, or futures, and prisons need a different future. I’ve spent my entire career
in corrections, over 30 years. I followed my dad into this field. He was a Vietnam veteran.
Corrections suited him. He was strong, steady, disciplined. I was not so much any of those things, and I’m sure that worried him about me. Eventually I decided,
if I was going to end up in prison, I’d better end up
on the right side of the bars, so I thought I’d check it out, take a tour of the place my dad worked, the McNeil Island Penitentiary. Now this was the early ’80s, and prisons weren’t quite what you see on TV or in the movies. In many ways, it was worse. I walked into a cell house
that was five tiers high. There were eight men to a cell. there were 550 men in that living unit. And just in case you wondered, they shared one toilet
in those small confines. An officer put a key in a lockbox, and hundreds of men
streamed out of their cells. Hundreds of men
streamed out of their cells. I walked away as fast as I could. Eventually I went back
and I started as an officer there. My job was to run one of those cell blocks and to control those hundreds of men. When I went to work
at our receptions center, I could actually hear the inmates
roiling from the parking lot, shaking cell doors, yelling, tearing up their cells. Take hundreds of volatile people
and lock them up, and what you get is chaos. Contain and control -” that was our job. One way we learned
to do this more effectively was a new type of housing unit called the Intensive Management Unit, IMU, a modern version of a “hole.” We put inmates in cells
behind solid steel doors with cuff ports so we could restrain them and feed them. Guess what? It got quieter. Disturbances died down
in the general population. Places became safer because those inmates
who were most violent or disruptive could now be isolated. But isolation isn’t good. Deprive people of social contact
and they deteriorate. It was hard getting them out of IMU, for them and for us. Even in prison, it’s no small thing to lock someone up. My next assignment was
to one of the state’s deep-end prisons where some of our more violent
or disruptive inmates are housed. By then, the industry had advanced a lot, and we had different tools and techniques to manage disruptive behavior. We had beanbag guns and pepper spray and plexiglass shields, flash bangs, emergency response teams. We met violence with force and chaos with chaos. We were pretty good at putting out fires. While I was there, I met
two experienced correctional workers who were also researchers, an anthropologist and a sociologist. One day, one of them
commented to me and said, “You know, you’re pretty good
at putting out fires. Have you ever thought
about how to prevent them?” I was patient with them, explaining our brute force approach to making prisons safer. They were patient with me. Out of those conversations
grew some new ideas and we started some small experiments. First, we started training
our officers in teams rather than sending them one or two
at a time to the state training academy. Instead of four weeks of training,
we gave them 10. Then we experimented
with an apprenticeship model where we paired new staff
with veteran staff. They both got better at the work. We changed the way we trained our staff. Second, we added
verbal de-escalation skills into the training continuum and made it part
of the use of force continuum. It was the non-force use of force. And then we did something
even more radical. We trained the inmates
on those same skills. We changed the skill set, reducing violence,
not just responding to it. Third, when we expanded our facility,
we tried a new type of design. Now the biggest
and most controversial component of this design, of course, was the toilet. There were no toilets. Now that might not sound
significant to you here today, but at the time, it was huge. No one had ever heard
of a cell without a toilet. We all thought it was dangerous and crazy. Even eight men to a cell had a toilet. That small detail
changed the way we worked. Inmates and staff started interacting more often and openly
and developing a rapport. It was easier to detect conflict
and intervene before it escalated. The unit was cleaner, quieter,
safer and more humane. This was more effective
at keeping the peace than any intimidation technique
I’d seen to that point. Interacting changes the way you behave, both for the officer and the inmate. We changed the environment
and we changed the behavior. Now, just in case
I hadn’t learned this lesson, they assigned me to headquarters next, and that’s where I ran
straight up against system change. Now, many things work
against system change: politics and politicians, bills and laws, courts and lawsuits, internal politics. System change is difficult and slow, and oftentimes it doesn’t take you where you want to go. It’s no small thing
to change a prison system. So what I did do is I reflected
on my earlier experiences and I remembered that
when we interacted with offenders, the heat went down. When we changed the environment,
the behavior changed. And these were not huge system changes. These were small changes,
and they created new possibilities. So next, I got reassigned
as superintendent of a small prison. And at the same time,
I was working on my degree at the Evergreen State College. I interacted with a lot of people
who were not like me, people who had different ideas and came from different backgrounds. One of them was a rainforest ecologist. She looked at my small prison
and what she saw was a laboratory. We talked and discovered
how prisons and inmates could actually help advance science by helping them complete projects they couldn’t complete on their own, like repopulating endangered species: frogs, butterflies,
endangered prairie plants. At the same time, we found ways to make our operation more efficient through the addition of solar power, rainwater catchment,
organic gardening, recycling. This initiative has led to many projects that have had huge system-wide impact, not just in our system,
but in other state systems as well, small experiments making a big difference to science, to the community. The way we think about
our work changes our work. The project just made my job
more interesting and exciting. I was excited. Staff were excited. Officers were excited.
Inmates were excited. They were inspired. Everybody wanted to be part of this. They were making a contribution,
a difference, one they thought
was meaningful and important. Let me be clear
on what’s going on here, though. Inmates are highly adaptive. They have to be. Oftentimes, they know more
about our own systems than the people who run them. And they’re here for a reason. I don’t see my job
as to punish them or forgive them, but I do think they can have decent and meaningful lives
even in prison. So that was the question: Could inmates live
decent and meaningful lives, and if so,
what difference would that make? So I took that question
back to the deep end, where some of our
most violent offenders are housed. Remember, IMUs are for punishment. You don’t get perks there,
like programming. That was how we thought. But then we started to realize
that if any inmates needed programming,
it was these particular inmates. In fact, they needed
intensive programming. So we changed our thinking 180 degrees, and we started looking
for new possibilities. What we found was a new kind of chair. Instead of using the chair for punishment, we put it in classrooms. Okay, we didn’t forget
our responsibility to control, but now inmates
could interact safely, face-to-face with other inmates and staff, and because control
was no longer an issue, everybody could focus on other things,
like learning. Behavior changed. We changed our thinking,
and we changed what was possible, and this gives me hope. Now, I can’t tell you
that any of this stuff will work. What I can tell you,
though, it is working. Our prisons are getting safer
for both staff and inmates, and when our prisons are safe, we can put our energies
into a lot more than just controlling. Reducing recidivism
may be our ultimate goal, but it’s not our only goal. To be honest with you, preventing crime takes so much more
from so many more people and institutions. If we rely on just prisons
to reduce crime, I’m afraid we’ll never get there. But prisons can do some things we never thought they could do. Prisons can be the source of innovation and sustainability, repopulating endangered species
and environmental restoration. Inmates can be scientists and beekeepers, dog rescuers. Prisons can be the source
of meaningful work and opportunity for staff and the inmates who live there. We can contain and control and provide humane environments. These are not opposing qualities. We can’t wait 10 to 20 years to find out if this is worth doing. Our strategy is not massive system change. Our strategy is hundreds of small changes that take place in days or months,
not years. We need more small pilots
where we learn as we go, pilots that change
the range of possibility. We need new and better ways
to measure impacts on engagement, on interaction, on safe environments. We need more opportunities
to participate in and contribute to our communities, your communities. Prisons need to be secure, yes, safe, yes. We can do that. Prisons need to provide
humane environments where people can participate, contribute, and learn meaningful lives. We’re learning how to do that. That’s why I’m hopeful. We don’t have to stay stuck
in old ideas about prison. We can define that. We can create that. And when we do that thoughtfully
and with humanity, prisons can be more than the bucket for failed social policy. Maybe finally, we will earn our title: a department of corrections. Thank you. (Applause)

5 thoughts on “Department of corrections: Dan Pacholke at TEDxMonroeCorrectionalComplex”

  1. You guys never did change the computer glitch for 3 years. Got the stones to show up to a TED conference and promote how great you are. Do you have the balls to be an accountable bureaucrat and face the music? You have failed the Taxpayers and the general public. People are dead because of your mistakes. You are the one who should be incarcerated now.

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