What Jail Taught Me About Leadership

I spent a little over two years of my life in jail ... as an employee.

One of the aspects of this responsibility years ago was oversight of the food production in our county correctional facility. It was a valuable experience for me and my team as we experienced a side of society that few witness. And yet there were many fundamental truths of human behavior that I would not have noticed had it not been for this environment.

My team comprised of four people who ran the daily operations of the kitchen areas. The rest of the labor was made up from the both the male and female inmate populations. We were not only tasked with having them work, but in building necessary skills for them to establish a more stable work life for themselves when they re-entered society. It was a great privilege to influence their lives for the better. But the heartache was that very few would respond to the training and belief we tried to instill in them. Yet for those few, the efforts were very much worth the toil and emotional challenges.

I remember one day when the inmates were serving the lunch meal. They had staged the last unit's meals to be plated, and we realized that we had run out of the main entree. We discovered that one young inmate, Ms. N, had miscounted and as a result we were short one whole unit's meal. When Ms. N realized she made a mistake, she absolutely fell apart. You could see the fear and dejection come over her instantly.

Meal service at jails are a sensitive thing. Any issues or what may be deemed unfair treatment or delays can result in individual or wide-scale behavior problems for the officers. Many meal incidents in facilities have actually lead to riots. Needless to say this was a potential issue and Ms. N fully knew that she could have triggered an incident.

My assistant and I approached her and before we said anything, she said, "I messed up. I'm in big trouble. I just started a riot." She was visibly shaking. We both tried to calm her down, and I said, "Hey, it's no big deal. We have more chicken we were planning on using for tonight, and together the three of us can make this into lunch in 10 minutes."

Ms. N did not know what to do with that. Her mouth dropped open, and as we involved her in making the remainder of lunch, she started to pull herself together. Within moments, we finished the meal service and had the inmates break for lunch and clean-up.

We talked with Ms. N again and reinforced that everything was just fine. But she still did not quite believe that we were willing to forgive her and help her out. By the next day, she had started to understand that she could trust us and was willing to work harder to ensure our trust in her.

I fully believe that she was an individual who was told all her life that she would never amount to anything, she was stupid, verbally beat down, or that she would end up in jail. (Various studies show that up to 90% of young people are in jail because someone in their life said that they would end up there eventually). I also feel that she was never praised for anything in her life, as evidenced by her reaction when we tried to comfort her through this incident. Ms. N just needed an opportunity to feel valued, worthwhile, and trusted.

I learned some valuable lessons that day, some new, and some reinforced:

  • Always be forgiving of a person when they make a genuine mistake
  • Be willing to help the person with a solution
  • Always give a reason to praise
  • Understand the needs of the person to more effectively lead them (more on "leading their needs" here)
  • Reinforce the value each individual has
  • Make it your goal to positively influence each person's life that you touch - you may have a golden opportunity to help turn someone's life around

I wish I could end the story happily that Ms. N changed her life around that day. Sadly, she gravitated back to her old circle of friends that held her back and is ensnared in that hard way of life. Yet for the Ms. N's that cannot turn it around, there were the "Red'"s and Ms. S's that broke the pattern of their life and made positive changes that are now influencing others in their lives. And all because we taught and believed in them and gave them a chance to shine.

Every person needs someone to believe in them. Whether at work, home, or in your community, we can make a positive impact. The hard toil and emotional commitment are small sacrifices compared to the benefit is makes in one's life. How can we help them escape the prison of hopelessness? We would love to hear your thoughts.



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