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Tales from the Local Jail: Your ‘Gut’
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 11/12/2018

Intuition feeling This article was originally printed on Corrections.com on January 28, 2013.

It’s time to explore one of the most commonly used phrases of advice that correctional officers say to each other: “Trust your gut”. There are variations of this theme such as “What does your ‘gut’ say?” or “I had a ‘gut’ feeling about what was going on in that cellblock.” In life, we all have had gut feelings. While driving in traffic, you are approaching a light that has been green for a while-and your ‘gut’ tells you to be ready for the yellow light. In a shopping trip, you look at two items-one costs more than the other one and your ‘gut’ may tell you it is better quality than the cheaper one.

In my years of working inside a jail, my ‘gut’ turned out to be my best friend. In some situations, I seemed to know how an inmate would react to an order, a reassignment to another cellblock or a denial of a request. But as a trainer-I always wanted to explore this aspect of corrections. What, exactly, is the ‘gut’? How exactly does it work?

To a correctional officer-the gut makes you more wary when you enter a cellblock, or see an inmate who is a known management problem approach you. It is the little ‘bell’ in your head that rings when a known manipulator says “Can I see you a minute?” It can be the difference between being alert or being complacent or being in danger or being safe.

So-let’s examine the finer points of the human mind’s ‘gut’ as applied to jail correctional officers, based on research published in the well known publication Psychology Today, in the article “Gut Almighty” by Carlin Flora.

When we talk about the gut, we realize that we know things, often with a sense of certainty. You see an inmate walking down the hall of the jail, an inmate who is usually sociable and communicative to staff. Today he is looking at the floor and avoiding any contact with you. You experience a “gut” feeling that there is something wrong with this inmate. He could be getting harassed in the cellblock; he could have received bad news from home or he received some information from his attorney that he was not expecting. You are experiencing a strong judgment about this inmate based on your perceptions that something is wrong. It could be his facial expression or body language.

Or-On post, you respond to a noisy cellblock. You walk in and every inmate becomes quiet. You know something is up as you look around at their faces. Some are smirking; some are nervous as they deal cards furiously at the dayroom table. Your gut tells you to state a warning to them about the noise, your gut tells you to take a look around (with backup present), your gut tells you to keep a wary eye on that cellblock and your gut tells you that you had better be careful when you go in there, as a little fear can keep you safe.

The brain has what Flora calls “built in shortcuts” that are used to make rapid cognition or condensed reasoning. These mental operations are quick-the brain observes a situation, quickly searches its files and gives meaning as to what the correctional officer sees. The files consist of memories that the officer has stored and knowledge that he or she has learned throughout his career. The situation now has a meaning to the officer.

Emotions are very much a part of the “gut feeling”. According to Columbia University professor Michael Gershon, the gut feeds itself feelings; these are the “butterflies” that we feel when a decision or course of action is pending. And-according to cognitive scientist Alexandre Linhares of the Brazilian School of Business and Public Administration, emotion and intuition cannot be separated. The guidepost for how we learn from experience is emotion-if a correctional officer witnesses something or handles a situation in the jail while the adrenaline is pumping, it will be remembered very vividly and probably very clearly. More simply-the more stressful the situation, the more clearly and readily it will be remembered and quickly recalled. Then, the correctional officer will understand the emotional intensity of the situation. Linhares states that experience is encoded in the brain as a web that contains both facts (things that we see and know) and feelings (the emotions). When the correctional officer experiences a situation that is new, but the pattern is similar to a previous experience, both stored knowledge (the facts) and an emotional state of mind (the feelings) are called up. What results is a disposition for the officer to handle the situation or respond in a pre determined way.

A simple equation could be:

Situation observed + memories stored/knowledge + emotions = pre determined response

Any of us who have worked inside a jail know that our “gut” can assist us in many situations that are more intense than others. They also can provide a margin of safety. Field training officers, supervisors and training instructors should discuss this with new, inexperienced correctional officers.

These discussions should be in the form of debriefings. Examples abound in a jail. For example, jail officers know that the booking area can be very volatile and unpredictable. Jail housing units can be unpredictable. Many inmates are observed; some are easy to handle and some are not. Let’s talk about some scenarios:
  • You are working the booking area on a Friday night. It is busy, with police officers bringing in a steady stream of arrestees. One police officer brings in a large size male who is unsteady, loudly talkative, argumentative and red faced. You observe, and hear the officer say that the subject is heavily intoxicated and was a somewhat combative during the arrest. You remember how other intoxicated arrestees have acted and you know the problems that they can present to staff, themselves and other inmates. Fights with other inmates and staff can happen, disobedient behavior may occur and alcohol withdrawal can lead to self harm, suicide and medical problems. There may be mental problems; you do not have all the information yet. You also recall that inmates such as these try to get you angry; you become apprehensive and a little fearful (emotion) of being attacked (It’s OK: fear and apprehension can keep you alert). Your partner on post, a trainee just out of the academy, wants to remove the handcuffs and put him in the “drunk tank” with other inmates; your ‘gut’ says to leave him cuffed for a little while longer and place him in a cell alone to see how he acts, pending a screening by medical staff. You discuss it with the post/booking sergeant who agrees with your assessment and recommendation. Later, when there is a lull in the activity, the sergeant can speak to you and your partner about the situation. If he or she is a good supervisor, the event will be discussed. Better yet, the sergeant discusses the event at roll call and what can be learned through your ‘gut’. Finally, you should be commended for your common sense. You pre determined that something may occur and took appropriate, cautionary action.

  • An inmate is returning from sick call. You get up to put her back into the cellblock. She asks to speak to you, alone. You go to the end of the hallway and she says that “[Inmate] is a bitch, and I’m not going to live with her”. She states that the inmate in question takes food off of other inmates ‘trays, canteen items are missing, and she gets up and switches the television channels when others are enjoying a program. There have been several arguments, she says, some “nose to nose”, bordering on physical altercation, but the inmates have kept them quiet. They have tried to send a note to Classification, but this inmate seems to see everything that goes on. You tell the inmate that you will look into it. As you open the cellblock door to place the inmate back inside, you observe the inmate in question watching television alone; all the other inmates are in their cells. Normally, they are in the day room at this time of day. The problem inmate is a known troublemaker and you have been on duty when she has been removed from several units due to incompatibility (memories/knowledge) over the past two months. You get the feeling that the tension in this block will explode soon into a serious verbal or physical altercation. You feel apprehensive (emotion) and decide that action must be taken quickly (pre determined response) such as filing a report and notifying the shift supervisor as soon as possible.

Remember: each serious incident that you handle in your jail career should be thought about, reflected on and stored away for future reference. One way to do this is by using the “War Story”. Jail officers talk about how this or that situation was handled and predict how some type of inmates will act. These war stories can be included in our brain’s “hard drive”. They should be discussed and used as examples on how to handle situations. But- there is a word of caution. Some negative staff members-the ones who use force excessively and have a condescending attitude toward the inmate population-may tout their war stories, and those may not be the best examples of how to handle situations. Supervisors and trainers are advised to keep an ear as to what types of war stories are circulating around the jail and if they are being used to advise staff on ways to handle situations with inmates.


The ‘gut’ is identified in the law enforcement community as a valuable tool that can keep correctional officer safe. It is that intuition that we all have a “sixth sense” about how a situation may play out, how to handle an inmate and what we should do to keep safe. Researchers have studied the ‘gut’ and think that the brain has built in shortcuts and condensed reasoning. An officer sees a situation and quickly has an idea of what is happening and what he should do. This is based on memories and knowledge-what we have experienced and what we know. A simple formula for the ‘gut’ reaction states that the correctional officer observes an inmate, inmates or situation, becomes aware of memories and knowledge that has been stored and when combined with emotions, decides on a pre determined course of action. Researchers also state that situations will be remembered vividly when adrenaline is pumping and the stress level is high. Gut reactions can provide a margin of safety. Supervisors should discuss gut reactions in roll calls and make use of the concept in training staff, especially with new, inexperienced officers. The ‘war story’ is part of the correctional officer culture; it can be discussed and used in training. Officers remember ‘war stories’. War stories can be positive, where effective ways to handle situations can be learned, or negative where negative staff touts their ways to handle things, which could involve bad attitudes towards inmates and use of excessive force. Supervisors and trainers should be aware of this.

Flora, Carlin, “Gut Almighty”, Psychology Today, http://www.pyschologytoday.com, Accessed January 7, 2013.

Corrections.com author, Gary Cornelius, is an interim member on the Board of the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP) representing local jails. He is also a member of ACA, AJA, and the American Association of Correctional and Forensic Psychology. In 2008, Gary co founded ETC, LLC, Education and Training in Corrections with colleague Timothy P. Manley, MSW, LCSW, Forensic Social Worker.

Visit the Gary Cornelius page

Other articles by Cornelius:


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