– Executive Summary –

This thesis characterizes corrections as a discipline consistently operating in unpredictable conditions, under which a failure would create cascading effects with significant consequences for the institutions, staff, inmates, and community. This thesis suggests that correctional institutions implement the principles of high-reliability organization theory to improve organizational resilience and mitigate the cascading impacts of a catastrophic power outage.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina forced the evacuation of more than 6,000 inmates from Orleans Parish Prison. A failure to prioritize emergency planning was the catalyst to the cascading effects within the institution. Fourteen years later, Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn experienced a weeklong power outage that required inmates to shelter in place. A failure to prioritize emergency planning again led to a poor response with adverse consequences.

Even after the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security recommended emergency planning requirements for correctional institutions seeking grant funding, directives were never implemented. As a result, no federal mandates were established that require institutions to plan for emergencies.

In 2019, the Bureau of Prisons required Metropolitan Detention Center Brooklyn to keep 18 specific contingency plans on file; however, a plan for power outages was not one of them. Orleans Parish Prison had no requirements for specific emergency plans. Therefore, the outages at both institutions reflected the effects of missing emergency plans. The outages also offered a snapshot of the immediate impacts an institution may face in a long-term or regional power outage for future planning efforts.

High-reliability organizations (HROs) focus on failures, a preoccupation that allows them always to be in a state of readiness, prepared to detect problems before cascading events lead to a catastrophic emergency. In correctional institutions, such readiness encourages multiple activities, including regular, scheduled staff briefings; practical training courses and exercises for staff; careful hiring of new staff; consistent intake processes for inmates; secure transports of inmates; accurate classification of inmates; and consistent and adequate sanctioning procedures.

HROs recognize the risk of unexpected failures where operational gaps may exist, including inconsistent management and communication styles. Thus, staff are encouraged to share concerns when policies or protocols may be outdated or inaccurate. HROs believe that the big picture is situational and that withholding information is often a personal choice rather than a tactical one.

HROs aim to achieve internal resilience. Employees are rewarded for correcting small errors before they become larger ones. Resilient HROs accept errors as opportunities to do better in the future. To maintain a reliable culture within an organization, employees need supportive leadership that corrects reported hazards promptly. Moreover, employees need to feel competent in making important decisions, as well as be challenged continuously to seek further improvements or hazards, which builds a culture in the organization that supports resilience and reliability.

Organizations should remain flexible to reorganize and restructure quickly in an emergency, authorizing adaptability in the decision-making process. Decisions cannot be left exclusively to positions based on hierarchy or rank, as the restrictions in decision-making authority during a crisis may have devastating consequences. In emergencies, the frontline staff are more familiar with the infrastructure, inmates, policies, and current operational picture.

This thesis evaluates the five behaviors of HROs that have proven successful in mitigating the impacts of an emergency on organizations and their systems. The five behaviors are translated into action items on which correctional institutions may focus to increase organizational resilience. In correctional institutions, these overlapping practices of HROs would include the following:

Correctional institutions should commit to building resilient facilities in advance of future catastrophic events. A resilient institution would improve safety, emergency planning, and response for staff, inmates, and the organization. Using the framework that guides HROs, correctional institutions can improve their response to the most catastrophic of emergencies. This thesis offers the following five recommendations that require correctional institutions to commit to the practices of HROs:

  1. [2]

[1] Timothy J. Vogus and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe, “Organizational Resilience: Towards a Theory and Research Agenda,” in Proceedings of the IEEE International Conference on Systems, Man and Cybernetics (Piscataway, NJ: IEEE, 2007), 3420.

[2] Patric R. Spence and Tabatha L. Roberts, “High Reliability Organization Theory,” in Encyclopedia of Crisis Management, ed. K. Bradley Penuel, Matt Statler, and Ryan Hagen (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2013), 467, https://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452275956.n158.

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