The following article has been reprinted with permission from the The Correctional Trainer, the publication of the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel.
After working inside a large urban county jail for 27 plus years, I learned a few ‘tricks of the trade’. In my in-service trainings, I see that veteran corrections officers (COs) all agree that this job teaches you two things. First, you interact with every type of person represented in society. Concerning inmates, you deal with the strong, the weak, the loud, the quiet, the fearful, the hard core and the mentally ill. You deal with first time offenders, veteran, hard-core ‘frequent fliers’, and surprisingly, inmates who want to change their lives and get out. (Yes-some inmates DO want to re-enter society as law-abiding citizens). Second, with all of these groups, behaviors and personalities, you do learn ways to handle them, defuse arguments, calm them down, and so on.
The methods of people management that you pick up along the road of your career builds confidence. You learn to use your head and think, before you speak. However, I am not naïve. You may have a plan to calmly handle a situation with an inmate, but some inmates become so angry and volatile that your best intentions will not work.
You learn early on that you, as a CO are outnumbered. This is a harsh fact in corrections. There will always be more inmates than staff. Therefore-we have to work ‘smarter, not harder’. Sometimes force is necessary to protect yourself, protect inmates, protect staff, prevent escape, prevent damage to facility property, to gain compliance with staff orders and to safely restrain violent, out of control inmates. These inmates include the mentally ill.
In my post retirement career as a trainer and author, I am pleased that more than in years past, there are many materials and resources available to new and veteran COs. Books, blogs, webinars, correctional organization websites and up to date academy basic and in-service classes can help COs maintain professionalism. I call this ‘The Golden Age of Corrections’.
One of the good resources I have discovered is a book by retired New York City Corrections Officer Larone Koonce. As a 20 year veteran, he writes about the techniques he applied throughout his career to handle inmates. The book that I highly recommend is Corrections Officer’s Guide to Understanding Inmates: The 44 Keys to Power, Control and Respect (Koonce Publishing, 2012). These forty-four keys make a lot of sense. Many are what we have heard about, used and seen in our careers. In the interest of brevity, I would like to discuss several:
Working in corrections is tough-and you are a people manager. Managers carry keys-I hope that you will use these on your key ring.
- Use Your Instincts: Even though we live and work in the age of technology, we, as humans, still have instincts. Technology can make your job as a CO easier, but does not show or tell all that is going on. Animals have instincts, and humans do as well. Instincts are an ‘early warning system’, alerting you to danger. Always trust how you feel, relying on your experience and training. When you walk into a housing unit, through your instincts you may get the sense that there is tension. An inmate who is usually friendly averts his gaze. It becomes quiet. Even though the unit camera portrays a calm unit, your instinct or ‘gut’ may be telling you something else is going on. Be prepared and be safe. Do not rely solely on a computer screen-trust your gut.
- Make alliances with your supervisors: Your immediate supervisor is a lifeline in situations where you need guidance, clarification and support. Supervisors can do things to ensure your safety when you are in danger. In corrections, you may not like your supervisors very much. No one is asking you to. We all have our opinions. You may think that Sergeant ___ is too strict, or Lieutenant __ is too much by the book, or Captain ___ is too much in a hurry. However, supervisors are duty bound to help you and to support you in getting the job done. That is why they were promoted. They are not your enemy. If a CO does not have good, positive working relationships with his or her supervisors, several things usually happen. First, the CO will become isolated. When that happens, the CO will be vulnerable to the inmates. In addition, believe me-inmates know the dynamics of a squad. They know that there is friction, or maybe some staff disrespect to the supervisor. They-the inmates- will be so supportive! They will ‘side’ with you, and be your new best friends. Do not talk badly about your supervisors-or about anyone on the jail staff to inmates. Inmates will manipulate to their advantage any ‘drama or division’ in the ranks-and try to talk you into bending the rules or looking the other way. Your supervisor may not be your favorite person to work with, but a professional relationship, working together and mutual support keep inmate manipulators at bay. Finally, I tell my classes the two best words to use to guard against the manipulator are ‘SHUT UP!” Staff gossip and rumors are heard and transmitted by the inmate ‘Wi-Fi’ network, and they will try to sow dissension. Inmate ‘ears’ are everywhere.
- Do not antagonize the inmates-when things are going your way: I tell my classes that they work inside a building, outnumbered by residents (inmates) that do not want to be there, may be angry that they are there, and will try to circumvent your authority by a variety of means. Some of these means are subtle and ‘sneaky’ and some are loud and vocal. Inmates are stressed out; their lives are in turmoil. You give orders and most of the time inmates comply-even though they may be upset or disagreeable. Inmates may talk back to you. However, if your order is obeyed, do not make things more tense by insulting him or antagonizing the inmate. Remember that you go home after every shift-and the inmates have to stay there. You win!
- Know Your Inmates, like you know the fish in your aquarium: Koonce compares the jail and prison environment to an aquarium-a closed environment. Like fish in the aquarium, jail inmates come in all races, sizes, personalities, behaviors and criminal backgrounds. Some inmates congregate in groups, and some are loners. When getting to know inmates, you discover that any changes in their demeanor or behavior may be indicative of a problem. For example, an inmate who acts social, upbeat and normal is observed talking to himself, crying, or just sits and stares. Could he be depressed-and suicidal? Could he be having a mental breakdown? By knowing the inmates, you will most likely know if there is a problem, and can take action.
- Lead Like Dorothy: The Wizard of Oz Analogy: Dorothy was in a tight spot-she had to see the Wizard of Oz in order to get back home to Kansas. Along the way, she enlisted the help of the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man. She allied herself with them, and convinced them that it was in their best interests to follow her. The Scarecrow could get his brain, the Tin Man could get his heart and the Cowardly Lion could find courage-if they went along with Dorothy. You, the CO can be like Dorothy-convincing the inmates that it is in their best interests to follow what you say. This is a form of inspiration. You will not get inmates to follow you by insulting them, threatening them or speaking to them in a condescending manner. However, there are times in corrections that you have to ‘spell it out’ for the inmates-and make it clear of consequences they face if they do not do what you say. Not all inmates are cooperative. Usually, the art of persuasion does work well.
- Control Your Temper: Correctional facilities are tense places. Presently, we are dealing with the CO-VID 19 pandemic, and more recently, racial tension and protests of police brutality due to the death of George Floyd. The inmates know the news about these issues-they watch television news. They may use these issues to ‘push your buttons’, accusing you of racism and not keeping them safe from the CO-VID 19 virus. The best thing, according to Koonce, is to not report for duty angry, stressed out and high–tempered. Think of your temper level as one (lowest) to ten (highest). If you assume your post at level 5, 6 or higher, any negative inmate actions will probably set you off. If your level is one or two, you are calmer-and that works better in resolving situations. Moreover, never forget-many inmates love to ‘set you off’. It is entertainment for them. Do not let your temper flare; keep calm. If you do not, you will escalate a situation. Second, you will lose control of yourself. Working as a CO means you stay in control.
Koonce, Larone. (2012). Correction Officer’s Guide to Understanding Inmates: The Forty-Four Keys to Power, Control and Respect. Atlanta, GA: Koonce Publishing.
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: punishment and corrections, community corrections, jails and preparation for internship. 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. He has also presented webinars and Skype presentations on correctional issues. 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, including The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition, (2009) from the American Correctional Association, and The American Jail: Cornerstone of Modern Corrections, (2008) from Pearson Prentice Hall. 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. In January 2011, Gary started a blog “Tales from the Local Jail” on The Corrections Connection (www.corrections.com) followed in December 2012 by his second blog, “Talks About Training” on Corrections One (www.correctionsone.com). Gary has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP) representing local adult corrections. He has corrections projects in development, including, a new second edition of The Twenty Minute Trainer, from the Civic Research Institute, and a new third edition of Stressed Out: Strategies For Living and Working in Corrections from Carolina Academic Press. Gary has appeared on CNN, MSNBC and Tier Talk, discussing corrections security, training and staff issues. He presents training for InTime Solutions and Lexipol. He resides in Williamsburg, Virginia.