Archives for January 25, 2008

“We Save Neighborhoods” Police and Parole and Probation Patrols in Washington, D.C.

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. and Beverly Hill. Edited by Cedric Hendricks and Joyce McGinnis

See for “DC Public Safety” radio and television shows.

See for the web site of the federal Court Services and Offender Services Agency.

It’s a cold and sunny late November day in Washington, DC. We are on patrol with Police Officer Grady Holmes and four employees of the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA). For the next few hours we will visit the homes of offenders on probation or parole. We are conducting an Accountability Tour.

CSOSA is a federal, executive branch agency responsible for parole and probation services in the District of Columbia. Community Supervision Officers (known as parole and probation officers in most states) conduct approximately 5,000 Accountability Tours every year. “Accountability Tours are self explanatory,” states Gladys Dorgett, a veteran Supervisory Community Supervision Officer who has been with CSOSA since it’s inception in 1997. She was a liaison with foreign officials for the State Department before that. “We hold the offender accountable for his actions. The partnering of members of the Metropolitan Police Department with Community Supervision Officers (CSOs) sends a powerful message that we are in this together. We and the police department are partners in making sure that the offender does what he is supposed to do. If you screw up, you deal with both agencies.”

Every Accountability Tour involves visits to approximately 10 homes. If an offender misses a drug test, he gets an Accountability Tour. Not cooperating with special conditions imposed by the court or Parole Commission merits a visit. New to the neighborhood? That too produces a meeting at the offender’s home. Not reporting to the CSO as required will guarantee a visit before a warrant is obtained.

Most Accountability Tours are scheduled. Some are a surprise. It depends on the offender and the circumstances prompting the visit. It makes sense for the offender and his family members or sponsors to be there for questions.

“He can’t stay here unless he gets a job,” states the mother of an offender on probation for a drug charge. “He knows that he has to improve, and I’m not putting up with any foolishness!”

The mother’s statement illustrates the value of Accountability Tours. During office visits, the offender can say anything he wants and it’s often the responsibility of the supervising CSO to verify the information. Verifications come quick during Accountability Tours.

“What about commercial driving licenses,” the mother of the probationer continues. “Is he eligible for some kind of program where he can get his CDL?” The CSO explains the process for obtaining a CDL and offers to help the offender get employment. While the offender’s mother is intent on finding training and employment for her son, the offender does not seem to be trying hard enough to take advantage of available services. The CSO, the offender and his mother agree to another meeting at the office to further explore job training and employment possibilities.

“This shows another aspect of the Accountability Tour,” states CSOSA Branch Chief William Ashe, who is along on the tour. Bill was a Deputy Chief of Community Corrections in Virginia before coming to CSOSA. “The mother will insist. The wife will not take ‘no’ for an answer. The family is often our best ally in the effort to produce a taxpayer out of a tax burden. The court, Parole Commission, police department or the Community Supervision Officer may struggle to get the offender to comply with the rules or take advantage of services. But in the home, in the presence of family, they often become partners with the purpose to help the offender succeed.”

The price for repeated failure can be harsh. The presence of the police officer reminds all that the next visit may not be a support meeting. It may result in handcuffs and a trip downtown and a possible return to prison. No one misunderstands the purpose of the visit.

It’s About my Mother

CSOSA and the Metropolitan Police Department conduct over 5,000 Accountability Tours in the nation’s capitol each year. Accountability Tours are part of an overall strategy to get the parole and probation officer in the community. “Fortress probation” is a term used by many to decry the practice of the supervision officer conducting his work from behind the desk. “Street supervision” is the preferred method of supervision at CSOSA.

“You have to be on the street sharing information with the police and everyone who comes into contact with the offender” states Dwayne Murray, a five year veteran of CSOSA and a former DC Correctional Officer. “Everything is about standards and holding the offender accountable for his actions. You hold the offender accountable by knowing what’s going on in his life. You know what’s going on in his life by visiting his home, place of employment and where he hangs out. The police officer that accompanies you acts as your eyes and ears. He shares the information with other officers, who also keep an eye on the offender.”

“Now, if your guy is on the corner messing with the sanity of the neighborhood, you know about it, and you can take appropriate action. Nothing shakes an offender out of his sense of getting lost in the system like a police officer showing up and pointing out the fact that they are under supervision, and there are consequences for behavior that threatens the community.”

“The police officer can only take action for lawlessness. I can put an offender in prison for not following the rules of supervision. Together, we form a potent bond. The community is appreciative for the intervention; the family is appreciative for the programs to help the offender. The collective pressure is what many offenders need to succeed.”

“It’s about my mother. Everything I do protects her and everyone else in D.C.”

“The thing to remember is that the officers like these encounters,” states D.C. police officer Grady Holmes. It keeps us in touch with the offenders on our beat. We appreciate the constant sharing of information with CSOSA. It a partnership that works!”

A Comprehensive Approach — Accountability and Treatment

Joint warrant service in the community is another new initiative for CSOSA and the Metropolitan Police Department. Approximately 1,200 arrest warrants are served in field offices every year. Teams of Community Supervision Officers are now joining police officers to track down offenders for warrant service. CSOSA’s information system (SMART) puts comprehensive information on the offender right at the CSOs fingertips whether he is in the field using a laptop computer and a wireless network card or in the office. One of the best offender information management systems in the country, SMART gives the CSO immediate access to information on the offenders known hangouts, the address and telephone numbers of family members and acquaintances, gang affiliations, tattoos and other physical features. That information can be vital in finding offenders in the community. Law enforcement has direct access to the CSOSA computer system.

In addition to Accountability Tours, Community Supervision Officers make thousands of additional home and employment visits without the presence of police officers. Generally, Community Supervision Officers conduct these visits in teams, but sometimes they go alone. Armed only with a bulletproof vest, cell phone and a jacket that identifies the CSO as CSOSA employee, CSOs routinely travel into very high crime and drug neighborhoods. Despite the obvious risk, they recognize that effective supervision goes beyond office visits.

CSOSA enjoys some of the lowest caseload ratios in the country. General supervision caseloads average one CSO to 50 offenders. Special caseloads that include sex, mental health, high-risk drug and domestic violence offenders and offenders convicted of driving while intoxicated offenses often have ratios of 25 or 30 offenders to each Community Supervision Officer. While there are no national statistics on caseload ratios, it is not unusual for states and counties to have 150 offenders for every parole and probation officer.

What this means is that CSOSA has frequent contact with the offender. Close to 50 percent of the population is on either maximum or intensive supervision or are part of a special supervision program (sex offenders, mental health, etc.) that also demand lots of contact.

Substance abuse testing is strict. All offenders submit drug tests twice a week for the first eight weeks of supervision. If all tests are negative, drug testing is reduced to twice a month for the next twelve weeks, then one a month thereafter. One violation returns the offender to the original testing schedule.

Thus CSOSA probably comes into contact with offenders more often than the vast majority of supervision agencies in the United States. Back that number of contacts with Accountability Tours and additional home visits without police officers, then it is clear that offenders can be held accountable for their actions.

Services are Necessary

But it’s vital to note that accountability is not just an emphasis on enforcement. Research from the Department of Justice on boot camps and intensive parole and probation supervision makes it clear that strict supervision cannot and will not keep offenders from recidivating. Reducing recidivism requires both accountability and services.

Intensive supervision alone will not help a mentally ill person to be compliant. An offender with a sexual orientation towards children needs targeted treatment. A drug-addicted person will continue to be a drug-addicted person if not provided treatment services. Intensive contact with a community supervision officer will not change these facts. Treatment is a necessary component of successful community supervision.

CSOSA has locations throughout the City of Washington to assist offenders with everything from GED preparation to employment. Hundreds of volunteer mentors from approximately 50 churches and mosques assist offenders returning from prison. The faith-based community has formed a coalition to coordinate a wide array of services. All of CSOSA’s special supervision programs have treatment, intervention and counseling components. CSOSA provides direct services to some special supervision offenders and funds private treatment services for others. In 2006 CSOSA will begin operation of a 100-bed Reentry and Sanctions Center to provide state-of-the-art assessment and pre- treatment for high-risk drug offenders.

Intermediate Sanctions

The final element in CSOSA’s arsenal of interventions is a system of intermediate sanctions. The research is clear, the more closely an offender is supervised, the more opportunities there will be to violate them for failing to meet a condition of their release. The court can mandate a GED program as part of an offender’s probation, society will not likely support returning an offender to prison for not going to school or for repeat positive urines. Were society to take this stance, few offenders would succeed under community supervision, and the prison system would have to expand dramatically. Seventy percent of the people under correctional supervision are “managed” in the community. Problems and violations are routine and expected.

CSOSA employs a comprehensive series of intermediate sanctions that mandate immediate actions for violations. Depending on the offense, sanctions may range from meetings with supervisors to daily reporting. Home visits, Accountability Tours and satellite tracking, home detention and curfews are all strategies CSOSA employs to ensure accountability while allowing the offender to remain in the community. However, while we may employ the best in supervision services, there are no guarantees that the offender will remain crime free.

Back to the Tour

We are in the home of a parolee, released from prison after serving time for PCP distribution. He greets the police officer by his first name. He asks about another police officer, again by his first name.

Officer Holmes smiles and relates that he has lots of history with the offender. “Yeah, I know him,” the officer states. “I know lots of repeat offenders. All of us do. That’s why officers like to interact with CSOSA. If he’s on supervision, we can contact the Community Supervision Officer and form a plan for treatment or supervision. That’s the only way these guys are going to straighten out their lives. I can ask CSOSA for help.”

Another point made by several of the Community Supervision Officers the day of the tour is their pride in the District of Columbia. They know they play a major role in the stabilization of communities. D.C. is reemerging as a city with intense neighborhood pride. Gladys Dorgett constantly points out the cleanliness and beauty of the middle and working class sections of the city. “Residents take great pride in their communities,” she states. They want us here. They want us to form a cooperative bond with the police. They, more than anyone else, want us to succeed.”

“I Require a Lot From my Offenders”

“We save neighborhoods,” explains Rosalyn Brown. Rosalyn worked her way up from a clerical position with the D.C. Pretrial Services Agency as a program assistant to her current job as a Community Supervision Officer with CSOSA. “These neighborhoods are beautiful. Property values are soaring. People here have always been proud of being Washingtonians.”

“But it can change in a heartbeat. If the system is not vigilant, if we are not careful, the progress made in northeast D.C. and throughout the city can be easily be undone. We are in the position to make neighborhoods livable. Neighborhoods can be greatly impacted by one criminal. He can make life miserable for everyone. We are here to make sure, to the best of our ability that decay does not happen because of an offender’s actions.”

“If a community member or police officer brings an offender’s actions to my attention, we take action. I require a lot from my offenders.”

“But it’s not all about enforcement. Home visits allow for a greater sense of intimacy. The offender will often communicate more in an environment he is comfortable in. They will open up as a person. That’s the kind of interaction that can lead to real progress. If he tells me what’s going on in his life, and I can win his trust and provide the services he needs. Often they will tell you that they are tired of the system and the never-ending cycle of arrest and incarceration. I can help, especially if family members are supportive or if they demand change. We can then act as a team and produce real change.”

“But you can often tell how well the offender will do while on community supervision by the reaction of the family. If they show great interest, then there is a chance. If they don’t care, then the odds for a successful outcome decrease. That’s why you have to be in the community and in their homes. Being here allows me to assess the situation first hand.”

We visit the last home. We knock on the door of an offender who is not reporting for supervision. No one answers the door. There are no signs of life in the home. A notice is left. The CSO will follow-up with final attempts to locate the offender before a warrant is sought for violation of probation. We visited 10 homes during today’s Accountability Tour.

CSOSA and the Metropolitan Police Department will continue efforts to jointly supervise offenders. It’s all part of a strategy to use partners and community organizations to suppress crime and produce safe communities. And its all part of Rosalyn Brown’s assertion that “We save neighborhoods.”


What To Do When You Have A Celebrity? Strategies for Dealing With the Entertainment Media

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Edited by Cedric Hendricks and Joyce McGinnis

See for “DC Public Safety” radio and television shows.

See for the web site of the federal Court Services and Offender Services Agency.

As all of you know, Paris Hilton is spending some quality time at the Los Angeles County Jail for a probation violation. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael T. Sauer ordered Ms. Hilton reincarcerated after jail officials allowed her to spend her time on house arrest after three days in the facility.

How would you handle the throng of media descending on you and your institution if you found yourself in similar circumstances?

In my 18 years of handling media for institutional and community corrections as the Director of Public Information for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services and the (federal) Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, I responded to a wide variety of media requests regarding well-known offenders. Mike Tyson (on Maryland’s parole and probation caseload) produced endless calls. The “Beltway Shooters” who terrorized the Washington D.C. metro area several years ago were incarcerated in Maryland’s Super Max prison. They and many others produced a fail share of national and international media attention.

The bottom line in media relations is insuring that celebrity offenders are treated no different than any other offender. “Friends” in the media will call for the inside scoop. Relatives will ask for information. Staff will be asked to act as informants. To say that it’s challenging is an understatement.

You will hear the media report circumstances that only people directly connected to the case would know. While it’s disconcerting, it happens all the time.

Staff may talk. Most will not talk to the media, but you should anticipate that some will. Some relay experiences to friends and families who may call the media. This could produce unfounded rumors. Rumors, as we all know, have a way of snowballing wildly. What we call a standard adjustment to incarceration could be major psychotic meltdown to others.

Note that it’s not unusual for the superintendent, commissioner or warden to feed information to their favorite reporters. Yes, it happens.

Your executives (or you) have to brief the governor’s office or city or county executive or their spokespersons. They may pass this information on to media.

First of all, stick to the script. All of us have public information policies or privacy laws to contend with. Stray from what’s permissible, and you will find yourself on the receiving end of negative news. Generally speaking, we can provide name, charge, start and end date, date of birth and confirmation that the offender is in your institution. Medical, psychological, criminal history and adjustment issues (how well they are doing) are off limits.

Obviously, staff operational issues are extremely important. Having the right administrator take charge of the case and making sure staff are aware of what’s coming and what’s expected is extremely important. Let them know that the media may try contact them and what to do.

Some spokespeople decide not respond to celebrity related media requests until release. That’s wise policy. My suggestion is to create an extensive fact sheet on the institution and routine day-to-day activities for all offenders and place it on your web site. That should answer many standard questions.

Note that there is a huge difference between the mainline and entertainment media. The entertainment media knows no bounds. They will probably try to speak to every member of the institution’s staff (and their families) by phone or at home. They will try to visit any offender in the institution just to get a scrap of information or rumor. They will offer all thousands of dollars for a photograph.

Regardless of to the posture you take regarding day-to-day inquiries, you will have to deal with rumors. You need to have updated information sent to you daily. You need to visit the institution so you know the lay of the land. You have to be in a position to respond immediately to inevitable false accusations. While you may refuse to answer day-to-day questions about the celebrity, you do not want triple the number of media at your doorstep spurred by the false belief that you are hiding something.

You need to have the cell or private telephone numbers of the institution’s executive staff and shift commanders to make necessary connections fast. Be sure to brief your executives as to breaking situations before talking to media.

Finally, you may want to be available for off-the-record conversations with a small number of mainstream (not entertainment) media or media management. Why?

Because they want to clarify rumors, your briefings may be your best bet to keep all media under control. You cannot give up privacy act or public information act information, but you can provide access to clarify the exaggerated remarks of informants. Trusted media who know the truth (i.e., no suicide attempts, no hunger strikes, no mental breakdowns, etc.) can be your best friend.

You may want to provide some reporters with quick access by providing your cell phone number. Getting a unique cell phone and number for the occasion would be helpful.

These are the people you will have to deal with after a celebrity driven event. They think you are helping them establish the truth, and you are. But what you and your institution or system get in return is accuracy and some control over the story.

Experienced public affairs personnel, not part-time PIO’s or institutional employees, may want to consider this tactic. There is an art to doing this without violating privacy considerations that veteran public affairs staff routinely employ as needed.

I look forward to your suggestions or comments. Please contact me at


Media Relations and Community Corrections

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Edited by Cedric Hendricks and Joyce McGinnis

See for “DC Public Safety” radio and television shows.

See for the web site of the federal Court Services and Offender Services Agency.

The Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) is the parole and probation entity for Washington, D.C. It is a federal, executive branch agency. CSOSA prides itself on state-of-the-art practices, with some of the lowest caseloads and best contact standards, drug treatment options and programmatic initiatives in the country. Our information systems are first rate.

CSOSA decided in 2004 to embark on aggressive and comprehensive public relations outreach efforts to support strategic initiatives. Community corrections (and corrections in general) face immense public relations challenges. According to national surveys of confidence in the criminal justice system, corrections pales in comparison to law enforcement and the judiciary (see Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics).

The emphasis on offender reentry from prison is one example as to how the public looks at our activities. Although most of the rhetoric on reentry comes from national sources, the great majority of decisions regarding supervision and services for returning offenders will be made at the state and local levels.

The public will support this and other community corrections initiatives based solely on their ability to trust the local system assigned with implementation. The average citizen and reporter have never been exposed to national reentry advocates and their positions. All fellow citizens know about corrections is what they read in the paper and view on local TV.

But when the media carries endless stories of offenders committing violent crimes as the sole message, our ability to enter or affect the discussion is greatly diminished.

This article is not about reentry; rather, it addresses the more general question of whether corrections agencies can have a favorable impact on public attitudes and perceptions.

I spent 14 years as the Director of Public Relations for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. Independent university research documented a gain of 30 percentage points (from 20 to 50 percent) in the public’s favorable opinion of the agency during my time there, which is remarkable considering the inevitable negative publicity associated with corrections. To be fair, my former agency also encompassed law enforcement agencies, but the vast majority of publicity, good and bad, was associated with corrections.

Correctional agencies can be part of the debate and greatly influence local and state media. It’s not my intent to provide an overview of basic public relations in this article, but to provide a synopsis of what the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency sees as critical ingredients in media and public relations.

A Service Orientation

The news media is very important to us. Unless you have an advertising budget, everything will be filtered and distributed through them. Establishing favorable media relations can only be accomplished by taking their needs into serious consideration. We believe that you have to be honest and fair in order to get the same in return.

We are available around the clock through agency cell phones and Blackberry’s. We have access to the CSOSA information system through home computers. We have laptops with wireless broadband capacity. We have the authorization, tools and knowledge to take care of media needs.

Proactive Marketing

We market to the media as often as we market to the public. In a hyper-competitive media market like the nation’s capitol, we know that our proactive efforts will not get all the exposure we want. But when a reporter writes about a parolee involved in a violent crime, we are hopeful that the reporter or editor also knows of the quality and comprehensiveness of our efforts to closely supervise and obtain services for our clients. At the very least, they will know what we are trying to accomplish.

We are also concerned about our national reputation. We want recognition for developing and implementing best practices. We have sometimes found it easier to market to CBS News and National Public Radio than to local media. But while national exposure is valued, our local media connections are the ones that will play the greatest role in defining our effectiveness.

We believe in proactive efforts as the foundation of good public relations. Beyond pitching story ideas to reporters, we are systematic in our outreach efforts. These include:

  • 1. A quarterly television show that is played approximately 600 times each year by D.C and metropolitan government and community access stations. Considering the majority of reporters (and other important partners) do not live in Washington (it’s an expensive town) regional exposure allows us to reach them in communities where they live.
  • 2. A first-rate web site ( due to be unveiled this fall. We believe that upon completion, it will rank among the best criminal justice web and audio/video sites in the nation. A fully functioning site can become the equivalent of a full time public relations staff position.
  • 3. Writing story-oriented articles for national criminal justice publications and using them to populate the web site. In three years, staff has created approximately 40 articles and fact sheets to explain our activities in a friendly, non-technical way.
  • 4. The creation and promotion of podcasts (radio shows) for placement on the web site. We will use podcasts to explain what we do, to promote special initiatives, and recruit new employees. Our series of radio and television productions are carried under the banner of “DC Public Safety.” “DC Public Safety” is now, per Google, the most popular criminal justice podcasting site in the nation. ( or
  • 5. The creation and promotion of video podcasts, which is nothing more than using existing CSOSA TV shows and video products and promoting them as web-based internet products( or
  • 6. The creation of a comprehensive e-mail and fax list to carry our message to local and national media and to interested national professionals and citizens of the District. Our new web site will also contain an e-mail signup option.
  • 7. Our Community Justice Programs section employs 5 community representatives whose job is to attend community functions in the city where crime is on the agenda.
  • 8. Our Office of Legislative, Intergovernmental and Public Affairs is in constant contact with federal and D.C. government officials and staff and other institutions to explain and advocate our agendas. The public affairs team is part of this office.

The above is simply a sample of what we are trying to accomplish through our public relations efforts. The bottom line is that we believe that we are major players in the effort to protect the safety of the citizens we serve. We are dedicated professionals who are operating in everyone’s best interest, thus we have little to hide and much to contribute.

When the inevitable criminal act is committed by one of the 15,000 offenders we supervise daily, we hope that most members of the media will place the crime into proper perspective. We believe that this is done through an honest acknowledgement of our efforts to closely supervise offenders and help them to transform their lives.

Successful community correctional programs depend upon a working partnership with the media. Bad media relations will impede progress and undermine your ability to reach the public. In governmental public relations, the public’s trust and respect are everything. Without it, nothing good will happen. To get it, you need the media.


Promoting Corrections

By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr. Edited by Cedric Hendricks and Joyce McGinnis

See for “DC Public Safety” radio and television shows.

See for the web site of the federal Court Services and Offender Services Agency.

Last spring, I attended a meeting on promoting community corrections in Lexington, Ky. It was organized by the International Community Corrections Association, the American Parole and Probation Association and was sponsored by the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the US Department of Justice.

A survey administered prior to the conference revealed that there was little to no proactive promotion of community corrections throughout the country (something the organizations involved seek to remedy). I’m sure the same can be said for mainstream correctional systems or facilities.

If there is universal “agreement” that we do not promote, then let’s examine the reasons why. As someone who has spent close to 20 years representing virtually every aspect of corrections (jails, prisons, and parole/probation) on the state level for the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and currently for the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency for the District of Columbia, I believe I can offer some insight.

Correctional agencies, whether they are prison systems or community corrections, are chronically under-funded with massive and sometimes conflicting mandates. All of us make tens of thousands of decisions every day that involve significant risk.

Few offenders get the services they need. We live in a world of enormous stress and challenges. Regardless of our endless contributions to public safety, we believe that it’s probably better if we leave proactive media out of the picture.

For those who do not promote, there are reasons. You are probably understaffed without a promotional budget. If your days are filled with reacting to media calls or emergency planning or the many other duties as assigned, you may feel that promotions are simply too much to accomplish. Besides, there are few in management who are asking for promotional activities. In 20 years of agency public relations, I’ve heard “No news is good news” hundreds of times.

So for the majority of us, that’s the story. There is no will, money, time or management emphasis to promote. End of story.

But is it? I contend that proactive promotional activities are crucial to the mission of the organization. I submit that you can accomplish very little without the backing of public opinion.

To influence public opinion, you either have to have an advertising budget (which none of us has) or reach out to the media in a slow, multi-year effort to teach them about corrections. The thought is that this will influence their reporting, they will convey this information to the public, and you will be able to accomplish your goals.

Heading to the Exits

Many of you are headed to the exits right about now. “I’m sorry, Leonard, you do not understand my media market. They are unfair. They hate corrections and the people who work here. They are biased people who simply want to destroy me and everything I stand for. They move on to the next market with my blood on their hands, which they will display proudly.” Sound familiar? I may be exaggerating, but not by much.

We can spend the rest of the article talking about the reasons not to market ourselves (and there are legitimate reasons not to promote), or we can test the waters.

Your Future

I will say it again; aggressively promoting corrections is the key to the prosperity and future of your organization. Whether or not your personnel get raises or you get the funds to comprehensively promote offender reentry or successfully deal with a hostage situation principally depends on the media’s perception of your agency. It’s really that simple.

It’s impossible to address every aspect or to provide a comprehensive overview of promotions in an article. But I will provide a list of things for your consideration.

The bottom line of promotions (or public relations in general) is that every organization decides for itself the reputation it has. As unfair or absurd as that sounds, it’s true. We decide.

Regardless of budget or staffing or the never ending distrust many have of the media, our reputation is in our hands.

The media come to judge each and every one of us. They are no different from you or me. They can only process a limited amount of the information that comes their way.

So organizations are labeled either as honorable entities trying their best to do a good job under difficult situations or morons completely undeserving of sympathy or a successful program that gets the job done.

Many correctional organizations fall into the first category. Some agencies responding to Hurricane Katrina typify the second. It will take years of top-notch PR work to overcome what happened in the Gulf. Companies like Google capture the third.

What to Do?

So for starters, how you treat the media on a daily basis will pretty much decide how they treat your organization. Don’t know the answer to a question? Blow the deadline by failing to supply information in a timely manner? Don’t return calls in the evenings or on weekends?

The media will brand you and your organization as “typical, uncaring, unprepared bureaucrats.” And they will share this information with other reporters and news organizations.

The mast majority of reporters are decent people; they have a job to do, and they want accurate, timely information. Organizations (and their public affairs officers) either acquire a reputation for understanding and cooperating with this reality or, if not, for being evasive and having something to hide.

Treating the media fairly and responsibly-and respecting the job they need to do-is just the first step. The second is inviting them over to your house.

Good media relations means opening your doors. Let them see what you do. How are they ever going to come over to your side unless they know what you are going through? Let them come in. Let them talk to staff. Let them tour your facilities.

Good, hardworking people who are doing honest work in the public’s best interest have little to fear. Overly paranoid bureaucrats have something to fear. The media knows this. They understand the difference between the two.

If you’re treating the media fairly and letting them have the access they need to understand who you are, then it’s time to try some proactive activities. Quite simply, the more hooks you drop into the water, the more fish you will catch.

What do the Media Want?

The media is interested in hard news, human interest or a great photograph. If what you’re offering does not fall into one of those categories, don’t offer it. Bureaucrats sometimes want press conferences to “announce” items that may be tremendously important within their agency or community, but are not newsworthy.

I attended a press conference by a major power company that was giving $100,000 to local schools. They had a league of very well paid public affairs personnel promoting it. The media ignored it. It was not hard news, there were no good photographs available, and the human interest angle wasn’t sufficiently developed to generate coverage. The public affairs staff thought that the sizable donation would get their executives some face time with the media. They were wrong.

The adage is to give the media what they can use, not what you want them to have. There are endless consultants that will ask you to spend thousands of dollars on training so you can pitch a story regardless of the topic. Don’t waste your money. The media hates pitches that have no value, and they make you look silly.

Go with the good stuff. Have the courage to tell your administrator that a press conference concerning a boring topic is not a good idea. Having a press conference to discuss the impact of a new program will generate better results because it has news value. The line employee who raised $10,000 for a local charity is also a winner if you can link it to great photographs and quotes from recipients.

Long-term Endeavor

Every media call, every visit, every inquiry should be seen as an integral part of your overall public relations plan. Go to them. Ask them their opinion. Get to know them and their concerns and interests. Pitch stories frequently that they will appreciate.

Your Web Site and Podcasting

Your web site can be a 24 hour promotional activity if it is filled with story-based articles and fact sheets fairly describing what it is that you do and the impact of your operations. Media, citizens, policy makers and others will view your offerings if the site is attractive and filled with content that matters.

One of the best decisions you can make is to offer material that is easy to digest, interesting and informative. Giving your visitors the option to read, listen or watch videos makes the difference between a mediocre and a great site.

Podcasting (radio and television shows for the Internet) is another method of informing your public and defining yourselves. Audio podcasting is getting easier to do and can be done for as little as $500.00 or less on an existing computer. Video podcasting can require nothing more than joining your local public access station and spending a couple of hundred dollars for a half-hour television show.

All of this can be mounted on a rented server for $10.00 to $12.00 per month. Your local community college can provide you with the technical assistance to do it. Please see our podcasting web site at


I fully understand that what I’m suggesting may be beyond the budgets and available time for many of you. The complexities of promotions go far beyond what I’ve offered in this article.

But the bottom line is establishing the ability of your organization to prosper. For correctional facilities and systems, it will make a difference.

Some agencies put together a proactive public relations plan. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what’s important is your willingness to respond to new opportunities with speed and determination.

I will offer a final analysis; those correctional organizations who aggressively promote themselves prosper, and those who do not suffer under the perception of incompetent administration and failed initiatives. The choice, I maintain, is essentially ours.