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Profanity in corrections: Is it really necessary?
By Billy S. Humphrey
Published: 02/09/2009

0209swearwordjar Editor’s note: This story is being shared with us by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach. The non-profit organization and its newsletter, Correctional Oasis, are dedicated to the well being of correctional staff and their families.

Jerry Clower said it best when he proclaimed, “Profanity is a public announcement of stupidity.” Mr. Clower was a comedian from Yazoo City, Mississippi.

He believed that comedians could be funny without being vulgar. He never used profanity and suggested that people who did were simply lazy in their attempts to emphasize a particular message. Jerry Clower was a true professional.

I obtained permission from him to use his “Profanity is a Public Announcement of Stupidity” phrase before he died in 1998. We painted it on huge signs and strategically placed it in the center of Texas Correctional institutions during my watch as facility administrator.

The majority of the staff understood the expectation and responded in a positive manner, but many of them were resistant. Over time I began to understand why.

Profanity has been condoned and accepted as part of the business throughout our history, almost becoming the norm. There are practitioners who rationalize our use of profanity, arguing that the use of vulgar language in corrections is a justifiable approach to offender management.

They view it as a form of corruption for a noble cause, an undesirable means to a necessary end. These practitioners are convinced that profanity is the only form of communication that the majority of offenders respond to, and that it is necessary to speak to them in this manner to obtain swift compliance.

If we accept this as the truth, however, then we are saying that the only way to achieve compliance from most offenders is to direct profanity towards them. This is totally not true.

There is no situation where anyone is required to be unprofessional and vulgar in order to obtain compliance from offenders. We use profanity only as a matter of habit or as a result of losing control of our emotions.

It is unjustifiable to conclude that profanity serves a legitimate purpose in support of our official responsibilities. In actuality, the mere use of vulgar language usually complicates most situations in a secure penal institution.

I remember receiving complaints from offenders after staff members would lose their composure and use profanity towards them. The offenders would always end the complaint by reminding me of the sign posted in the center of the compound!

Tom Turner, in his text titled “Why People Obey the Law,” suggests that legitimacy induces compliance, and illegitimacy induces noncompliance. There is indeed a legitimate response in corrections to any situation we are faced with.

The use of profanity to respond in like terms to offenders is not one of them. We as employees realize that this type of conduct is inappropriate, and our offender populations realize this as well.

This is precisely why we oftentimes have to utilize force after we become angry towards offenders and use vulgar language when reacting to them. The situation then escalates because offenders realize that as professionals we are prohibited from using this type of language.

It is this perceived illegitimacy of our choices which almost always causes additional problems for us. We must ask ourselves if this type of behavior is really necessary, or if indeed there is a better way of conducting ourselves on the job.

I suggest to you that the answer to this question is a re- sounding “YES!” There is a better way for us to achieve our desired results than the use of profanity. It is called being a professional.

If we truly wish to control and correct others, we must first be willing to correct and control ourselves. There is never a situation where it is necessary for any one of us to utilize profanity. What we need to do instead is issue direct and firm instructions to offenders.

It is the responsibility of correctional supervisors to model this behavior. Supervisors must lead by example, being accountable and civil to all people.

This is what I call leadership that is respectable. It is only through high quality supervision that we as a profession will be able to continue to evolve and facilitate positive change in corrections.

This is what ought to be considered a noble cause for all who are truly committed to our mission in corrections. Remember, people are our business! We need to treat them like we’d like to be treated, with decency and respect.

Billy S. Humphrey began his career in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 1989. He has served as Warden and Director of Training / Staff Development in Adult Corrections, and as Deputy Director of Juvenile Corrections. He is currently Assistant Director of Correctional Managed Care.

Other articles by Humphrey:


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  7. dep1318 on 02/18/2009:

    In a perfect world this may be true. The fact is we are not in a perfect world. As law enforcement our duty is to be a problem solver. This cannot be efficiently achieved when we are limited by administrators, who have not actually done the job since the seventies. This has detached them from the modern criminal. These modern criminals are so uneducated that they do not always understand the polite request. While being formally uneducated they excel in manipulating the system. This is often done by "playing" the administrator. With the I’m the good little inmate, and you’re rude Officer is picking on me for his own amusement. I pose this question to the author. Have you gone through your career without swearing at an inmate? I do believe that respect should always be met with respect. Sometimes respect is not given. This is when it needs to be demanded. Without this we as officers are undermined. Political Correctness is going to kill this country.


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