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Mission Success: Understanding aggressive youth
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 10/29/2007

Tracy Barnhart is a Marine combat veteran of Desert Storm / Desert Shield. In 2000, he joined the Ohio Department of Youth Services at the Marion Juvenile Corrections Facility, a maximum security male correctional facility housing more than 320 offenders. Barnhart works with 16 to 21-year-old, male offenders with violent criminal convictions and aggressive natures.

When communicating in a juvenile correctional facility we must first understand what sets juvenile inmates off and why their behaviors are aggressive. When you first start working in a correctional environment you get hit with a culture shock. You realize that the inmates are not locked in their cells and get more than bread and water to eat. Your ingrained perceived values of what criminals should and should not have are taken to task. Now is when you might to ask yourself, “What have I gotten myself into?”

The following are a few points to understanding the mindset of the individuals you work with and what to look for:
  • Extreme egomania, selfishness and me-based orientation
  • Poor impulse control with manipulative behavior with constant performance that benefits them
  • Inability to accurately “read” others emotions with little or no ability to delay gratification
  • Your “value” is defined by what you can do for them
What are some warning signs to aggressive or violent behavior? Inmates who have high risk factors and show behaviors like intense anger for no apparent reason; frequent loss of temper or blow-ups for relatively small incidents; frustration; and extreme irritability and impulsiveness should be handled carefully and evaluated when exhibited. Care should be taken to not minimize these behaviors. Along with the constant challenges and questioning of your authority, as “just something Johnny does.”

Before excelling at your profession, one must apply a clear understanding as to why the incarcerated become aggressive and non-compliant. Once you understand their mentality you can anticipate it. Below are reasons why inmates might become aggressive:
  • Fatigue or a disruption in sleeping patterns leading to sleep deprivation.
  • Sensory overload – too much noise, activity or too many people in the environment.
  • Being asked to respond to several questions or statements at once.
  • A general response to a strict officer’s intolerance, stress or irritability.
  • Being scolded, confronted or contradicted in a public setting.
  • The officer’s instructions were unclear or too complicated or the task was not broken down into easy manageable steps.
  • Change of routine, or a schedule or normal activities were canceled or eliminated.
  • Orders of routines or activities were perceived as too childlike.
  • Adverse side effect to a new medication, change in medication or the refusal to take.
  • Failure to show respect or the youth perceived disrespect from the officer.
  • Feeling victimized, threatened or coerced by other inmates.
  • Temperatures in the environment may be too hot.
  • Exposure to violence via television, music or other violent inmate rhetoric.
  • Sexual offender with sexual deviancies may be cycling.
Some individuals, especially in a prison setting, become aggressive when isolated from the outside world. The deprivation attacks the senses causing emotional turmoil. A significant number of inmates are dysfunctional to begin with, many with chemical imbalances, addictive personalities, and attention deficit disorders. When they find themselves in the isolation of a prison environment their normal emotional state gets thrown into turmoil and they do not know how to handle it.

Aggression results, as it is physical and tangible to the criminal youth. Aggression is something that is an understood and accepted as a result of a lifetime of anger, manipulation, crime and dysfunction. This behavior reduces one’s senses to a basic instinct and allows the inmate to escape the mayhem of prison life.

Some inmates become schizophrenic, or psychotic in all of its forms. Delusional, hearing voices, talking to invisible people, rubbing feces on themselves and their walls. These inmates usually end up on large doses of psychotropic medication and often lifetimes of treatment. Sensory deprivation attacks the nervous system and causes stress, anxiety attacks, chronic headaches and a wide variety of medical troubles.

Paranoia afflicts a large number of inmates in varying degrees and intensifies with time. The juvenile inmate begins believing that staff intentionally targets them for a variety of harassments. They might think their food is being poisoned or medicated, or that staff may be attempting to listen in his room or that staff, or that other inmates are talking about him usually in a negative way.

With all correctional employees the most deadly weapon to possess is a punishment orientated egotistical attitude. Your attitude can set off a verbal tirade that can stall or even end your career. It can start a fight on your unit, activate the inmates to become aggressive, initiate the discipline process on yourself and can even send you to divorce court.

Every employee should know that during any situation involving an inmate a physical intervention can be initiated if the officer wants “hands-on” to happen. You will see this more aggressive or assertive militaristic behavior in younger more inexperienced officers. A more seasoned officer will rarely see the need for a physical intervention approach. To put this all into perspective, I have to turn to a law enforcement statistic relating the total number of officers killed in the line of duty and their average age and experience.

The average age and experience of officers killed in the line of duty from 1991 to 2005 was 36, with 10 to 12 years of experience.

You would think that officers at this age and experience would have a grasp on their experience and environment, but it was found that officers who reach this stage in their career start to slide in their safety issues.

They are the ones who will say, “It has never happened before,” or “I have done it this way for years and nothing has happened.” The answer is that along with our experience, knowledge and perception, come routine, habit and improper patterns.

Even though we will never admit it and we will never talk about it publicly, we have to admit to ourselves that every officer assaulted, injured or put out on disability was a result of obvious mistakes that were made. It seems that the more time we spend at our careers the more that we get a certain feel for how a situation should end.

Experience is a great instructor but it should not be your only instructor in life. You should hone your skills through continued education and advanced techniques, and instruct others with your knowledge and experience so they avoid making the same mistakes you have made.

Other articles by Barnhart:
Three tiers of force, 10/1/07

The survivor mentality, 9/4/07


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