The responsibilities of a commissioner of Corrections are vast and important. Depending upon the individual state’s population and the scale of its correctional system, a commissioner can be responsible for the lives of thousands of inmates, correctional officers or guards, facility support staff, medical staff, and more. In addition, the prison system must be operated within the confines of the U.S. Constitution’s provision against “cruel and unusual punishment,” which can constrain a prison warden’s ability to utilize such means of controlling violent inmates as solitary confinement.
A commissioner of Corrections is expected to perform a variety of tasks including the administrative requirements of a prison system that is probably spread across the expanse of his or her state and that, as noted, involves potentially thousands of people. He or she may be responsible for oversight of the state’s processes for administering parole and probation services, as well as the state’s juvenile incarceration system. The commissioner would be responsible for staying current on legal and cultural developments with respect to the housing and treatment of prisoners. In addition, prison industries, for example, the manufacture of office furniture for use in government buildings utilizing inmate labor, presents another substantial operation for which the commissioner is ultimately responsible. And all of this occurs in the context of regularly overcrowded facilities in which the segregation of violent from nonviolent offenders may or may not be a priority or even feasible, and in an environment in which large prison gangs that reach across prison and even state borders, and which have members operating outside the prison system, can threaten the lives of prison staffs and their families.
In short, the responsibilities of a commissioner of Corrections are substantial and serious, and largely thankless.