You attend roll call, receive your shift assignment and walk down that long hallway to the unit. The unit awaits you—the inmates wonder who will be running things for the next 8 or 12 hours. And you wonder whether you are going to have a good shift or a bad shift.
Police officers heading out to their patrol zones often wonder, will things in my zone be calm? You wonder, will inmates in my unit act okay and obey the rules of the facility? The units inside correctional facilities—adult or juvenile, federal, state or local facilities—are like neighborhoods in our communities. There are both law-abiding citizens and inmates who just want to get along with staff. Most citizens respect the police; most inmates respect the staff. But there are those who do not. The correctional officer, like the police officer, gets to know the people in their area—what concerns they have, what they like or don’t like, and what they fear.
The past several decades have seen some significant changes in corrections, including better equipment and more detailed and focused training on topics such as special populations, officer safety, stress management and being a supervisor. What has not changed is that corrections facilities operate by people (officers) managing people (inmates). A correctional facility is a tense place, and the inmates outnumber the staff. Maintaining security, order and safety involves more than just searching and counting inmates and performing inspections. It involves understanding your inmate population. What you want to achieve is what I call the “smooth shift”: a shift where the inmates cooperate with you, their problems are addressed and the atmosphere is positive.
The purpose of this article is to provide you with advice about inmate management. You are inside a building where the people—inmates—do not want to be there. Many will try to circumvent institutional policies and directives. Why? Because they would like to do time on their terms-as comfortably as possible. Many will try to “turn” staff members, manipulating them for favors ranging from changing housing assignments to bringing in contraband, engaging in sex or aiding in escape. Effective inmate management is the key to resisting manipulation and maintaining a facility that’s safe for you and the inmates.
Following are the “4 Cs” of inmate management: communication, control, comportment, and conscience.
#1: Inmate Management Through Communication
To communicate with inmates, you must understand incarceration. Managing inmates starts at booking or receiving. Some inmates are anxious, nervous first-time offenders. Others may be streetwise offenders familiar with the routine; the jail or prison is just another stop in a long line of facilities. Regardless, the offender’s first impression of the staff and the way they communicate starts with booking. The booking area should be clean, neat, orderly and quiet. The officers working this area should be concerned about the offenders’ safety. Ask whether they are experiencing any physical or mental issues of problems that could result in self-harm. Don’t be condescending, abrasive or judgmental.
Maintaining security, order and safety involves more than just searching and counting inmates and performing inspections. It involves understanding your inmate population.
Booking officers should also be proactive and responsive. Look for potential problems, including harassment from other inmates. Be responsive to questions; don’t ignore inmates. True, some inmates are “needy,” but they will be more likely to act calmly and abide by rules if officers are available and responsive.
Inmate orientations are important. Some facilities rely on video orientations, while others conduct them in person. I prefer a hybrid: Show the orientation video but be available to talk to the inmates and address any concerns or questions. I have conducted many inmate orientations. While some inmates have heard it all before, some are apprehensive and ask questions. Address them. Your facility likely provides an inmate handbook that explains in detail the rules, regulations, inmate rights and privileges, and programs. But many inmates do not bother to read the manual. Inmates will still have questions.
Officers must be effective listeners and communicators. One cardinal rule of communication with inmates is the use of formality. I recommend the use of titles such as Mr. and Miss. Informality results in loss of objectivity, which is what the inmates want—for you to be very friendly—and that is where manipulation starts. If you use inmates’ first names or street names, you may forget that an inmate is an inmate is an inmate.
Inmates may want to dominate the conversation. Try to calm them down—and be calm yourself. If they are agitated and animated, tell them you will come back to talk to them when they have calmed down.
Finally, inmates often use street slang. If you do not understand what they are saying, tell them to use language you can understand.
#2: Inmate Management Through Control
The potential for violence is ever-present in correctional facilities. When you walk through that door and report for duty, your mindset should always be one of situational awareness. Know where you are, where the offenders are, where your team members are. Be ready to respond.
How do correctional officers control inmates, many of whom are violent or disobedient and work to subvert us? It starts with taking control seriously and showing the inmates that you take control seriously. Control methods include:
Walls, fences, barriers and observation towers should be checked and manned. Doors that should be secured should not be propped open for staff convenience. Cameras and radios should function properly. Restraint devices such as restraint chairs and handcuffs should be properly used, checked and double-locked if applicable. Staff should be mobile as much as possible. Uniform presence keeps the offenders guessing, always looking around to see where you are. Besides correctional officers appearing to be everywhere, line-of-sight observation shows offenders that all staff—both line and supervisory—are watching out for each other. Remember: If you know what security hardware (cameras, doors) is misfunctioning or not being used properly, the inmates probably know too.
People do not generally believe violence is the answer to problems; we maintain self-control. Offenders are no different. Most offenders want a calm environment; the violent offender risks becoming an outcast. Correctional officers must tap into that belief, asking the offender if anger and violence are going to benefit them. Also, most offenders wish to form social relationships with other offenders; engaging in violence makes that difficult.
The offender’s first impression of the staff and the way they communicate starts with booking.
Legal and administrative sanctions
These are some of our most powerful control methods. Charging the offender criminally (street charge), adjusting their housing assignment, prohibiting participation in programs, removing them from work (trusty) assignments and increasing their custody levels are all effective methods to address rule breaking. Always exercise due process procedures. Classification disciplinary hearings can decrease good time; street charges can result in more time to do. I have had some offenders tell me in hearings they don’t care about the extra time, but most inmates want to do their time and get out. Segregation is also a useful tool for addressing inmates who are incompatible or violent or incite violence, such as gang leaders.
Offenders make the facility their home—as comfortable as possible. An effective control technique is to stress to inmates that if they make trouble or are incompatible, they can be moved to a new housing assignment that may be not as comfortable.
Fear is a powerful motivator, but it must not come from threats or physical violence against offenders. Instead, do your job in such a way that the inmates worry about where you are and understand there will be consequences for bad behavior.
#3: Inmate Management Through Comportment
Staff comportment sends a message to offenders. Comportment is defined as behaving in a manner conformable to what is right, proper or expected. In a correctional facility, comportment means to look and act like a professional. Your uniform should be neat and clean. Your desk should be orderly. Comportment means command presence—you go everywhere and are observant. You pay attention to the job at hand and are aware of what’s going on in the unit. You don’t socialize excessively with other officers. You are not on your smartphone or surfing the internet. When an inmate asks a question, you listen and respond. When a supervisor gives you direction, you act on it. You are careful not to be manipulated. In other words, you have your act together.
#4: Inmate Management Through Conscience
Offenders are people—and you are in the people business. They are in your care. You must do everything possible to ensure they are safe, their needs are taken care of, and the problems they come to you with are addressed. You do not have to be friends with them or like them. But while they are inside your facility and in your supervision, you are responsible for their well-being. They are to be kept safe—from themselves (e.g., self-harm, suicide) and from each other. And, as I tell officers attending my in-service trainings, if you have a problem with this viewpoint, find another job.
In my next article, I’ll share two approaches to inmate management that worked for me when I worked the units as a corrections officer.
- Cornelius G. Managing the Inmate Population: General Population. In-Service Training PowerPoint presentation, revised April 2022.
- Bowker L. An essay on prison violence. In Braswell M, Dillingham S, Montgomery R. (Eds.), Prison Violence in America. Anderson: 7–12, 1985.