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Date of Award

Spring 1995


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Document Type

Thesis: EWU Only

Degree Name

Master of Public Administration (MPA)


Master of Public Administration


he current body of academic literature concerning the role of discretion in prison management paints a conflicting picture of discretion as a sin to be avoided, a necessary evil to be scrupulously controlled, or a valuable tool which properly applied can lead to safe, secure, humane prisons. These conflicting perspectives at one time or another have described the use of discretion in most, if not all, prisons in this country. The perspective currently applicable to prison administration depends largely upon the viewpoint of the observer. Little attention has been paid to the topic of discretion in prisons. Those literary references to discretion in prison management are largely anecdotal, and offer limited insight into how discretion is used. Until recently most inquiries into prison discretionary practices have focused on the role discretion played in precipitating inmate disturbances, employee dissatisfaction, or judicial intervention in prison administration. The current of body penology literature portrays correctional managers, as a group, as abusing their discretionary authority to shirk (goof off on the job), subvert (commit acts of administrative malfeasance), and steal (use public office for private gain); and fails to recognize the potential public spirited use of discretion in decision making. This study surveyed six groups of prison supervisors, managers, and administrators in five public and one private adult male prisons. The survey instrument measured managerial attitudes toward the use of discretion, and the degree to which agency policy permitted its use in decision making. The study also solicited self-report information on how often prison managers use discretion in twelve decision making areas. The study results support a view of discretionary decision making in prisons which is quite different than the picture painted by much of the academic and popular literature on prison management. The results indicate that prison managers may be more strongly influenced by agency policy and organizational culture than the anecdotal accounts of prison management infer. The results offer both support for the view that prison managers tend to use discretion in a public spirited manner, and insight into managerial attitudes toward agency policy as related to the use of discretion in decision making.