Dianne Frazee-Walker met Mike Schnobrich about six years ago at a political leadership seminar in Colorado Springs, CO. Mr. Schnobrich is the true leader he represents. He has a passion for improving the prison system and is willing to step into whatever leadership position necessary to implement beneficial changes.

It didn’t take long for Mike to become a board member of Full Circle Restorative Justice (FCRJ) Chaffee County, CO. He served on the FCRJ board for two years not only because it gave him an excuse to visit picturesque Salida, CO., but it was another outlet for the changes Mike avidly believes in. He is an advocate for fair treatment of both prison employees and inmates, so it is no surprise Mr. Schnobrich is President of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Local 1112 and Senior Officer Specialist of Federal Bureau of Prisons.

When Ms. Walker reconnected with Mr. Schnobrich on social media he informed her of some new information about the prison system. She was all ears as to what Mike had to share and scheduled an interview with him.

As Ms. Walker was driving into the quaint prison town of Florence, CO, she was eager to learn what Mike had to tell her about the latest trends in prison reform. Mr. Schnobrich always has a flood of information to speak about when the conversation is centered on prison reform.

Leave it to Mike to come up with a concept Walker had not anticipated. Mike believes the key to prison reform begins with the correctional staff. The theory makes sense. Prison transformation advocates can have the best intentions for improving the state of the prison system, but it is difficult to have a positive impact on making changes within the inmate population until the staff is dealt with.

It is the correctional staff that has the power to create the atmosphere of the prison. If the personnel is emotionally struggling, the inmates are affected. The attitude of prison inmates is directly related to prison staff influence.   

Michael Ungar, author of Counseling in Challenging Contexts confirms Shnobrich’s concept by stating, “Our relationships are ordered in ways that reflect hierarchies.

Mr. Schnobrich claims there is a significant mental health problem amongst prison employees that is not being recognized or addressed. The suicide rate is high within this population because most correctional officers cope with the stress of working in a hostile environment by shutting down their emotions. Most of these individuals do not want to bring the trauma of the prison environment home, so there is virtually no outlet for their work-related anxiety.

The inmate population is not the only community that suffers from Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD). A large percentage of staff member PTSD is unreported because they fear losing the right to bear arms and lose their jobs if diagnosed.  

Another major problem Schnobrich discussed is the availability of vocational programs inside federal correctional facilities. Currently, state prisons offer a wider variety of vocational programs for inmates than federal facilities. The problem is the inmate population is inadequately distributed throughout the U.S. Scnobrich claims there are prisoners residing in federal prisons that belong in state prisons and vice versa. Many of these inmates are needlessly transferred to a different state than where they originate, leaving them without family support, which sabotages their chances of leading a productive life when he/she is released. In addition, the age-old problem of non-violent offenders clogging-up the system and overcrowding our nation’s prisons still exists. 57% of inmates are incarcerated on non-violent drug charges.

The encouraging news is the Council of Prison Locals (CPL) is working with Congress to resolve these issues. The organization is proposing a Smarter Sentencing Act which includes smarter sentencing guidelines also referred to as sane sentencing. 

Schnobrich revealed a unique funding dilemma that solely occurs at the Florence State Prison, CO. Funding ends when an inmate is held too long.

Mike’s questions are; where can the inmates be placed? There is no place else to send them.

Super Max Federal Correctional Complex, also located in Florence, CO. is the end of the line. This long-term, high-security facility houses some of the most notorious criminals in the country.  

What more can we do with mentally-ill inmates? A large percentage of inmates have serious mental health problems that are not treated. The (PTSD) rate is higher than military veterans. Using medication as an incarceration tool is not only ineffective but inhumane.

Warehousing and solitary confinement are not the answer.

The good news is there are solutions to these problems and positive changes are taking place that address the unique needs of each individual inmate.

Housing units are specializing in inmate psychiatric care and psychologists are assessing each inmate for individualized treatment.

 Mentoring programs among inmates are working successfully. Inmates with clean behavior records are mentoring inmates that need a role model to help get them on track.

Schnobrich believes rethinking in terms of corrections is the first step to transforming warehousing. Referring to incarceration as law enforcement needs to be eliminated. “This is not about catching people.”

This is about keeping the public safe by rehabilitating those who are capable of being rehabilitated. The main objective of this seemingly daunting mission is to distinguish which inmates need to be locked-up and weeding-out (no pun intended) non-violent offenders who are clogging up the system.  

Evaluating mentally-ill inmates and addressing their individuality is another component of cleaning-up the mass incarceration epidemic, but has a long journey to endure before changes are evident.

Mr. Shnobrich ended his interview by declaring “Transforming the prison system is going to take a lot of dialog from many different directions and a lot of intelligent people to navigate through an entangled system that appears overwhelming.”       

AFGE BOP Local 1302 Treasurer Mike Schnobrich discusses why he joined the federal workforce and the devastating effects of budget cuts on the Bureau of Prisons.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

1 Comment

  1. MA on July 30, 2014 at 6:54 pm

    It certainly makes a lot of sense to watch and control the mental health of the correctional staff. Think of the Stanford Prison Study – if we assume that correctional staff take on the role of power, then of course the more incentive to ensure that the correctional staff are also psychologically well.

    Similarly, a single inmate’s mistreatment may have drastic effects on the rest of the prison community. I have to imagine that a powerful, potentially dangerous inmate that is mistreated by a single staff member is probably likely to lash out to get that sense of power back and then what they do to get that power back will affect the rest of the community as well.

    Leadership can be very powerful. Psychologically healthy leadership even more so. So it most certainly makes sense to ensure that everyone that works at the prison is psychologically well – both for the inmates and for the officers themselves.



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