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Inmate Manipulations
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 07/06/2009

Marionette Before I started working behind the fence I always thought of manipulations as my three year old twins throwing a fit in the grocery store in order to get a sucker. Or my fifteen year old daughter crying and demanding that I answer the question “why” she cannot go to the basketball game, relentlessly. Well, as it turns out this is all a form of manipulation and in a sense, I as a parent, giving into their tantrums was teaching them from an early age that manipulation is an effective tool. So it should not have come as a surprise to me when I started to work in corrections that the incarcerated inmates were very adept at the art of manipulations. But today inmate manipulation is married to violence and aggression to keep an officer off balance out of bewilderment and fear.

Well, now that we know that manipulations are a common way of life and a normal human behavior within our society, how do we combat it within the correctional environment? Manipulation skills are probably the most important developmental skills any individual can possess. We all utilize manipulative skills as a consistent part of communicating with other people. As adults, we might attempt to manipulate our supervisors to approve a leave request, to give a much deserved salary increase or an easier job post. Everyone does it, now let’s understand it so that we can prevent it and reduce the effects of the manipulation game on us. Inmates have nothing to lose and everything to gain by manipulating you into anything. What is manipulation? Manipulation is a set of behaviors whose goal is to:
  • Get what they want from others when the others are not willing initially to give in.
  • Be dishonest, get people to do or act in a way which the might not have freely chosen on their own.
  • “Con” others to believe and present a false reality in a way the inmate wants others to believe is true.
  • Maintain power and control over others even though the others think that they have the control and power such as corrections officers.
  • Get away with not having to do things necessary to meet their obligations, responsibilities, and duties in life.
  • Attempt to make others feel guilty for the inmate’s criminal actions and thoughts.

Now as it pertains to teenage juvenile offenders add the following behaviors and actions:
  • Argumentativeness escalated voice volume, repetitive lines of questioning or demands.
  • There is not a clear demarcation of right and wrong, good or bad, but rather shades of grey or degrees of goodness and badness.
  • Many teens will argue or question you for the sake of arguing or questioning.

Corrections officers must understand the importance of eliminating emotionally charged reactions and leave personality out of the interaction. Arguing with adults gives teen’s further practice in manipulation and can become a constructive learning experience in the art of manipulation. In fact, manipulation is a clear threat to your authority, power and control. You will give the inmate strength, power and confidence to attempt manipulation and victimization upon other staff. The correctional officer must never lose their credibility as an authority figure or you will become ineffective. Never become too friendly and never foster a close relationship with the individuals that you are in charge of. This may lead to rumors, innuendos and falsehoods. Your institutional reputation is easily lost and very difficult to regain once lost.

Youthful offenders are not as ignorant as we believe them to be. Understand, they have been involved extensively with the criminal justice system throughout their criminal careers so they may know more than you do in certain areas. In their art of manipulation they will seek out the weaker, less hardened and rule bending staff. These staff are generally quiet, timid and seeks to avoid conflict. These staff are very trusting, naive and often lack professionalism and may even be ostersised or disliked by other staff members. They may have an honest desire to listen to inmate problems and a wanton desire to help. These staff will find it difficult to say, “NO” and will not be able to take command during a stressful situation. Inmates by nature cannot handle the word “NO” it’s like you are speaking a foreign language.

Once they have located this staff member they will immediately start to prey on their emotions and apply slow steady pressure, applied over time, until they break and give into the manipulation. You will be tested to see if you will allow small rule violations to go unchecked. Inmates may make sexual comments to staff to see what they will be open to or will not allow in a conversation. Inmates will pat you on the back, act as misuses and rub your shoulders or something as simple as grab your ink pen out of your shirt pocket accidentally brushing against your breast. Inmates will generally spend a lot of time seeking out the weaker staff that lacks experience and understanding of the inmate subculture and target them for future uses.

How will inmates manipulate you? The answer is; anyway that they can. Inmate persistence can be unrelenting and overbearing when fully engaged. They are masters of deception and they will pester you long enough until you give in just to get rid of the inmate. This however, will only be the beginning or your usefulness once you cave into manipulation. The inmate may attempt to befriend you so that you feel a sense of kinship to the inmate. They may attempt to deceive and bewilder you into making mistakes and procedural errors. The inmate may attempt to intimidate or violently coerce you into doing things for them out of fear. The process of manipulation is endless and sorry to say, experience is the best teacher when it comes to recognizing manipulation. Inmates are not our friends; we are the keepers of the kept.

How can we avoid being manipulated within the correctional environment? Adhere to the following rules while you are behind the fence:
  • Be an active part of your correctional team.
  • Be suspicious, question and verify every inmate action or request.
  • Follow the institutional rules, policies, and procedures.
  • Monitor and document inmate remarks, gestures, and actions.
  • Communicate openly and often with supervisors and other employees.
  • Know your job and get further education.
  • Learn to say “No” and when you say, “No”, it’s “No,” now, “No” later, and “No” forever.
  • Never give or take anything to an inmate, no matter how trivial.
  • Do not relay personal information, problems or feelings to inmates.
  • Always be cautious and tactically ready when dealing with inmates.
  • Address inmates appropriately, they are and should not be your friends.
  • Take action early if you feel that you have been targeted for manipulation.
  • Never give one particular inmate power or special privilege over another.

Our society is at a stand still as it pertains with the rehabilitation of our criminal youth. We have built and staffed many prison like institutions across the nation to house these violent juveniles. Yet incarcerating these violent aggressive juveniles we have attempted to get them a high school diploma at the risk of injury of the teachers. We attempt vocational education while paying for state licenses paying all fees and even college educations while they are incarcerated. Yet the yet the rate of youth who are released and then re-offend is over 80%. What are we doing wrong? No matter who you talk to everybody has a program or a plan to make a difference. I am still waiting to see any positive results.

We as a nation are battling a morality between the social attempt to rehabilitate the youth and those who want to treat them like their adult criminal counterparts and throw away the key. I think deep down in all of us, we never want to say we have lost our children to criminality so we keep trying to make a difference. This difference of opinion is what is keeping the juvenile justice system without the ability to make an actual difference in the child’s life. Some individuals no matter what age have lost the moral desire to follow the rules and societal norms. This is a learned behavior that is often taught to the children by their parents. Lawlessness, criminality and aggressive violence are all taught to our generation of violent youth without rebuke. Some people should never be parents and I hope the individuals who are parents stand up to their children and take charge.

Golden Rules to Follow

Beware of friendly and overly helpful inmates within your institutions. No inmate is your friend or should be treated as such. Yes, some are helpful, but the first thing you need to think is, “What are they really after?” Pay attention if inmates tell you that you do things better than other staff. If you’re told that, you need to stop and review the way you’re doing things. You’re very likely doing something wrong, and it is in the inmates’ favor. Know the rules. Know what you’re supposed to do. Inmates may know the rules better than you do, and they’ll test you to see how sure you are about policy. The more uncertain you are, the more they’ll be able to set you up for a game. Never take an inmate’s word for how things ought to be done in their reality they are kings and do not need to follow rules. So read and learn the rules and regulations and go back often to refresh yourself. It can save you a world of problems.

Visit the Tracy Barnhart page


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