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Tales From the Local Jail: Respect
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 08/26/2019

Jail cells If you are a baby boomer like me, you have heard the hit song by the late and great Aretha Franklin, ‘Respect’. We in corrections have also hear this word repeatedly. In training, we are told to treat the inmates with respect. In addition, we are told that to receive respect from the inmates, we have to give respect to the inmates.

And-let’s be honest. Despite our best and sincere efforts to give respect to inmates, there are some inmates that will never, never treat staff with respect. I am not naïve.

Nevertheless, we work every day with inmates. In my jail in-service training classes I emphasize that jail correctional officers (COs) must strive to achieve a ‘Smooth Shift’. The ‘Smooth Shift’ is a shift with little or no incident reports to write, no inmate arguments to break up, no fights between inmates and all of the inmates do what we ask (or tell) them to do. In my working jail floors days, I, along with my colleagues, always strived for this. I discovered that no matter the type of inmate-the hard-core, first timer, or immature, I received respect for the most part when I gave it.

In my Managing the Inmate Population-General Population in service class I discuss respect as a useful acronym for training. Here is my view:

R: This means regarding inmates as human beings. They are people with problems. I realize that some are uncooperative and defy authority. The majority just want to do their time and either go into the state prison system or be released. They want very little difficulty.

E: Educate yourself on how inmates do time and what they are feeling. In my class, I discuss the Seven Needs of Inmates (Johnson, 2002). Inmates need:
  • Activity: such as programs, recreation, libraries, television, etc.
  • Privacy: as much as possible the environment should be quiet, peaceful and inmates can get away as best they can from things and people that irritate them.
  • Safety: inmates do not want to be hurt, harassed or have their property ‘messed with’.
  • Emotional feedback: inmates, as all of us would like to be appreciated, cared for, and be thought of as people with value-not just criminals. They would like relationships to reflect these along with staff showing empathy.
  • Support: many inmates like programs and opportunities to improve themselves-and deal with the problems that resulted in their difficulties with the criminal justice system.
  • Structure: inmates are more calm and cooperative if the facility is run fairly, and events such as recreation, meals and visiting occur on time.
  • Freedom: inmates want to be treated as adults, and appreciate opportunities to govern their own conduct. In other words-they like to be treated as adults.
Jails are not perfect. Many inmates defy the rules and make the COs’ workdays miserable. They use some of these needs against us. They may lie to get a private cell to themselves. They may ‘con’ or fool staff for entertainment for a twisted sense of activity. On the other hand, they may ‘butter us up’, using emotional feedback in order to try to get us to sympathetically believe that they are not ‘that bad’. Nevertheless-if these seven needs are met and staff exercises command presence and authority, things do go along more smoothly.

S: Speak to them like adults-and most likely, they will speak to you like adults. Do not be condescending or sarcastic.

P: This means being a professional, maintaining your guard against manipulation, and not divulging personal information. Professionalism means looking and acting like a correctional officer that knows the job-and knows security, policies and procedures. It also means keeping calm and not acting like a ‘hothead’.

E: Practice empathy - not sympathy. Empathy is understanding or identifying with the thoughts and feelings of a person. Sympathy as mutually sharing the feelings of another and feeling compassion or sorrow for another’s situation. Empathy is objective. An inmate says ‘my whole life is ‘crap’ because I am in here-I lost my job and my wife is threatening divorce’. An empathetic person understands-but still knows to act professionally and not cross boundaries. A sympathetic CO says, “Oh-I am so sorry! Do you want me to call your family for you? How terrible! Whatever can I do?’ (Cornelius, 2009).

C: Exercise both clarity and common sense. If you give inmates orders, make sure that it is clear and they understand. Conversely, if they come to you with problems, make sure that they clearly state the situation to you-and listen. Good listening skills shows respect of others. Also-use common sense when interacting with them. Treat them as you would like to be treated. Do not run ‘hot and cold’; be calm.

T: Think about the ‘fallout’. The results of your actions can be both positive and negative. If you disrespect inmates, two things will happen. First, word will get around among the inmates that you are a negative CO, and one to e avoid. Second, inmates will not approach you with problems or information about inmate activities (such as contraband, etc.) If you respect inmates, inmates will talk to you-and may let you know what is going on, both with themselves and their surroundings. You need inmates to talk to you.

Thank you for reading this. And-please think about respect, and how much ‘smoother’ the jail runs if everyone, inmates and staff, respect each other.


Cornelius, Gary F. Managing the Inmate Population: Day 2, General Population. In Service Training Class, 2019.
Cornelius, Gary F. (2009). The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition. Alexandria, VA: American Correctional Association.
Johnson, Robert. (2002). Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.

He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University since 1986, where he has taught four corrections courses. He also teaches corrections in service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. His latest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition was published in April 2017 by Carolina Academic Press. He has authored several other books in corrections. Gary has received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in Social Science from his alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an Instructor Appreciation Award from George Mason University.

Visit the Gary Cornelius page

Other articles by Cornelius


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