Interview with NMU Criminal Justice Instructor Michael Harrington

Michael Harrington is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich., a public university of roughly 10,000 students on southern shore of Lake Superior. Harrington has been a criminal justice professor for five years, and he has 12 years of administrative experience in institutional corrections. Harrington earned a PhD in criminal justice from the University of Nebraska in Omaha, and he also holds bachelor's and master's degrees in criminal justice from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. interviewed Michael Harrington to gain his insight on correctional and criminal justice degree programs.

Q:  How did you end up teaching this program?

A:After spending about 12 years in correctional administration I went back to school for my PhD and got involved in the academic side of criminal justice with a focus on correctional issues. My thesis was on inmate adjustment issues dealing with solitary confinement in prison.

Q: As an instructor, how do you measure the success of a program?

A: Success can be measured in number of ways. One is by the amount of people that successfully complete the program while maintaining the program's standards. Most academy programs have some sort of state or national standards, and you can measure success by how well you are able to train to that standard.

Another measure is how well an individual does on the job and how long they can do well. Can they step out of the academy and write good reports and utilize the inmate misconduct system correctly? As a practitioner I measure the success of most people if they could write a good, cohesive report using good English and meet the requirements of writing a good report so that they felt good about forwarding that report for criminal charges or some kind of internal investigation or review.

Lastly, people who come out of such training programs and can step into the job without a great deal of initial training also is important.

Q: How can students best prepare for the challenges of the program?

A: Hopefully they have some development of work habits and self-discipline, and they have got the basic educational requirements. They also should have some understanding of what they are getting into. A lot of it is work ethic -- there is only so much training you can do. If they don't have that it can be difficult to get them to the next step of development in being a corrections officer.

Q: Are there specific skills or work experience/background that will help prospective students?
A: They should have dealt with people and know how to communicate in a number of different environments. Some of the best corrections officers I have known are former bartenders -- they are used to dealing with drunk or impaired people. Waitresses too -- they have an idea of customer service and what it means to take care of people and deal with a diversity of individuals. I also found that former members of the military do well; they have that idea of hierarchy and command, and they adapt quite well to an institutional corrections position. But mostly it is people who have good common sense and decision-making skills.

Q: How do you keep up to date with the latest changes to corrections officer practices?

A: There is a certain amount of professional literature, but some of the more beneficial ways to keep current are through annual training seminars and association meetings from the America Jail Association, the American Correctional Association and regional associations. Those are great sources of information.

Q: What types of internship or volunteer work do you recommend your students pursue while taking your classes?

A: We recommend they take an internship and get a taste of it if they want to work a county jail or a state prison so that they get a good idea of what they are getting into. Many times when people apply for a prison officer position they have never even been inside a jail or a prison. They thought they knew what they were getting into and found it wasn't what they wanted. You want to get an initial introduction to that environment.

Q: What associations or professional groups do you recommend to your students?

A: The American Jail Association and the American Correctional Association and state associations. They are generally filled with people who work the line and will be working similar positions. They offer a great deal of information about what is current in the field, legal issues, updated technology, use-of-force training -- all those areas can be a great deal of information for people that are interested.

Q: What advice would you give students who are thinking about going into this field?

A: Talk to a number of individuals involved in correctional operations. Try to get second opinions much as you would for a medical issue. Do some reading and some research to find out exactly what is going to be involved. See if you can get an observation -- in law enforcement they call it a ride-along. If you can somehow organize a walk-along for a correctional position you can get good idea what you will be doing.

Q: What real-world experience do students get during school?

A: In corrections academy training, one of the primary objectives is to prepare students for work, so you utilize real-world scenarios. Some programs have mock facilities or jail cells, so you get an idea of what it is like to talk to somebody behind a secure door or do a forced entry. There is only so much you can tell them in a book, so you give them the basics and try to get them to apply that in an educational setting. You want to give them as much scenario-based training as possible to augment what they are reading in books.

Q: What is inmate manipulation? Do you have any tips on this subject?

A: Inmate manipulation covers a wide variety of behaviors, from simply lying to extorting information or goods from officers. As far as tips it would be to know your ground and stand your ground. Know your position and why you are there. Sometimes people get into this business and end up making friends with the wrong people. Prisons are not a friendship-support network, and those boundaries have to remain real clear. Manipulation usually starts with over-familiarization with officers and inmates, so you have to be very careful on boundaries. I never called inmates by their first names. Keep it very professional and very clear so that they know the boundaries. When you set those kinds of communication boundaries people know what you stand for and you are less likely to be manipulated. If you lack that firmness it can be a way to open the door.

Q: What is your outlook on the future of these career programs?

A: I think they will be focused much more on civil liability and things like mental health issues. Training programs also will look to be more distinct in addressing problems such as stress and burnout. Instead of hiring and training and having correctional officers leave, they will look more at the officers as a resource and find out how to develop and maintain that resource.

Q: Do you have any experience incorporating newer educational technologies into your courses?

A: For academy training not really other than some of schools I taught at we had actual mock cell blocks and some more realistic training scenarios.

Q: How do you teach students to prepare for the physical demands of the field?

A: That's difficult, because in many jurisdictions you have to be physically fit just once to meet the hiring requirement. It is not so much about the physical demands of the field but the emotional demands, such as maintaining family life separate from work life. You want to develop students and prepare them for that idea. Prisons and jails are 24-hour, 365-day operations, and you don't get Monday through Friday day shifts. If someone is not doing well emotionally they will not do well with the physical demands of the job.

Q: From your own experience, what are some fundamental characteristics a student must possess to achieve in this class?

A: Self-discipline in learning and having an open mind. You are go to learn more than about how to handcuff an inmate and how to use pepper spray; you also have to learn how to justify your actions in a written report. You have to prepare for the mundane as well as the hands-on stuff. I have found that the main characteristic to achieve is self-discipline, and that can't be taught in an academy.

Please note: Unless explicitly stated otherwise, any job outlook predictions, career/educational advice, and salary information found on this page are based solely on the opinion of the interviewee and not that of or any other organization.