Obstacles to Minority Employment in Criminal Justice: Recruiting Alaska Natives

Obstacles to Minority Employment in Criminal Justice: Recruiting Alaska Natives

John Riley

"Obstacles to Minority Employment in Criminal Justice: Recruiting Alaska Natives" by John Riley. Alaska Justice Forum 16(4): 1, 4-7 (Winter 2000). Alaska Natives constitute approximately 17 per cent of the state's population, but are under-represented in justice system employment and over-represented among those who are arrested, convicted, and incarcerated. This article describes preliminary results of a project designed to yield information about the range of issues that influence perceptions of correctional work among Alaska Natives and which may influence the recruitment of Alaska Natives to careers in corrections. Statistics on Native employment in the Alaska justice system are also provided.

Alaska Natives, who constitute approximately 17 per cent of the state's population, remain under-represented in justice system employment and over-represented among those who are arrested, convicted, and incarcerated. While fewer than 8.5 per cent of those employed by the Alaska Department of Corrections identify themselves as Alaska Natives, approximately 33 per cent of those incarcerated in the state's jails and prisons identify themselves in this way. Because minority recruitment patterns raise concerns about fairness and questions about the effective delivery of services to a disproportionately Native inmate population, increased recruitment of Alaska Natives is an important concern, particularly for the Alaska Department of Corrections.

Recruiting Alaska Natives

Beginning with the assumption that low levels of Native hire in recent years are in part a function of low levels of interest in correctional jobs, the project discussed in this article was designed to yield data from which we might begin to specify and describe the range of issues that influence perceptions of correctional work and to provide some insight into the experiences that shape career choices. A Justice Center research group recruited a convenience sample of 158 participants who provided written responses to structured questionnaires and oral responses to open-ended questions administered in focus group sessions lasting approximately two hours.

Focus group interviews were conducted between January and May of 1999 with 158 Alaska Natives in 10 communities, including Anchorage, Bethel, Douglas, Eklutna, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai, Nome, Seward, and Soldotna. Because budget considerations set limits on travel, research was conducted in communities where existing correctional facilities offer substantial opportunity for employment in the field.


Early in the focus group sessions, participants responded to a questionnaire on the attractiveness of a series of occupational titles, including social worker, nurse, probation officer, pilot, correctional officer, and police officer. When asked to rank this series of occupations according to the attraction they felt to each, respondents typically placed the correctional officer position toward the bottom of a list of six choices. "Correctional officer" was listed as a first choice by only 12, or approximately 8 per cent of the 154 respondents who answered this question. On the other hand, 65 respondents (42%) listed "correctional officer" as fifth or sixth choice in a field of six. Work as a probation officer was evaluated in similar terms. Only 11 respondents, or approximately 7 per cent, listed this occupation as a first choice. By comparison, 54 respondents, or approximately 35 per cent of those who answered this question, listed "pilot" as a first choice. Similar results were obtained when respondents ranked the social worker's job. In this case, 39 respondents, or approximately 26 per cent of those who answered this question, listed "social worker" as a first choice.

The data on "first choices" in Table 1 offer some insight into the relative desirability of correctional work for project participants. The three occupations associated with the criminal justice system were clearly less interesting to our respondents at the beginning of the focus groups than occupations found outside of the criminal justice system. Even so, there remains a substantial pool of potential applicants in this group. Approximately one in six participants described one of the two forms of correctional work as a first choice. Of course, job seekers do not always have the option of waiting for work in a particular chosen field, and it is more realistic to consider both first and second choices as potential applicants. If we expand our definition of potential applicants to include all those who listed either form of correctional work as a first or second choice, we find that 57 participants (37%) fall into this category.

Table 1. The Relative Attractiveness of Selected Occupations

After initial evaluation using questionnaires, we conducted focus group interviews with a series of open-ended questions to explore the participant's attitudes toward work and particular career options. In order to evaluate the potential impact of outreach efforts that seek to improve recruitment by educating prospective candidates about the benefits of correctional work, participants were given a brief presentation on the work of correctional officers approximately one hour into the focus group. The presentation was designed to communicate the kind of information about the correctional officer's position that would typically be offered in outreach programs designed to improve minority recruitment. This presentation had five principal components:

  • Information on salary and benefits
  • Description of the "week-on/week-off" scheduling practices
  • A detailed job description
  • Discussion of Alaska Natives now working in corrections
  • Expression of the Department of Correction's desire to recruit Alaska Natives

The presentation was followed by a second series of open-ended questions intended to elicit discussion of the participants' attitudes toward work in the field of corrections. At the end of each focus group, in order to measure any changes in the participants' evaluation of the desirability of correctional work, participants were once again asked to rank a series of selected occupational categories. The final evaluation of these occupational choices was only marginally different from that expressed at the beginning of the focus groups. As the data in Table 1 suggest, the presentation and group discussion appear to have had little impact on participants' subsequent evaluations of correctional work.

Understanding Attitudes: Three Themes

Three themes, first identified as they emerged in discussions of "a perfect life" and the "ideal job," surfaced throughout the focus group discussions: an interest in opportunities to help others, a desire for work group harmony, and a need for a flexible schedule. These three themes shaped respondents' perceptions of employment opportunities in the field of corrections. For these respondents, jobs providing opportunities for service, work-group harmony, and flexible schedules are strongly preferred to those that do not.

Helping Others

When participants were asked to evaluate the desirability of a variety of occupations, preferences were frequently justified with reference to opportunities for service. The following are typical comments.

Well for me what makes a good job, you know, a good job, and I love my job right now, is working in my community for my people. The trust, the respect, the togetherness, helping each other.

[On a good job] everybody works together and helps each out.

This reference to service was particularly true for social work, a field that was a first choice for many of our participants, including a woman from Anchorage who offered the following remark:

I also put social worker [as a first choice] because I like helping people. I think it is one of the [best] jobs in the world [because] you can share and help and learn.

A woman from the Bristol Bay region, interviewed in Anchorage, also described social work as a "helping profession."

Social workers like in Dillingham they help, like this one person I know, helps elderly people get into homes where they need to be. Or into nursing homes when families can't help them. Social workers find foster homes for children that are in an abusive, you know, situation[s] where they need to take them out and put them in there temporarily. Social workers help people who need to get on welfare if they are not having enough income for like, [a] husband…a wife and three kids.

The majority of our participants did not expressly identify careers in the criminal justice system as "helping jobs." Even so, as the following exchange suggests, there were exceptions.

Q: You liked the ones…that involve helping people? Which are the ones that help people?

A: Social worker, or nurse, or probation officer, [softly] corrections.

Q: Corrections?

A: I mean, yes, they may be sitting there guarding people and they might not help them, or they might, by studying to get their GED.

A woman interviewed in Seward was quick to see the service component of correctional work.

…being a correctional officer you know…just picturing it…I think you are helping those people toward something better.

Appreciation for the service opportunities inherent in policing and corrections seemed to depend, in part, on personal experience. A participant in one of the focus groups conducted in Nome was already employed by the Department of Corrections.

I am a correctional officer and it is a good job. I do have a small chance to make a little bit of impact on some lives. It is not very often, but once in awhile…. I am satisfied with what I am doing.

Another respondent, interviewed in Seward, had a first-hand opportunity to watch probation officers as they supervised her coworkers on a former job.

My first choice was a probation officer…. I've actually worked in a place where people had probation officers that came to visit them on the job, basically just keeping track of [them]. There [are] certain rules that they follow, you know, it was pretty cut and dry, I thought, and the people that I saw were extremely helpful....

A man participating in one of several Seward focus groups described the satisfaction he found in helping others while working for a time as a police officer:

I love helping people even though…there was names called at me, and some people threatened me. But that's part of the job and people don't understand what situation they are in. You try to help them the best that you can.

For many respondents, helping others is valued as an end in itself; but also because it is seen as a way to promote harmony in the community. A man from a rural community in western Alaska, interviewed in Seward, described an incident that illustrates one way that helpfulness can bring people together.

We have a police officer in our village who is black. We are all Natives, [there are] some white teachers. He worked and kept at his job. They got to him because he was black, they called him [names] because he was black, but he kept at it and then he started helping people. And then that changed. And it just shows that if people can realize that the cops are there just to help people it can change a lot of people.

Ideas of helpfulness are inextricably caught up with those of harmony. In the experience of many respondents, helpfulness is both a reflection of the underlying harmony in the community and a precondition of continued cooperation.


Focus group participants frequently mentioned harmony as an attribute of the perfect life or the ideal job, with harmonious family and work group relations valued and interpersonal relations characterized by conflict and stress described as things to be avoided rather than as challenges to be overcome. Many participants described correctional work as a field in which conflict and confrontation could not be avoided.

When asked to describe the things that make a job desirable, a woman from Nome described her current work in this way.

[I like] teamwork, and communication, and not so much squabbling among the staff. You know, management [that] can communicate with peons.

A second woman in this group affirmed the importance of harmony in contexts beyond the workplace.

I've got two teenagers and it's real important for me…for everybody to get along. You know, the siblings not fighting with one another. And…it makes me feel really good inside when the elders share, and my ability to participate in that, and to learn from that, and one day to be able to be in that same role.

A man in this group described his work experience, now spanning several decades:

I was in management with Wien [Airlines]. [We had] the pilot's union, the ticket handlers, the ground handlers, ticket agents…once you conveyed your interest in them and said, "well this is what we are going to try to do," they would always respond and we all worked together. To me this is one of the best things I've ever seen in any company….

A woman interviewed in Anchorage described her image of the ideal job as one characterized by cooperation, success, and an absence of "finger pointing."

[It is a job] where everybody gets along and they don't intimidate you. The jobs get done without having somebody stand over you pointing their finger and shaking it at you.

Jobs in corrections are not seen as good opportunities for those who place a premium on harmony and cooperation. First, correctional facilities are seen by some as dangerous places, and as places where Alaska Native employees may experience discrimination by white coworkers and administrators and unhappy relations with inmates. It is also true that in almost all of the focus groups conducted for this study, at least one participant had first hand experience with the Department of Corrections. While only four of our respondents seemed to have had employment experience in corrections, in some groups as many as a third of the participants had been in correctional facilities as either visitors or inmates. Participants expressed a broad range of responses when asked about these experiences. Some were favorably impressed by Alaska's correctional facilities, but others were more critical. A woman interviewed in Seward expressed concern about working with inmates:

And there's confrontation between prisoners also and that is not good. And it would be hard…. It would be hard to deal with prisoners that have negative feelings.

The perception that correctional work will expose workers to high levels of conflict was widely shared by participants in our focus groups. To the extent that this perception characterizes the larger community, it poses a clear problem for those who wish to recruit Alaska Natives to careers in corrections.

Flexible Schedule

The freedom to subordinate work responsibilities to those associated with family or community life is an important characteristic of the ideal job. Jobs that impose inflexible demands on workers were seen by many respondents as a threat to participation in family life, community affairs, and subsistence activities. A woman interviewed in Seward described the "perfect job" in these terms:

A perfect job for me would be a job where I can keep my own time so that I can take care of my family, be with my family, go where I want to go. I don't want to be stuck to an office. I'm the type of person who enjoys fishing and hunting and just putting up fish, you know, gathering weeds and eggs and stuff like that.

A man from northern Alaska, interviewed while temporarily living in Seward, responded in this way:

I've always wanted to know what [my ancestor's] jobs were like because, right now, I know I am an Eskimo. I've always wanted and I've really, really wished to go back to the old days and see what it was like compared to now. I think [my ideal job would be] my ancestor's job if I had a chance to go back and look at it.

A feeling of being trapped between two worlds, and not being fully prepared to live in either one, was expressed by several participants, including this woman living in Seward:

Salary and benefits? I really don't like it. I would rather be stuck in the middle of nowhere. No electricity, no nothing.…I look around and I see people working, every day, nine to five. Going home. Trying to make a living. They are not happy, they are miserable. They want, they have a lot of things, and they still want more. Our ancestors used to live! They didn't have no medical. They didn't have no insurance. Nothing to their names. We have a HUD house, you know. If they wanted to go fishing, they would travel. You know, I'd rather be happier living there; but you know, facing reality, I have to have that [nine to five job] in order to get what I want. It's upsetting.

This sense of possible compromise was reiterated in the remarks of a man from a rural community in Western Alaska, interviewed while attending a vocational training program in Seward:

A good job for me would be working at least four months out of the year and hopefully by then I would have my house built…and just work three or four months out of the year and spend most of the time in subsistence.

If the need for participation in subsistence activities constitutes a barrier to full time employment for many of our respondents, it is also true that other forms of obligation, such as those associated with child or elder care, play an important role in their evaluation of the desirability of particular career options. To the extent that the scheduling demands associated with employment in formal organizations preclude participation in subsistence activities, child care, and other activities associated with family and community obligation, our discussions suggest that it will be difficult for many to sustain a long-term commitment to a particular job.


Approximately one participant in five did list the correctional officer's job as a first or second choice in both the initial and the final evaluations. Similar results emerged when participants ranked the probation officer's position. If the Alaska Natives interviewed for this project were not typically enthusiastic about the prospects of employment in corrections, neither were they unanimously opposed to such work. Simply by advertising a desire to meet with people interested in talking about career opportunities, we were consistently able to attract respondents who were interested in corrections. Given the relative ease with which we were able to identify these participants, it seems reasonable to assume that criminal justice recruiters will continue to find it possible to identify potential candidates in the Native community.

This article represents a preliminary presentation of findings. Future discussion with Alaska Natives are planned to obtain assistance in the finaly analysis of these data. At this time, the data discussed here suggest that at least three issues appear to play an important role in the deliberative processes which shape career choices and subsequently influence possibilities for the recruitment of Alaska Natives to careers in corrections. First, it appears that substantial numbers of Alaska Natives do not see the service or "helping" dimension of correctional work, when evaluating career options. Second, a preference for a level of workplace "harmony" that is not perceived to characterize corrections may discourage Alaska Natives from seeking work in correctional facilities. Finally, a sense that correctional work may involve unnecessarily rigid time commitments that will make it difficult to meet obligations to one's family, friends, and community may discourage many Alaska Natives from long-term participation in this field.

Career decisions are clearly complex and it is important to observe that other issues, which remain to be explored, also influence these outcomes. Prior experience with the criminal justice system, for example, undoubtedly shapes perceptions of criminal justice jobs. The experiences of those who are arrested, or who visit incarcerated friends or relatives, probably play an important role in shaping perceptions of the justice system. Victimization experience, which may in some instances lead to dissatisfaction with the criminal justice system, may also influence career deliberations. These issues require further exploration.

John Riley is an assistant professor with the Justice Center. Funding for the project came from a gift by Cook Inlet Region, Inc. to the University of Alaska Foundation.