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Instructional Leadership in Prison Education

Different organizational settings require the use of various leadership theory tools.  For instance, a military leader on the battlefield may necessarily use a leadership model that is quite different from that of a cleric.  In many instances, a specific leadership model does not provide a single best leadership solution.  Therefore a competent leader may blend leadership theories and draw from each model as necessary for the task at hand.  This is most certainly the case for educational leaders and teachers who work in atypical environments such as a prison.  This brief article depicts the prison educational setting and addresses several leadership models which are appropriate in the correctional environment.  

The Prison Educational Setting


The education of convicted felons is an understandably challenging venture.  In the prison milieu, there are many factors that require an educational leader to alter existing models of leadership and inevitably adopt new leadership tools.  The prison environment itself challenges normative leadership behavior in ways that typical educational leaders do not experience.  The ethos is one of authority and safety is always an utmost concern.  Furthermore, the institution itself restricts the ability of leaders to function as they would in a traditional school.  Hence, models such as servant leadership are circumscribed by the authoritarian nature of the prison.  In many ways, the individual who is employed in a leadership position in prison must adopt some of the management methods of a military leader on the battlefield as outlined in the opening statement of this essay.


With this in mind, a leader, even one who is engaged in the education of inmates, can use one overarching leadership model as the foundation to be built upon.  In general, the education industry is highly conducive to Robert Greenleaf’s servant leadership model (Focht & Ponton, 2015; Smith, 2005).  In Greenleaf’s view, servant leadership is the ultimate model of leadership (Greenleaf, 1970).  In short, a good leader must serve others as the primary goal.  However, it is unlikely that Greenleaf himself had experienced the challenging role of leadership in a correctional institution.  Accordingly, the educational leader in a penitentiary setting must also draw from alternative leadership models which are appropriate in this complicated environment.


Leadership Models for Prison Educators


As noted in the preceding section, servant leadership is a good starting point for educational leaders.  As a prison educator, the person in a leadership position can use servant leadership theory as a base model from which to build upon.  Perhaps even more than traditional educational settings, for an educator of inmate students, it is essential to remember, as Townsend advises, that “True leadership must be for the benefit of the followers, not the enrichment of the leaders” (2007, Loc. 1056).  Yet, as altruistic as this philosophy is, it is not an exclusive model of educational leadership that can be solely applied in this custodial venue.


The educational leader who is tasked with instructing and managing inmates can draw direction from several other leadership theories.  Fiedler’s Contingency Model offers some guidance.  This theory suggests that there is not a single best leadership model, rather, the circumstances at hand may dictate the appropriate managerial method (Bolden, Gosling, Marturano & Dennison, 2003).  Fiedler looks at three situational criteria and attempts to match the leader to the circumstance.   He considers the relationship between the leader and subordinate, the position of authority, and whether the circumstance is structured or unstructured (Bolden et al., 2003). However, this theory is somewhat confounding because in the prison setting leaders must be adept in all areas described by Fiedler.  Consequently, the educational leader must assume a position of authority, refrain from abusing the position of power, be skillful in managing structured and unstructured tasks, and create a relationship of trust with students while maintaining a safe, professional distance.  In addition, Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s (1973) Leadership Continuum is equally problematic as a manager of inmate students must be autocratic, consultative, persuasive, delegating, associative, and democratic as the situation dictates.  Hence, these contingency theories are of narrow use for the educational leader that practices within the backdrop of a penitentiary.


Education within a prison is indeed a situation that will require innovative leadership techniques.  As noted, servant leadership is a good starting point.  Contingency theory is limited but helps to inform the leader as to innate leadership characteristics.  Nonetheless, the educational leader can also draw from both transactional and transformational leadership theories along with Max Weber’s concept of charismatic leadership.


Transactional Leadership


If nothing else, a prison is a highly-structured environment.  This is the lifestyle that inmates are accustomed to and have learned to accept.  As Spahr (2016a) points out, “A transactional leader is someone who values order and structure.”  This type of leader is well-suited for environments that are highly-controlled and have formative rules and regulations.  A correctional facility is the embodiment of this type of structured setting.  Therefore an educational leader in a penitentiary must be comfortable in working within a decidedly controlled environment and competent in carrying out an authoritative leadership role when necessary.


Transformational Leadership


While the transactional leader is capable of being imperious as the need arises, the transformational leader is predominantly concerned with creating positive change in her or his followers.  In this respect, transformational leadership is similar in nature to servant leadership.  Transformational leaders are optimistic, committed to their long-term mission, have high ethical values and inspire others to perform at their very best (Bolden et al., 2003).  These are critical leadership attributes to utilize in a setting that seldom promotes any positive virtues.


Charismatic Leadership


A charismatic leader, as suggested by Max Weber (1864-1920), is a person with “extraordinary” qualities (1946, p. 290).  Expanding upon Weber’s view, Antonakis, Fenley, and Liecthi (2011) suggest that a charismatic leader is someone who “must use powerful and reasoned rhetoric, establish personal and moral credibility, and then rouse follower’s emotions and passions” as a means to an end (p. 2).  Others like Beyer (1999) view “charisma as an unusual form of normative social structure that emerges in times of crisis” (p. 310).  Spahr (2016b) simply believes that “charismatic leadership style relies on the charm and persuasiveness of the leader” (para. 1).  While these scholars have different viewpoints regarding the qualities of a charismatic leader, they all contribute to a normative leadership theme that is appropriate as a prison educator.  While charisma may be an innate character trait, it is a highly desirable and productive skillset that can be used to motivate students and achieve academic success.  A person with charismatic leadership traits will be far more effective as an educational leader in an environment of skepticism and oppression, which is the prison norm.


Rationale for Specific Leadership Models


The justification for emphasizing the leadership models in the previous section is quite simple: the educational leader in prison, or any venue for that matter, must be focused on students and producing the maximum academic outcomes.  For this reason, servant leadership and transformational leadership theories are quite desirable.  However, the circumstances of teaching in prison necessitate the use of other skills which may not be as vital in the traditional school setting.  Accordingly, the leader must look to other models that enhance her or his preferred theories.  It is quite conceivable that educational leaders in correctional facilities may look to other leadership theories beyond those listed in the preceding section.  Servant leadership theory may be the foundation, but good leadership requires the utilization of any relevant model that helps produce the desired outcome of student success.


Support for using the listed leadership theories is quite compelling.  The typical inmate has the reading skill of a seventh-grade student (Reed, 2014).  A vast majority of inmates have never completed high school before their incarceration, and about forty percent dropped out of school prior to tenth grade (Reed, 2014).  This data may suggest a lack of guidance and student-centered leadership in the pre-incarceration lives of inmates.  Countless prison students are inexperienced with positive forms of leadership.  Many are unfamiliar with proactive leadership methods that embrace productive learning and place the student at the forefront of educational achievement.  This unfortunate fact gives credence to leadership methods that alter existing negative modes of education and create an ethos of engagement and constructive learning.  Transformational leadership is one such model that inspires followers and helps to construct a norm of student-centered learning (Bolden et al., 2003; Tng, 2009). 


Moreover, servant leadership promotes a normative ethos of the student as the focal point of learning, which counterbalances the pre-existing culture of absolutism inherent in the correctional facility (Fitzgerald, 2015).  Nolands and Richards (2015) declare, servant leadership “puts the goals, needs, and development of ‘followers’ ahead of those of the leader” (p. 16).  This is an unfamiliar condition for incarcerated students who are accustomed to a totalitarian lifestyle.  Yet, this selfless mode of leadership can build trust between teacher and student which is conducive to creating a positive learning environment (Fields, Thompson & Hawkins, 2015; Parris & Peachey, 2013).  When coupled with charismatic leadership, servant leadership along with transformational leadership offers a trifecta of positive student-centered learning models.


Nonetheless, the nature of education in a correctional facility requires that leaders utilize elements of absolute leadership models.  Transactional leadership is one such model that exploits leadership power to affect outcomes.  This is quite necessary for prison education programs as many students do not react to positive leadership models in the absence of authority.  Nevertheless, transactional leadership is not merely an autocratic method; it employs a system of rewards and punishments.  As Stone and Patterson (2005) note, “Transactional leaders lead through specific incentives and motivate through an exchange of one thing for another (p. 6).  In the prison education setting, leadership from a position of authority is absolutely vital.  Although, while this position of power is entirely necessary, it must be used judiciously.


The Culture of Leadership in the Prison Setting


A correctional facility that houses convicted felons has a culture which can be best described as a continuum between authoritarian and totalitarian rule.  This is quite understandable as a significant proportion of inmates are convicted of horrific crimes.  Structure, rules, subordination, and violence is the culture by which inmate students are accustomed.  Ergo, those in leadership positions must work within a pre-ordained ethos of authority, force, harshness, and submission that permeates the institution.  This culture is established, and the educational leader must use appropriate leadership tools that work within this atypical society. 


Selected Leadership Theories as Suitable Models for the Prison Education Setting


Several viable leadership theories are discussed in this article.  It is essential to understand that while these may serve as a base model for educational leadership in a prison, they do not represent an exclusive database of leadership theories and tools.  Nonetheless, the blended theories of servant leadership, transformational leadership, transactional leadership and charismatic leadership as described in this essay are valid leadership models that should be considered by those entering into management positions in correctional institutions.  Each of the listed theories informs the leader and offers a set of tools and ideals that can be utilized at the discretion of the manager.  In sum, there is no single best model for leading in a prison school, although, the leader must keep the ideal of servant leadership at the forefront of decisions to adopt alternative leadership models.


Recommendations for Leadership Adaptations as Prison Educators


As an experienced educator of inmate students, several leadership recommendations are worthy of consideration.  At the outset, a person who is considering taking on an educational leadership role in prison must assess the personal reasons for doing so.  Unlike correctional officers who work predominantly from a position of power, the educator must be willing to embrace the idea of serving the student first and using authoritative methods sparingly.  Servant leadership and transformational leadership models are a good foundation that establishes a student-centered approach to leadership.  Additionally, it is preferable to have inherent charismatic leadership qualities as those leaders who may be inclined to submissive or tedious tendencies will have a very difficult time motivating and managing inmate students.  Related to charisma, the manager of prison education must have the ability and innate qualities to purvey a sense of power and authority while simultaneously presenting a real sense of commitment to the students.  In conclusion, the leader that chooses a career in educating inmate students must be powerful, compassionate, honest and fully committed to the altruistic goal of helping her or his students attain an excellent education.


Author: Peter A. Zitko (2017)



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Recommended Citation APA

Zitko, P. A. (2017). Instructional leadership in prison education.


Recommended Citation MLA


Zitko, Peter A. "Instructional Leadership in Prison Education." Accessed (access date here).

Instructional Leadership in Prison Education © 2017 by Peter A. Zitko is licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0 

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