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2009 Correctional Officers and Employees Wreathlaying Ceremony

Remarks from the American Correctional Association

By Harold Clarke, ACA President, May 2, 2009

I am truly honored to be here in the Nation's Capitol today to celebrate Correctional Officers and Employees week and for the opportunity to recognize the work of corrections professionals everywhere. It is a difficult profession, the demands are many, the dangers are frequent and the praise is minimal. We are tasked with housing the most violent members of society and are charged with tending to their every need. Despite the dangers, long hours and lack of understanding that the public-at-large have of our profession, tens of thousands of men and women get up and go to work daily in correctional facilities across the country. They take pride in their work and know that they are making a positive difference every day.

Many correctional staff have made the ultimate sacrifice and a greater number have been injured in the line of duty. It is fitting that we pause today and the week to come, to reflect on their memories and to show our gratitude for their service; their contribution to the creation of safe and sustainable communities throughout the USA.

Hundreds of thousands of inmates are confined in our correctional facilities every year. Correctional staff do more than just confine and guard. They treat, rehabilitate, reform, teach and train inmates among a variety of other duties. Correctional staff prepare inmates to reenter society. This is among their most important missions. As Dostoevsky once said, "The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."

This week we celebrate the officers that patrol the tiers, yards and corridors of correctional facilities nationwide, and the many other correctional staff. They are the unsung heroes of law enforcement. We must be committed to their safety. We must provide them with effective training and educational opportunities, for they will be the correctional leaders of the future. We must provide correctional leaders with the tools to combat an ever more sophisticated level of inmates that are being confined in correctional institutions. With the advent of cellular telephone technology becoming smaller and smaller, we must provide the tools to snuff out the abilities of inmates to conduct business as usual on the streets or threaten security through unmonitored lines of communications.

There are many challenges facing correctional professionals today. The directors, managers, supervisors, officers, counselors, medical personnel and unions must all work together to identify and overcome the challenges that we face together.

The changing dynamics and characteristics of the workforce are major factors which must be embraced by correctional leaders if they are to be successful in the recruitment and retention of correctional staff capable of making a difference. Diversity means more than just acknowledging or tolerating differences. Diversity is a set of conscious practices that involve practicing mutual respect for qualities and experiences that are different from our own. We cannot fear change, for change is a part of life. We must remember the words of President John F. Kennedy, when he said, "We should not let our fears hold us back from pursuing our hopes."

Correctional leaders must appeal to a new generation of professionals - many of whom may not hold the corrections profession in high regard. Corrections agencies need to dispel the misconceptions and negative images portrayed in the media of the jack-booted thugs roaming the tiers searching for inmates to victimize. We need to develop strategies that will help to foster the respect shown to other law enforcement branches. We must demonstrate the great pride and professionalism that we take in our important work on a daily basis. We must exhibit the excitement and anticipation that we felt when we started and had so many challenges before us.

As corrections professionals we need to bolster community support for what we do and the service that we bring to the community. We must utilize new technologies to spread our messages to the masses. We must not fear bringing the community into the fold and demonstrating all of the positive contributions that we bring to our stakeholders.

Correctional Systems face significant challenges in terms of the offenders that are being incarcerated. Approximately 70% of incarcerated offenders are reading below a ninth grade level and about the same number have math skills below a fifth grade level. Approximately 80% of incarcerated offenders would benefit from substance abuse counseling. It is incumbent upon us to share the profiles and characteristics of inmates that are entering our systems with the public and policy makers. This information could help society to focus on prevention and help us strive to give everyone a good beginning.

In the current economy, corrections professionals are forced to do more with less. This has almost always been our challenge. The expenditure of money for prisons and jails is never going to be popular, but we must endure. We must persevere and remain on track, for our mission, although unpopular is vital to maintaining sustainable communities. During times of crisis, maintaining dialogue with the communities that we serve is critical. This is our mission, and we accept it and forge ahead to develop new partnerships in the community and beyond.

Perhaps the most important thing we can demonstrate in corrections today is that we provide safe and humane environments for offenders and that we enhance public safety. Corrections professionals are not guards; we are a diverse group of professionals dedicated to making a difference in society. Greater than 95% of offenders nationally will be released back into their communities at some point. We as corrections professionals serve humanity each and every day as we ready this highly volatile section of society for their return to their communities.

Very few grow up dreaming about working in the corrections field. It is a difficult profession. We do not fear change. We do not fear commitment. We do not fear danger. In the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, "Keep your fears to yourself, but share your inspiration with others."

At all times and especially as we celebrate correction officers and employees week be proud of what you do to keep our communities safe.