Be Aware, Be Smart, Be Safe: Correctional Officer Safety

by | July 24, 2020

Everyone who works inside a correctional facility can be seriously injured or killed. That is a fact. Whether it is a minimum-security facility, a halfway house, a local jail or a state or federal prison, as a sworn staff member or a civilian staff member, you enter a building every day that is unlike any other.

The inmate population is a mixture of people. Some are first-timers; some are veterans familiar with incarceration and the life inside. Some do not want trouble. They want only to do their time and go home; they seek opportunities to deal maturely with the problems that resulted in their arrest and incarceration. Others are hard-core and violent. They move through life with violence and anger, defying authority. They have a “street reputation” to maintain. Throw into this mix immaturity, substance abuse, criminality, impulsivity and various degrees of mental illness, and you have a volatile mix of people.

How bad is the problem—or more clearly, how dangerous is working in corrections?

Wherever you interact with criminal offenders, there is a real danger of assault, attempted escape and the necessity to control offenders by force. This is true whether you work inside a juvenile facility, an adult prison or a local jail or you are a probation or parole officer. Most correctional officers want things to run smoothly, and do not look for trouble. They do not abuse offenders or throw their weight around. They want to get through a 25-year (or more) career and retire in good health. The key to doing that is staying safe, and the key to safety is a cautious mindset.

A Sense of Awareness

Without sounding militaristic, serving as a correctional officer is comparable to being an infantry soldier, a pilot or a sailor in combat. Military personnel must be hyperaware of the conditions in which they operate. Pilots encounter cloudy skies. Sailors fight in rough seas and storms. Foot soldiers must know the terrain and how the weather might affect their operations. Situational awareness is crucial for safety.

Inmates are like the 1980s television hero MacGyver—they can take ordinary items and make escape tools or weapons.

For corrections officers, situational awareness includes both the physical conditions of the facility and the people inside (inmates and staff).

Physical Conditions

Awareness of physical conditions in the jail includes how we keep control of things that to us have little use, but to inmates may be a treasure. Inmates are masters at making something out of nothing. For example, maintenance must repair a housing unit. Staff closes off the unit, no inmates are allowed in the area, and the work is completed. However, several small screws are missed in the cleanup. In a normal person’s hands, they are just extra screws—we will put them in a jar in our basement workshop. In a jail or prison, they can be weapons. They can gouge out an eye or puncture the skin.

Inmates are like the 1980s television hero MacGyver—they can take ordinary items and make escape tools or weapons. Some examples just from my experience:

  • Fashioning sharp pieces of metal into homemade knives or shanks
  • Creating a weapon by putting a doorknob inside a sock
  • Hitting staff with chairs
  • Braiding and drying toilet paper to make a rope. (The rope was found by jail deputies before it was used, fortunately, but it could have been used in a suicidal hanging or to choke a staff member.)
  • Gaining possession of a fork and bending back the two middle prongs to create a stabbing weapon. (You may ask, how did an inmate get a fork? Maybe a staff member brought in their lunch and lost it, or an inmate picked it up from a desk when the officer’s attention was diverted.)

In addition, correctional officers must be aware of overcrowding and the age of the building. Institutional staff—the sworn correctional officers—will rarely be sufficient to guarantee safety. For example, a 100-bed jail (rated capacity) may have an adult daily average population of 135. At any time, there will be about 10 officers on duty. Let’s say there are two supervisors and two booking officers per squad. That leaves six officers to watch the jail general inmate population.

Inmate overcrowding can make institutional life dangerous for both inmates and staff. Having too many people squeezed into a living area built and designed for a smaller number can result in tension, arguments and physical fights. Inmates have no privacy, and if they are tense, they may take out their frustrations on the officers. As one veteran correctional officer recalls:

In some units, the inmates got along, even though we were double bunking—putting two inmates inside a cell that was originally built for one. In other units, an officer could walk in and his or her “gut,” or intuition, said that there was tension in the unit. It may be an inmate gang leader; it may be a bully. An officer never knows. Inmates, like the rest of us, want privacy and quiet, but sometimes that is impossible. In my career, I learned that most inmates want to do their time and be released. In overcrowded facilities, we have to watch out for them and let them know we are concerned for their safety. I hoped that they will tell us about potentially dangerous inmates.

The People

Let’s revisit the military analogy mentioned earlier. Military personnel must know about the enemy—what they are like and how they think. While correctional officers are not at “war” with inmates, the relationship is adversarial. We cannot fully trust them. Inmates are incarcerated for getting into trouble with the law. They are either convicted of or accused of crimes—and some of these are violent offenses.

Wherever you interact with criminal offenders, there is a real danger of assault, attempted escape and the necessity to control offenders by force.

Correctional staff must be aware of the inmate lifestyle. Much research has been done on why people commit crimes. One underlying reason is they do not conform to the rules and positive customs of society. According to Dr. Robert Hare, one of the world’s leading authorities on criminal behavior, negative social factors such as family violence, poverty, poor parenting, substance abuse, being abused at a young age and economic stress can contribute to a violent mindset. Other factors are:

  • Learning crime: Being a criminal is viewed as normal. The father may be a drug dealer; the mother steals.
  • Cycle of violence: If abused early in life—emotionally, sexually and/or physically—offenders may repeat this behavior on others as adults.
  • Powerful need: These needs include drugs, alcohol, a need for power and a need to survive. The result is violent behavior toward others and victimizing people. Offenders turn to offenses including robbery, assault and drug trafficking, to try to escape an impoverished or negative lifestyle.
  • Crimes of passion: Anger takes over, replacing rational behavior and maturity. Violence occurs during a heated argument, and the offender may fly into a rage.
  • Crime pays; it is a “thrill” and easy: To some offenders, being incarcerated is an occupational hazard. Why work for low wages, when one can lie, cheat, steal and threaten victims with violence?

Similar views are stated by Dr. Robert Agnew of Emory University. Besides poor parenting and negative experiences in school, both of which contribute to low education levels, other factors that lead to crime and violence include irritability and low self-control. Offenders can become angry, blaming others for their plight. They may spend a lot of time with delinquent youths, other criminals or street gangs, which further reinforce negative behavior.

When inmates enter correctional facilities, they bring with them these personal histories of crime and, for some, a predisposition for violence. Combined with antisocial personality disorders, these nonconformist behaviors can lead to offenders who show little remorse and believe violence is the answer to many problems. They may be angry, operating on a “short fuse,” realizing life is passing them by. If they have children, and many inmates do, they know they are missing birthdays and holidays. Many families decide to move on, leaving the inmate to take stock of a dreary future. Finally, inmates are existing in a world where they do not get their way, as they did on the street. They may rebel against authority.

The other group to be aware of is us, the staff. Even the most conscientious staff member is vulnerable to inmate manipulation. We are human—just like inmates, we bring our personal histories to work, including tensions at home, insecurities, frustrations with the job and sometimes the mental and emotional exhaustion that comes with being on guard at all times. Situational awareness includes being aware of the human factor in corrections and staying alert for signs of complacency or compromise—in ourselves and others.

In my next article, I’ll look at causes of inmate violence and some countermeasures staff and facilities can use to prevent violence and enhance staff and inmate safety.


  1. Hare, R.D. (1993). Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. New York: Guilford Press.
  2. Agnew, R. (2011, October). Why do criminals offend? The International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology, 43(4), 1,3.

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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