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A Warden's Respect Unlocks a Prison

Dennis Luther's exceptional leadership helps disarm fear and aggression

FACED with mounting numbers of felons and drug dealers coming into his prison, Dennis Luther is utterly predictable.

After some 13 years as a prison warden, with three here at FCI (Federal Correctional Institution) McKean, force is out of the question, he says. So are threats, lies, warning shots, or any increased effort to break or control the spirits of troubled men.

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Instead, Warden Luther cuts through years of assumptions by experts about controlling men in prison. He disarms inmate fear and aggression with an ancient weapon: basic human respect.

While many United States prisons are mired in crisis, here at McKean, Luther and his staff have created a culture that management expert Tom Peters calls a "remarkable experiment."

Last year, McKean, a medium-security prison, earned the highest rating of the American Correctional Association.

"I've audited 150 prisons," said the auditor, "and this is only the second one rated outstanding in quality of life for inmates and staff." And the prison is at double its capacity.

Experiencing the McKean "quality" begins with the first step through the main entrance.

The three-year-old prison buildings, situated on 38 rolling acres, are low, modern, and positioned around a huge, well-tended green. The textured walls are a blend of soft gray and salmon colors, with a pseudo-Navajo motif. Paved walkways connect the spotless buildings. Tiles gleam.

No uniformed, armed guards here, or slamming steel doors. Cells are rooms. Change the beige or denim pants of the 1,300 inmates, or remove the electronically monitored double-chain-link fence topped with coiled barbed wire, and this could be a junior-college campus.

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The tall man in the dark suit and conservative tie is Warden Luther, walking the prison on his daily rounds. He stops and talks with inmates and staff.

The mood is relaxed and friendly. Luther is unhurried in manner, but clearly respected, in control.

"The architecture is a factor, because the pleasant atmosphere contributes to the total process," he says, "but it is still people who make the difference. You have to be believed and trusted."

The average inmate is 36 years old and serving an 11-year sentence for federal drug offenses. The population is 50 percent white, 30 percent black, and 20 percent Hispanic. Outside the prison is a minimum-security camp with about 200 inmates.

Remarkably, after three years of operation here, there have been no escapes, no murders, no serious assaults on inmates or staff, no sexual assaults, and no suicides, says Luther.

In fact, many inmates become community-minded. Through a unique Inmate Benefit Fund (IBF), inmates have contributed $20,000 to local charities and sponsored a Little League baseball team.

On another level, prison stability can be measured in the cafeteria. More than 2.3 million meals have been served without a single formal complaint.

Luther's leadership is rooted in a well-defined set of values and clear objectives. All are posted around the prison in full view, reinforced with training sessions for the staff and orientation for inmates.

"I separate the criminal act from the criminal," Luther says. "Inmates are sent to prison as punishment, and not for punishment."

Historically, many prisons have had atmospheres of fear and punishment based on the theory that inmates deserve harsh treatment. Luther says that model leads to hardened criminals and more crime. Under the title "Beliefs About the Treatment of Inmates," Luther's basic philosophy is summarized in 28 points. (See related story.)

"This is the only prison I've ever been in where you can walk up and talk with the staff rather than at them," says an inmate in the cafeteria. Staff is available at lunch to respond to inmates questions or problems.

"Luther is number one," says inmate Kenny Sayre, who has three more years to serve for bank robbery. "He shows us respect. I've been in prisons that are run-down, and you know the people don't care. You come here, and look at this place; you know people care."

Luther's convictions about leadership and trust are clear.

"Leadership is character development," he says. "Management is a set of skills, but leadership comes from character. There is nothing I do, as the leader of this organization, that is more important than the time I spend with the staff, especially the new staff, to talk about values and the treatment of inmates."

Dan Schneider, a caseworker at McKean, says Luther is "not afraid of change, and the atmosphere of the institution reflects this. He backs his staff 100 percent with incentive awards and other support. He sets the tone for a very pleasant place to work."

Suggestions from employees get a response within 24 hours from the leadership team, a group of associate wardens and department heads who gather every morning in Luther's office at 7:30.

Rewarding a good suggestion, Luther thanks an employee with a handshake and a gold star, redeemable at the end of the year for $25. McKean has 33 suggestions per 100 employees each year, almost six times the government average.

Luther places such a high value on staff training that he had inmates construct an 8,000-square-foot training center. Each year the staff is required to attend a 40-hour refresher training course.

"What I look for in the staff," says Luther, putting on his suitcoat and leaving his office for the prison yard, "are people who care about people. It is people who make the difference here."

Even before construction of McKean was complete, Luther had local people serving on a Community Relations Advisory Board. Dozens now serve inside the prison.

When he was an undergraduate at Penn State working toward a degree in forestry, Luther switched to criminal justice following summer work at a nearby state prison. "I was fascinated by the business," he says.

Luther gives much credit to a mentor. "Jim Henderson, now a retired regional director for the Bureau of Prisons, had a tremendous effect on me," he says. "He really cared for his staff and was attentive to inmates."

On the walk through the hallways, cafeteria, classrooms, and workshops, Luther is low-key, direct, and a listener. The stamp of his convictions is everywhere: There are no locks on the wooden doors of the prisoners' rooms, and no nude centerfolds on the walls, a common sight at many prisons.

"Even though the doors are open," says Luther, "inmates can't get out of the housing units at night, so it's not a security issue. As far as inmates harming each other, we haven't had sexual problems here. Undoubtedly there is homosexual activity. But as far as the violence resulting from triangles or other problems that sometimes occur in prison, it hasn't been a problem. It may be that we have created an atmosphere where people don't feel the need to be aggressive toward each other."

And the absence of nude centerfolds? Luther bans them. He says wryly, "They would make it look too much like a prison." But inmates can subscribe to sexually explicit magazines.

Of the 350 employees at McKean, about 70 are women. Most are teachers or secretaries; some are correctional officers or caseworkers. "It's not normal to have an environment of all one sex," says Luther. "I think women are essential in producing the kind of climate we have in this institution.Inmates appreciate having women in the environment."

"Managers tend to maintain the status quo," says Luther. "They direct, oversee, and police. Leaders have vision, the ability to conceptualize a better world, and have the communication skills to pull people along."

When McKean first opened, and Luther brought some of his staff with him from FCI Danbury (Conn.) where he was warden for five years, he adopted a slogan: "Setting the Standard."

"I wanted to give us a cornerstone," says Luther, "something on which to build this organization. I wanted to set the standard for the operation of correctional facilities in America. Are we excellent? No, we strive for excellence. There is always room for improvement, and we talk about it frequently."

Although no recidivism studies have been done on McKean because it is so new, Luther claims the prison has a salutary effect. "I hope the inmate goes away from here no more angry or hostile than when he comes in," he says.

"That's one thing I believe we can do in corrections. We don't know how to rehabilitate people or change their behavior, but we can treat them in a such a way with dignity and respect, and build some trust, so that when they go away they are no worse off than when they came in."

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