2 Effective Approaches to Managing the Inmate Population

by | February 1, 2023

Effective inmate management is essential to ensuring safe correctional facilities. In my last article, I shared the “4 Cs” of inmate management: communication, control, comportment and conscience. With that foundation in place, we can dig deeper. Let’s look at two approaches to managing the inmate population that build on the “4 Cs.”

Managing the Inmate Population
Through R-E-S-P-E-C-T

In life, we know that to get respect, you have to give respect. It is no different in jail. While correctional officers and inmates are not equals, showing inmates basic courtesies and respect can go a long way to earning their respect. Consider the following acronym:

R: Regard inmates as human beings, to be treated humanely and with dignity. Do not treat them as “subhuman.” Use common courtesy; most responses will be positive.

E: Educate yourself about how inmates do time, their needs, and what is going on inside the unit. Get to know them.

S: Speak to them like adults, even though they may not reciprocate in kind. No one—not even the most hard-core inmate—likes to be treated as a child. Instead of barking out an order, ask them to comply. If that does not work, the next step is to calmly state a direct, verbal order.

P: Professionalism means keeping your cool and acting like an adult. Acting immaturely does not help the situation. Be decisive, say what you mean-and mean what you say.

E: Empathy, not sympathy. Empathy means that you understand what inmates are going through; sympathy means you feel overly sorry and sad for them. If you are sympathetic, you will be a target for the manipulator. The inmate manipulator wants to elicit sympathy.

C: Common sense and clarity are key factors. Be clear in your communications with inmates. You may have to explain things several times to them.

T: Think about the “fallout.” Inmates will remember how you treat them—and you work inside a building where you will encounter them again. If you have good interactions with them, you create a foundation for future cooperation.

For sure, there are some inmates who will not respect you regardless of how much respect you show them. But these are generally outliers and continuing to treat them in a dignified, yet firm manner will say a lot to the other offenders.

Managing the Inmate Population
Through Human Services

Much of our training in corrections focuses on maintaining control and authority over inmates. These are essential components of our jobs. But increasingly, correctional training is recognizing inmates have needs and concerns that, when managed, produce better outcomes. While we’re not running a resort, responding effectively and promptly to these needs and concerns can promote a rehabilitative environment that is safer for both offenders and correctional officers.

Tell the inmate you and your colleagues are there to help. You want that inmate to know the staff takes their well-being seriously.

The concept of the correctional officer as a “human service officer” may take a little getting used to, but it is not incompatible with other concepts such as command presence, resisting over-familiarity or officer safety. Human service officers recognize their role in helping new inmates adjust and helping longer-term inmates make the most of their stay. This approach can serve to bolster positive relations with offenders.

There are four key aspects to managing the inmate population through a focus on human services:

Goods and services
If inmates are supposed to get medications, they get them. The same holds true for toilet paper, towels, washcloths, toothbrush, toothpaste, soap and so on. Consistently making sure inmates receive goods and services adds structure to the environment. The laundry runs on time, the phones come on, the mail gets delivered—these things are important and take on a new meaning when locked up. Be proactive and make sure inmate requests for goods and services are not ignored.

Referrals and advocacy
Requests take time in the slow-moving bureaucracy of the correctional institutions. Officers can check on the court date for an inmate, a problem with a money account or a concern about medications. Also, some inmates want help with problems such as substance abuse, education or learning a job skill. You can contact the substance abuse counseling office and tell them an inmate wants to get sober or clean and ask for an evaluation as soon as possible. I have done this for inmates when my gut told me the inmate may be sincere. All I was doing was “greasing the wheels”—the inmate was told they would have to take it from there by doing the work. I repeatedly told offenders I based my beliefs about them more on their actions than their words.

Officers and inmate adjustment
Inmates, new or institutionalized, may feel frightened, powerless, anxious, afraid, and vulnerable. They may feel resentful and frustrated due to being locked up. Using good interpersonal skills and positive communications, correctional officers can build trust and speak to the inmate about problem solving. When I was programs director, I told inmates they could do something about their situation by behaving and getting help for their problems. Programs are available if they want to use them. Also, think of the first-timer inmate just assigned to the general population. When you see them in the corridor, take them aside. Ask how things are in the unit and if they have experienced any problems. Tell the inmate you and your colleagues are there to help. You want that inmate to know the staff takes their well-being seriously.

In life, we know that to get respect, you have to give respect. It is no different in jail.

Helping network
The human service approach works well when others are on board—the counselors, chaplain, mental health personnel, substance abuse staff, education and so on. Also, if other sworn officers take this approach, relations with inmates will be more positive than negative. You may have “dinosaurs” on staff who think this human service approach is “bull.” But I have seen it work.

There is no one approach to managing the inmate population. Some inmates will be receptive to your efforts, others will not. There will always be some who resist staff, whatever you try. However, after 27 years working inside a large jail, I discovered that most inmates want to go along, not cause problems, and get out as quickly as possible. The approaches I have discussed here can go a long way in fostering positive inmate behavior—in turn making your job easier and safer.


  1. Cornelius G. Managing the Inmate Population: General Population. In-Service Training PowerPoint presentation, revised April 2022.
  2. Isele C. (2014). R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and what it means in corrections. Corrections1. Accessed 12/5/22 from https://www.corrections1.com/corrections/articles/r-e-s-p-e-c-t-and-what-it-means-in-corrections-SIvzUmQaVICXTTIN/.
  3. Johnson R. Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison, Third Edition. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning: 242–255, 2002.

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 jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs, planning/ policy and classification. Gary is an independent freelance correctional author and trainer. He has taught corrections courses for George Mason University since 1986, 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. Gary is the author of several books, including The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, The American Jail: Cornerstone of Modern Corrections, The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, and Stressed Out: Strategies for Living and Working in Corrections.

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