If you have been in corrections for a while, you know that no two days are ever the same. One shift may be demanding, with incident reports to write and emergencies to handle. Another shift may be very calm. When you report to your tier, floor, unit or dorm, you—the correctional officer—cannot predict what will happen. But you certainly hope to have as smooth a shift as possible, get through it safely and go home.
Corrections staff in prisons, local jails, work release facilities and juvenile detention centers deal with many types of inmates and offenders. They can be disruptive or incompatible with others. Some may not “play well on the playground.” Others may belong to gangs or security threat groups. Some inmates are “shaky”; having never been incarcerated before, they may experience anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. Then there are inmates who exhibit signs of mental illness. Even though staff in the booking, classification, medical and mental health sections do their best to determine problems and screen the inmates, new issues frequently arise.
Whenever possible, you always want to leave the inmate in a better frame of mind as when you first encounter them.
The best thing a correctional officer can do to achieve a smooth shift is to perform their duties in a way that keeps the atmosphere as calm as possible, as quiet as possible, and as respectful as possible. One retired jail veteran officer asked his shift commander why he was always assigned to the largest floor in the county jail. The shift commander replied that he knew when the officer was up on that post, everything would run smoothly. Years later, the officer still remembered the conversation.
The “smooth shift” is not a pipe dream or a fantasy. A smooth shift includes few or no incident reports. It’s shift where calm prevails even in the face of a medical or other type of emergency. And it’s one in which the inmates get along with each other and with the correctional officer on duty.
Three key factors in having a successful smooth shift are appearances, behavior and assertiveness.
Appearances means two things—how you look and how your workplace looks. As one veteran officer said, when you assume your post, it’s showtime! And showtime starts in the locker room when you are putting on your uniform. Your uniform, equipment and insignia show if you are neat and care about how you look or if you are okay with being sloppy. If you do not care about how you look, you are sending a message to the inmate that you do not pay attention to detail, such as following security procedures, searching, making rounds and so on. Your uniform doesn’t have to be fancy—even polo shirts can look professional. Maintaining good physical shape will help you look even more professional when you put on the uniform.
Your post—how orderly and neat it is—says a lot about you and your work habits. While many correctional facilities are transitioning from paper to digital record-keeping, you still are responsible for maintaining information. If inmates see you fumbling for information such as inmate housing locations, court lists, and who is on and off the post and where, they will conclude you are sloppy and prone to manipulation. They may try to distract you, using a tactic such as several inmates talking to you all at once—confusing you—while contraband is being transported, an assault is taking place, or an inmate is slipping into an unauthorized area.
The “smooth shift” is not a pipe dream or a fantasy.
The bottom line: Optics are important. If inmates observe that you look squared away, your post is squared away and supervisors and other staff look in to see if you are all right and they are squared away, the message is sent: You are in control about what is going on at your post, and your team looks out for you.
How you behave on duty can influence what kind of shift that you will have. In corrections, from the day that you enter the academy to the day that you retire, there is a motto: Be firm, fair and consistent. It is not a cliché. These three key strategies are key to effective supervision.
Realistically speaking, no shift in a correctional facility is without conflict. Inmates will differ with you about rules, policies and privileges. Being firm means standing your ground. You are charged with enforcing the rules and correctional laws that govern the proper operation of the facility. You are not there to be their friend or win popularity contests. When you stand firm, in a mature way, inmates will realize over time that you cannot be pressured.
Firm does not mean unempathetic. You can listen to the inmates’ concerns—remember that like all of us, inmates want to be heard. If their complaints are with merit, try to address the problem, and if necessary, ask them to use the grievance procedures. Ignoring inmates is one of the fastest ways to produce stress and tension during your shift. Their issues may not seem serious to you, but consider that life is different for an inmate. Even minor issues can be very important to them.
Not playing favorites is being fair. Do not favor inmates of one race or ethnic group over another, or favor an individual inmate just because you like them. For example, if you favor White inmates over Black inmates, or vice-versa, you will experience resentment that can lead to conflict. People like to be treated fairly and like adults. Make sure all inmates in your unit receive equal amounts of toiletries, food on the food trays, and so on. The Golden Rule applies: Treat all inmates in the manner that you would like to be treated.
Being consistent means being reliable. Inmates know that when you are on duty, they can expect the meals, visiting, mail, phones, canteen delivery, medical runs, clean-up, television, programs and recreation to run on time. If your facility allows inmates to use tablet computers, they know when they will be available. Being consistent also means that you do not run hot and cold. You are not angry and irritable one day and cold and unconcerned on the next shift. For example, you shouldn’t let inmates off the hook for not cleaning one day and then act like a drill instructor the next day, inspecting the barracks with a white glove. Inmates will test the limits of your consistency, seeing if you will be lax. Be consistent—it sends a firm, clear message.
How you correctly assert yourself is also important. Most communications inside a correctional facility are of a routine, non-emergency nature. Correct assertiveness is defined as you getting your point across to inmates without causing arguments, conflict and stress. First researched by stress management pioneer Dr. Francis Cheek, the goal of correct assertiveness is to reduce the stress in interpersonal relations. You must think about what you are going to say before you say it. This is especially true in stressful environments, such as overcrowded facilities and facilities dealing with serious issues, such as COVID-19 and short staffing.
Your uniform, equipment and insignia show if you are neat and care about how you look or if you are okay with being sloppy
To correctly get your point across, you should adhere to the following principles:
- Consider the context: Converse with inmates about serious matters as privately as possible, not in the presence of other inmates. This helps the inmate maintain a sense of respect and dignity.
- Be calm: This goes for the inmates as well. Tension and irritability will not help the situation.
- Consider the other person’s point of view: Listening is important. Try to see the inmate’s position; allow them to speak. In most cases your authority will prevail, but at least the inmates will respect you for respecting them.
- Explain your side: Instead of a curt “No!” try to explain your position. The inmates may not like your answer, but they will respect that you took the time to explain it to them.
- Come to a solution: Once both sides have been heard, give the inmate several choices. For example, an inmate is resistant to a new housing assignment. The correctional officer explains it is a population adjustment, and inmates cannot choose where they live. The inmate is given a choice: Go along with the new assignment or refuse, which will result in a disciplinary writeup.
- Consider the consequences: Think through what may or may not happen when you make a decision. In the above example, if the inmate is allowed to refuse a housing reassignment, what will other inmates do?
- Do not run “hot and cold”: Inmates respect officers who aren’t moody but rather even-tempered.
Advice from Veterans
Veteran correctional officers, supervisors and training officers have a responsibility to convey to new officers how they have maintained a smooth shift. One officer with good advice is Rory Thelen, a 28-year veteran with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. He gives the following advice to correctional officers:
- Listen up: Inmates want to be listened to and heard. Your body language and behavior should show the inmate that you do listen. Do not talk down to inmates. Do not interrupt. Ask for clarification and nod in understanding.
- Be positive: Take an active, positive interest in your work. This view will support a mature attitude that gives you integrity.
- Be friendly but practice situational awareness: It is OK to smile and maintain eye contact, but never forget that you work inside a correctional facility. Good posture is important; it shows the inmates that you are ready for anything.
- Prepare mentally: This is the “showtime” aspect of your job. You must be prepared for any situation that could occur. Remember that inmates often experience anger and regret. They see glimpses of the outside world from hearing conversations among staff, watching television and movies, attending visits, and reading magazines and other media. They may become angry at themselves and regret the bad choices that they have made. They may have short tempers and blame the institution for their problems. The world is passing them by—and they know it. Do not push their buttons by insulting them or treating them in a condescending manner.
- Show mutual respect: As correctional officers we want the inmates to respect us, rather than like us. A correctional officer who wants to be friends with the inmates will have a difficult time controlling their post. To get respect, give respect. Not all inmates will be respectful at all times. However, you do not have to sink to their level. Inmates use street talk and will test your professionalism. In a serious conversation where the correctional officer and inmate both use profanity and street talk, who looks immature?
- Consider the future: Correctional officers must remember they will see inmates over and over. They may be reassigned to the same unit or encounter the inmate elsewhere in the facility. If you treat the inmate with respect, this builds a foundation for the future. Whenever possible, you always want to leave the inmate in a better frame of mind as when you first encounter them. Some inmates will give you trouble no matter how you act or what you say. However, most inmates just want to just do their time. They will remember the good interactions with you.
Smooth Sailing Ahead
Every correctional officer in every type of facility wants the smooth shift—a shift where everything runs calmly and efficiently. We can’t control or predict everything, but there is much we can do to influence how a shift goes down. Appearance is important, including a clean uniform and a neat, organized post. Strive to be firm, fair and consistent. Assert yourself correctly, listening and seeking to understand the inmate’s point of view. Showing respect and even empathy when appropriate—without relaxing the rules—will build positive relationships that can benefit you and the facility over the long term.
Above all, be aware of your situation, be prepared and remember that when you’re on duty, it’s “showtime.” Are you ready?
- Koonce L. (2012). Correction Officer’s Guide to Understanding Inmates: The 44 Keys to Power, Control and Respect. Atlanta: Koonce Publishing.
- Cornelius G. (2017). The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, Third Edition. Durham: Carolina Academic Press.
- Thelen, Rory. (Oct. 24, 2019). How to be successful in dealing with inmates: What do inmates look for in a correctional staff member? Corrections1.com. Accessed 10/2/21 from https://www.corrections1.com/corrections/articles/how-to-be-successful-in-dealing-with-inmates-ECZxrOLJk4dlkftJ/.
- Samenow S. (2004). Inside the Criminal Mind: Revised and Updated Edition. New York: Crown Publishers.