Inmate Ingenuity: Improvisation and Manipulation Behind Bars

by | July 7, 2023

If you have been in corrections for any length of time, you have heard staff discuss how “wily” and cunning inmates can be. It does not matter if you wear a uniform or not. Many inmates — though not all of them — are out to manipulate corrections officers (COs), probation/parole officers (POs), juvenile detention staff, teachers, medical personnel, cooks, maintenance staff and volunteers. The list of targets is endless and each target of manipulation has something the inmates/offenders want: access to the “outside.”

Corrections staff marvel at how street smart and talented offenders can be. In my jail career, I have met many offenders who could draw, write poetry and cook. In fact, when I was coming up on a jail squad, there was a streetwise offender working in the kitchen who made pizza that rivaled any name brand home-delivery pizza you could buy. I met others who were so good with their hands they could take a piece of sandwich wrap and make a small crucifix, complete with a string of rosary beads. I happened upon one inmate who was passing by the classroom where the female inmates were in GED class. He wrote a note on a small piece of paper and slid it under the door to a female in the first row. The note said he wanted to contact her. When he turned around, I was there. Luckily, the teacher stepped on the note as it slid across the floor. (She had attended inmate manipulation training.)

These are minor examples of inmate ingenuity — no one was hurt, no one escaped, and contraband was not smuggled in. However, they show how clever offenders can be. Many people I have met outside of corrections have said to me that inmates are stupid. “Oh, to the contrary!” I reply. Many inmates are very intelligent, and I hesitate to even guess some of their IQs. The lessons they learned in their lives — through the juvenile system, the local jails, prisons and probation/parole systems — have served them well throughout their criminal careers.

In this article, we will discuss how smart some inmates are. They take lessons learned from the street and apply them in our jails and prisons. In my corrections career as a jail deputy and as an author and trainer I have often marveled at how intelligent some inmates are. And I have envisioned a college graduation where they are handed degrees rewarding their craftiness.

My goal for this article is to help readers:

  • Understand the reasons for criminality, and the lessons learned by the offender.
  • Learn how intelligent offenders are, comparing their “street smarts” to the “book smarts” possessed by the corrections staff.
  • Understand how offenders gather intelligence to manipulate sworn and non-sworn corrections staff.
  • Learn, through examples, how crafty and streetwise offenders have pulled off some imaginative schemes.

Note: In this article we are addressing inmates who manipulate. Not all offenders do this. Some work genuinely to do their time, get clean, take advantage of facility programs and build skills to help them succeed when they are released. Those individuals can be a joy for the correctional officer to work with. But we must also be aware that many inmates are determined to test us and have considerable skills to do so.

The World of the Offender

In my in-service classes, I often ask, “Why do people commit crimes?” We are born innocent — and do not come out of the womb prepared to deal drugs or commit armed robbery. There are many studies and theories that attempt to explain the origins of crime, but there is no “one size fits all” approach. Let’s take a look.

In his book, “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us” (1993), noted authority Dr. Robert D. Hare states that offenders come into the criminal lifestyle in a variety of ways, learning street skills along the way. They:

Learn it: They are raised in families or in a social environment where criminal behavior is normal. “Daddy” is a thief or deals in stolen property. “Mommy” shoplifts.

Are products of a cycle of violence: Whereas law-abiding people learn mature, nonviolent ways to deal with difficulties, the criminal offender learns violent ways to deal with life. Offenders who are victims of physical, emotional or sexual abuse often turn to violence. Brute force is a tool.

Have a powerful need: Life is tough, and criminals often turn to drugs and alcohol for relief and comfort. Without any education or marketable job skills, crime is a way to maintain that lifestyle.

Have low self-control: People who lack restraint often engage in crimes of passion. Thinking that people have wronged them, anger takes over and self-control takes a back seat.

Are thrill-seekers: To some, crime feels exciting and preferable to working for a living. When asked why they committed their crimes, some answer, “Just for the fun of it.”

Similarly, Dr. Robert Agnew of Emory University suggests five factors contribute to crime:

Irritability and low self-control: Offenders blame others for their problems and become angry and easily upset when life does not go their way. They have little understanding or no regard or empathy for others.

Poor parenting: Family bonds are weak or non-existent. While morally good people often had attentive parents and a positive upbringing, many criminals did not. And when they get married or become parents themselves, they may not have the skills to cope with family life, including a lack of respect for others and their needs.

Negative school experiences: To many criminals, school is for “suckers” and seen as a waste of time. While many people study and have the discipline to do the work to attain an education, criminals often do just enough to get by, preferring running with gangs or engaging in crime and drug activity.

Peer delinquency: The allure of the street is strong, and criminal culture tends to glorify lawlessness. The result is offenders spending a lot of time with gangs, fellow delinquents and drug abusers.

Unmarketable job skills, bad jobs: When people lack job skills and education, they often survive by engaging in crime. Many go from low-paying job to low-paying job, never really getting good at anything. Learning vocational skills is hard work, and many offenders want the rewards of hard work — the money — without making the effort.

Another explanation for criminality comes from Neutralization Theory. According to this explanation, offenders see their criminal acts are someone else’s fault and try to shift the blame away from themselves using imaginative excuses and rationales. The theory is based on both denial and condemnation. The offender denies:

Responsibility: The offender tries to shift the blame away from himself: “It wasn’t my fault.”

Injury: The offender claims no real harm was done: “After all, nobody got hurt, and nobody died.”

Victimization: The victim got what he or she deserved. “He disrespected me, so I had to beat him up and show him who is boss.”

Under the Neutralization Theory of criminality, offenders may also condemn their condemners. One might say, “You accuse me of assaulting people, so I might as well beat people up in jail.” Finally, offenders sometimes appeal to higher, altruistic loyalties, such as to a gang or fellow inmates. This, in their view, elevates their morality.

So, what does all this mean to the corrections professional who supervises staff and maintains custody of inmates? It means offenders draw on their personal pathology and psychology, learning skills from the street and developing talents and ingenuity that allows them to thrive in correctional institutions. These skills include how to lie, how to steal, how to use people, and how to behave in just the right way to fit the situation.

For example, when confronted at school about causing trouble and not getting good grades, offenders may apologize contritely, promising to do better. And all the while, they are sizing up the teachers, their parents, and so on — just to see who they can fool. These skills are developed over time, sometimes beginning as juvenile offenders. By the time offenders reach age 18, many are confident that the world revolves around them.

Street Smart vs. Book Smart

Correctional staff are hired for their moral character, as demonstrated by working hard, not getting arrested, respecting others and getting an education. One does not have to have a doctorate (or any degree) to become a correctional officer, a juvenile detention officer or a probation/parole officer. However, most agencies require at least a General Equivalence Diploma (GED) for a CO position and a bachelor’s degree for a PO position. Once hired, recruits receive specialized training, such as completing the basic academy. Trainees are required to study hard, pass exams, successfully pass practical exercises and complete on-the-job training (OJT).

In contrast, offenders are street smart, and correctional staff must understand what this means. Street smarts are defined as having tactical knowledge obtained through experience. Street smarts combine intelligence, common sense and insight to know how to handle certain situations. Book smarts involve knowledge gained by formal education — public school, high school, college and formal training, such as in a corrections training academy.

In life, we use both book smarts — reading, comprehension of material, passing exams, etc. — and street smarts — how to handle people we encounter, such as an employer, a teacher and so on. Book smarts enable us to use logic, think and analyze situations, applying the knowledge we have learned in very rational ways. When we use street smarts, we use knowledge about people and situations — knowledge gained by trial and error, learning how people may or may not react to us, their behaviors, habits and how they handle situations.

Offenders learn that street smarts can be used in nefarious ways. For example, streetwise offenders learn how they can persuade a teacher to go easy on them for misbehaving in school, know when a security guard in a store looks away or is distracted so they can shoplift merchandise, and understand when tears and lies can convince a CO to allow the use of a cell phone.

Applying the Knowledge

An essential part of the criminal offender’s lifestyle is observing how people perform their duties or react to situations, then using that knowledge to manipulate. This takes both time and practice.

On the street, they learn to recognize who is a “soft touch” to ask for money. I recall an inmate leveraging the kindness of an elderly volunteer in the chaplain’s office to get money for his canteen account. In a PO’s office, they may spot photos of the probation/parole officer’s dog and then steer the conversation to how much they like dogs. In a jail, they may notice that a CO is easily distracted when large groups of inmates return from the gym, pestering the officer with questions all at once, overloading the officer. They watch patterns of behavior, waiting for the ideal time to sneak a note to a friend another unit.

Applying the knowledge from the street requires acting. For example, they learn that to ditch school, all they have to do is convince the school nurse they are feeling sick. Fast forward to the jail; they learn they can fake symptoms like headaches or throwing up in order to get sent to the dispensary. To get that trusty job — especially one that allows the inmate to move throughout the jail — inmates may ask again and again to be chosen, exaggerating their skills and level of commitment.

Flattery is also a great tool. Inmates learn that if they compliment a person over and over, they can wear down any objectivity. As one corrections veteran said, “They buffalo you with B.S.” Offenders shower staff with compliments until they see them as friends. In my manipulation classes for both sworn and non-sworn staff (civilians, volunteers, maintenance, programs, clerical, medical, POs, etc.) I emphasize the importance of five things that can never, never be forgotten:

  1. Inmates have either been accused of or convicted of breaking the law.
  2. An inmate is an inmate is an inmate.
  3. They are not stupid; in fact, many are highly intelligent.
  4. The “pull” of the street is strong — many inmates enjoy the criminal lifestyle.
  5. You are not there to be their friend.

Dr. Kevin Courtright, associate professor of criminal justice at Pennsylvania Western University at Edinboro, notes that Willie Sutton, a famous bank robber, was once asked why he robbed banks. His answer is illuminating. He said he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.” Also, he said he felt “more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life.” This perfectly illustrates the mindset of many criminals.

Let’s not forget that streetwise offenders can be very innovative, able to make something out of, well, nothing. Inmate ingenuity means they devise innovative ways to introduce contraband, hide contraband and construct contraband. It is said that “necessity is the mother of invention.” Offenders want to get high, so they work on staff and persuade them to bring in contraband drugs and send and deliver messages to the outside. They have sexual desires, so they “butter up” staff, target and compliment a weak officer, making promises of love, romance and a wonderful life after release — or escape. Never forget that they are clever.

Imaginative Examples

Some inmates are like MacGyver, the television hero famous for improvising gadgets and tools out of everyday items. Others dream up elaborate schemes to obtain contraband and gain illicit access to prohibited services. Having 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, and 52 weeks per year affords them the time to think, and think they do. Consider these cases:

Tablet Enrichment. In 2018, 364 Idaho prison inmates across five institutions hacked the software on their tablets and funneled nearly $225,000 into their accounts. They purchased video games and music before eventually being found out.

Trash and Treasure. In November 2014, Pinellas County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office investigators, acting on information from a confidential source, uncovered a plot to smuggle contraband in from the jail video visitation center. A female inmate worker, a “trusty” on the cleanup detail, was supposed to pick up a parcel containing prescription pills sealed in plastic. The drugs were wrapped up in a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin wrapper to make the package look like trash.

Cell Phone Caper. In 2016, an inmate in a West Virginia jail posted selfies of himself and other inmates inside the jail transport van. He had gained access to Facebook for at least 20 minutes and used that time to maximum effect. When questioned, he said that he “found” a cell phone (which was against jail policy), stating that “it just happened,” and “I just know how to use the system to my advantage.” He bragged that officers “never found the phone on me,” claiming his judgment was clouded because a judge denied his request for a hearing asking for home confinement.

Solitary Warrior. An inmate in a Canadian prison, while in solitary confinement, made a crossbow that could fire a dart 40 feet. He built it using the following materials: 10 toothbrushes, a cigarette lighter, the casing from a ballpoint pen, aluminum cafeteria tongs, a wire coat hanger, yellow rubber gloves, a few screws, Kleenex tissues, string, toilet paper, aluminum foil, and assorted electrical components. Fortunately, this weapon was confiscated before it could be used on anyone.

Learn. Learn … LEARN!

Everyone in corrections can learn from stories of inmate ingenuity, as well as the activities of offenders on parole and under community supervision. Supervisors and trainers should discuss examples similar to the ones included in this article. In my opinion, corrections training has improved greatly with more classes, seminars, conferences, webinars, online courses, data and publications readily accessible.

Not every offender is a manipulator; many just want to do their time, complete their sentence, comply with probation and parole conditions and move on. Some strive to never return to crime and realize that doing time is a major disruption to their lives. They may also realize how hard incarceration is on their loved ones. But staff — sworn and non-sworn — should be advised that unless they are psychic, they do not know everything going on in the minds of offenders and what their intentions truly are. Finally, they must be made to realize, through discussions and training with clear examples, that offenders are not stupid. In fact, many are incredibly street smart, and use their skills to manipulate staff, improvise gadgets and obtain contraband.

References:

  1. Hare R. “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us.” Guildford Press, 1999.
  2. Agnew R. “Why Do Criminals Offend?” The IACFP Newsletter 43, Oct. 2011: 1,3.
  3. Sykes G, Matza D. (1957). Techniques of neutralization: A theory of delinquency.  American Sociological Review 22: 664-670.
  4. Fern A. “Street Smarts, Book Smarts or Both?” Elite Daily, April 23, 2013. Accessed 6/30/2023 via https://www.elitedaily.com/money/entrepreneurship/street-smarts-book-smarts-or-both
  5. Courtright K, Cornelius F. Avoiding Offender Manipulation: Part I: Inmate Subculture. Justice Clearinghouse Webinar, Nov. 29, 2022.
  6. Eustachewich L. “Inmates steal nearly $225K by hacking jail-issued tablets”. NY Post, July 27, 2018. Accessed 6/30/2023 via https://nypost.com/2018/07/27/inmates-steal-nearly-225k-by-hacking-jail-issued-tablets/
  7. Cornelius G. “The Twenty Minute Trainer: Treasure in the Trash,” The Corrections Connection, corrections.com, August 10, 2015. Accessed 6/30/2023 via http://garycornelius.corrections.com/?p=244
  8. LeBeau K. “Inmate takes selfies and posts them to Facebook while in jail transport van”. WSAZ News Channel 3, April 27, 2016. Accessed 6/30/2023 via https://www.wsaz.com/content/news/WSAZ-EXCLUSIVE-Inmate-takes-selfies-and-posts-them-to-Facebook-while-on-jail-transport-van-377356601.html
  9. Rochschild M. “Everyday Objects That Were Turned Into Prison Weapons,” Ranker.com, Sept. 23, 2021. Accessed 6/30/2023 via https://www.ranker.com/list/prison-weapons/mike-rothschild

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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