Tackling Prison Problems

PROVO, Utah – Apr 30, 2021 – Popular media typically portrays prison as a dark, antagonistic place. With that image, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to work there. However, a group of human resource management (HRM) students from the BYU Marriott School of Business recently looked past this stereotype as they brainstormed solutions to make the Utah Department of Corrections a better place to work.

Students in the HRM 421, HRM Implementation class taught by BYU Marriott’s O. Leslie Stone Professor of Entrepreneurship Gibb Dyer, were allowed to choose which project they wanted to work on among a few options. “I thought that working with a government institution would be interesting, because the way that governments run is different than corporate America, which I was familiar with from my internships,” says Cailey Akagi, an HRM senior from Draper, Utah. “I’d also never met anyone who worked in a prison before.”

The project team consisted of Akagi; Clarissa Keller, a senior from Bakersfield, California; Matt Gray, a senior from Valencia, California; Jeffery Skinner, a senior from Tokyo; and Sarah Gasser, a senior from Alpine, Utah. The Utah Department of Corrections asked these students to identify strategies to decrease position turnover and to create a better experience for employees. Students were also asked to brainstorm ways to increase the number of job applicants and to research the demographics of the surrounding Salt Lake City area. The department wanted to make sure that the demographics of prison guards matched the demographics of the surrounding communities.

As the project got underway, working with a government agency presented unique challenges for the group. “The students learned about the challenges of working in the public sector. Generally, these organizations involve more constraints,” says Dyer, “The students needed to come up with recommendations about how to recruit, retain, and motivate people who were to become correctional officers, which is a difficult and sometimes dangerous job.”

However, as they interacted with HR leaders and guards within the Utah Department of Corrections, students learned about the employees’ dedication to making a positive impact in the prison system. “When our group toured the prison, we got to speak firsthand with prison employees. They explained how much of the media and social perception of prison work is skewed, often portraying the prisoners and prison guards as being at war with each other,” says Gray. “The reality is, prison employees work with a service mindset. They want to help prisoners get better physically and psychologically. Correction officers aim to prepare the majority of the prisoners to reenter society.”

Students created a survey for employees to complete and also conducted one-on-one interviews with some of them. Throughout the research process, students helped employees feel comfortable sharing their experiences and thoughts. “Our team brought to light different problems that officers didn't feel like they could tell their supervisors,” says Akagi. “We gave a voice to people who didn’t feel like they could be bold enough to share necessary information.”

In addition, the student team was able to spark new discussions among employees and supervisors about diversity and inclusion in the workplace and in recruiting, says Gray. “We provided short- and long-term plans that will help the department with retention, onboarding, and talent acquisition.”

Students feel proud that they were able to make an impact on the prison system, but they are also grateful for the insights that each one of them gained for their future careers. “I learned a lot about how to work with people from vastly different backgrounds than my own,” says Akagi. “In the future, the chance of only being around people who are like me is slim to none.  When I consult with others in the future, I can use the skills I’ve learned from this project to instill trust in me and to find the best solutions for the people I work with.”

BYU Marriott HRM students with HR representatives from the department of corrections
BYU Marriott HRM students worked with employees from the department of corrections to make local prisons better places to work.

Media Contact: Chad Little (801) 422-1512
Writer: Kenna Pierce