Standardization of Excellence: 1980-2000; Accreditation; "Training Days"

The riot and strike at the end of the 1970s were the exclamation point to more than a decade of tension and controversy. Then, the ancient Rondout Valley institutions entered a period of peace and progress that has lasted to the present day. Former antagonists found common goals in the pursuit of accreditation and expansion of the institution's capacity. . . .

In 1959, Philip Coombe, Jr. was hired as a teacher at the Eastern Correctional Institution. He later transitioned to a counselor position and was then promoted to a supervisory position at the Woodbourne Rehabilitation Center. In 1977, Coombe was asked to open a new Department of Correctional Services facility in Otisville. At the new institution, he emphasized putting inmates out into the community on a variety of brush removal, clean-up, and other projects the small municipality would not otherwise have been able to afford.

In 1980, Coombe returned to Eastern where he had started 21 years earlier. Immediately, he set up a community service program, assigning inmates to work for the benefit of municipal and charitable organizations, earning good will and cooperation from the institution's neighbors. A recent example is the successful use of inmates to fight a large forest fire at the Minnewaska State Park on the Shawangunk Mountain Ridge. The good neighbor policy has become an Eastern tradition and is now standard practice at many Department of Correctional Services facilities across the state.

In 1982, Eastern became the first NYS correctional facility to be accredited by the American Correctional Association, an organization of correction professionals in the U.S. and Canada. Accreditation is intended to certify that a prison, jail, or juvenile facility operates in compliance with accepted standards for health, safety, security, and humane treatment of offenders; that work, educational, and rehabilitative programs are offered consistent with the needs of the offender population; and that prisoner classification and discipline are administered fairly and consistently in accordance with modem principles of justice. Accreditation requires written policy and procedures specifying the means for compliance with the ACA standards and documentation of practice.

Many Department officials in Albany and other facilities were unenthusiastic when Eastern broached the idea of applying for accreditation. The ACA program was little known at the time, and there were potential drawbacks to participation, There were doubts about the wisdom of relinquishing autonomy by accepting outside standards; of submitting to outside evaluation; of incurring heavy costs in renovating old physical structures; of committing time and resources to an undertaking whose outcome and value was uncertain; and of risking the public embarrassment of failure.

Commissioner Thomas A. Coughlin III accepted the gamble, and Eastern applied to the ACA for accreditation. Staff from all areas of the facility, their unions, and inmates were advised of the project and their involvement and support was sought. A preliminary assessment was made of needed action, and timetables were drawn up. An accreditation manager was designated to coordinate activities and keep track of progress against deadlines. Staff committees from all disciplines and all levels were appointed in various areas. The spirit of teamwork was contagious. . . .

Three ACA auditors arrived at Eastern for three days of "white glove" review, peering into every nook and cranny. The auditors found Eastern in compliance with 100 percent of the mandatory standards and 99.5 percent of the non-mandatory standards, easily exceeding minimum requirements. Eastern was officially accredited May 19, 1982. Proud staff wore "Eastern Is #1" buttons -- number one as in "best" as well as "first." The process was as important as the achievement. Eastern dug beneath accreditation's surface attractions -- public relations benefits and protection from lawsuits -- to its deeper values. Rather than simply demonstrating compliance, the accreditation process was taken as an opportunity to empower line staff by giving them substantial responsibilities for development and implementation of more effective means to govern their facility. The required checks for compliance encouraged management by clear, consistent, written guidelines rather than the whim of individual administrators or line staff.

When Coombe later moved on to Albany as Deputy Commissioner and then Acting Commissioner of Correctional Services, accreditation was embraced as a system-wide goal. Today, every one of New York's 71 facilities is accredited, making it the only fully accredited large state correctional system in the country. Every institution has also been successful in the three-year reaccredidation audits.

In the 1980s, staff training received a new emphasis at Eastern, again bringing dividends in teamwork while generating higher morale, efficiency, and accountability. As a result, Eastern has seen more of its staff promoted to positions of superintendent and deputy superintendent than any other facility in New York State.

The accreditation and reaccredidation processes are themselves effective training devices. Eastern also initiated the practice of shutting down the normal facility routine to devote an entire day to training with program content selected by staff committees and this tradition has been adopted at other Department facilities.

In conjunction with Ulster County Community College, Eastern arranged for courses and funding to be made available to staff, and adjusted work schedules to enable staff to take advantage of the opportunity. Another Eastern innovation was the development of training programs for civilian employees, who until then had been a relatively neglected group in the custody-oriented correctional environment. Eastern invited executives from area companies to share private sector techniques with facility managers and supervisors.

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