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Understanding Communications in Corrections
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 09/07/2009

Yelling I thought that I knew how to verbally de-escalate individuals and generate voluntary compliance through my emanation of authority, that is, until my first day with inmates. When I was a police officer I was very confident in my weapons systems and had a clear understanding of the use of force continuum and where I stood as it related to my abilities. Verbal de-escalation was just a required term of action that I placed into my reports in order to justify the physical slam that just occurred.

Now that I have entered into an environment where most of my weapons have been taken away I have come to the realization that I needed more verbal de-escalation skills in order to sharpen my tongue. The department required yearly verbal training was poor at best and to be honest, there was not much out there that dealt with de-escalating violent or aggressive individuals. I even went to private sector training on such topics as “how to deal with poor employee behavior.” All in all, it was as if the course designers knew nothing about what I was doing or how to interact with criminals in terms of violence, intimidation and manipulation and therefore, gave me no information on how to be a better communicator. If I wanted to generate voluntary compliance effectively with hostile and violent inmate behavior, I needed to create the information on my own, most of which was trial and error.

But, there was something that I noticed in my work within the institution over the past nine years, was that some people just knew how to talk to criminals. It confused me as some officers were prone to assault, resistance and defiance at every interaction but yet other officers could command voluntary compliance with little or no effort at all. The bottom line was “respect.” This little term is the stable pillar of the incarcerated criminal environment and criminal sub-culture. I have heard this “respect” term used literally millions of times throughout my correctional career to a point that I can now anticipate its reply from the inmates. What I have found in my correctional experience is that a little tact and wise management may often evade resistance, and even carry a point, where direct force might be in vain.

If you have a punishment orientated mentality with a dictatorship and superiority complex you will generate resistance among criminals. If you draw the metaphoric line in the sand, even though there will be times for this, they will certainly step over it just to see what you will do. By ordering them to evacuate the building because of a fire, they will question your authority to even be there. New officers will change how they talk to inmates with time from a militaristic to one of a give and take, trouble and experience even if they maintain the same pinnacle beliefs of how the incarcerated should be kept.

Inmates will challenge you just to challenge you over menial situations. Now add the element of criminality with the association of anti-social behavior, manipulation and defiance and you are going to have a bad day. I am going to give you the basics of communications with criminals that has worked for me as well as created a safer working environment and will give you the ability to generate voluntary compliance. However, not all situations will give you the results of compliance and force will be needed to resolve the conflict. Realize that sometimes, the individual may not want to be compliant or to be talked down and will want you to use force in order to test your resolve and skill for future actions. The key is knowing when this is a ruse, and when to call for assistance.

There are three basic principals to controlling aggressive individuals and that is:
  1. Never fight WHEN the individuals wants to fight,
  2. Never fight WHERE the individual wants to fight, and
  3. Never fight HOW the individual wants to fight.

During every encounter we must strive to get the individual to follow our situational roadmap of how the confrontation incident should go. However, this may not always happen, but hopefully we can minimize the situations in which we cannot control the direction. Our responses to their emotions must evolve and develop during every encounter. The most prevalent emotion that we will encounter is that of anger. In addition to frustration, annoyance, resentment and a host of sorrow based emotions will surface. We must fully understand why the individual is presenting resistance before we can begin to diffuse the aggression.

In any communication at least some of the “meaning” lost in simple transmission of a message from the sender to the receiver. In many situations a lot of the true message is lost and the message that is heard is often far different than the one intended. This is most obvious in cross-cultural situations where language is an issue. But it is also common among people of the same culture. The emotion of anger is usually the unpleasant feeling of annoyance, resentment or rage. Anger and aggression are the early signals to assault and may show in several well identified patterns. There are three main reasons for anger as it relates to the correctional environment.
  1. The individual feels that they have no control in a specific situation,
  2. The individual feels as if they have been wronged, either by you or someone else, and,
  3. The person feels that they did not get what they wanted.

Out of those three main reasons for anger you will notice that you will be dealing with a lot of “feelings” during an aggressive encounter.

Tactical communications courses have been integrated into many agencies officer safety and defensive tactics courses. However, do trainers and officers truly appreciate the power of the words that they use every day? Those words have the power to sow seeds for success or failure. Regardless of the officer’s initial verbal response to a challenging inmate, most situations are fixable and winnable.

Stress inside the correctional setting should never be ignored. I notice everyday that officers miss verbal and non-verbal signals to aggression when interacting with violent individuals or choose out of fear to ignore the signals to aggression. Never ignore such verbal statements made by aggressive individuals as:
  • “I’m ready to kill someone!”
  • “I’m going to show everybody!”
  • Becomes defensive easily “Don’t come near me!”
  • “Don’t touch me!”
  • Takes things personally that are not meant that way “You want me to show you!”
  • Negative comments about most things “I’m going to get S#%T popping!”
  • Announcing threats or plans for hurting others
  • Argumentative

When dealing with anger you must understand that it’s okay to feel angry, it’s okay to talk about angry feelings even with an elevated volume. Anger can motivate us to make positive changes in our lives. It is not okay to use anger to hurt yourself, someone else or to damage other property. The anger needs to be explored in terms of what happened rather than whom it happened with. There is no best way to deal with conflict, how you respond, depends on the current situations and what I have found is that most correctional officers are not out of the box good communicators.

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Abraham Lincoln

This is a series tailored specifically toward communications in a correctional environment. I wish that I had more time to spend dealing with this topic but there is too much information that I could expel and unfortunately not enough copy space without becoming abundance. I can however, ask one question of you, “Could we as aggressive officers be generating the defiance and conflict that we are attempting to defuse?” The answer in most cases is, “yes.” Remember, I stated that if you have a punishment orientated mentality you will generate resistance. This is so true when dealing with inmates. When communicating in a confrontation situation, you should always:
  • Present the information in sequence; present the reason for the direction, the supporting information or reasons, and the conclusion which is win / win for both parties.
  • Word the information precisely, making every word count.
  • Avoid jargon, codes, and correctional acronyms.
  • Omit unnecessary details.
  • Keep direction consistent

The late psychologist Harriet Braiker, author of “Who’s Pulling Your Strings?” pointed out some facts about manipulators that all correctional officers should know. Inmates are well crafted manipulators and you need to understand this communication barrier. Here’s an abbreviated list:
  1. You cannot out-manipulate a skilled manipulator, so don’t even try.
  2. It’s useless to ask a manipulator why he or she is acting a particular way, because you won’t get an honest answer. Manipulators will deflect or disguise their motives and avidly deny being a manipulator. But take comfort in this: However how hard they try to convince you otherwise, you are not wrong for perceiving that you’re being manipulated.
  3. You can’t change a manipulator by pointing out that his or her approach is one-sided.
  4. Most manipulators are incapable of empathy. Therefore, trying to get them to understand your point of view is pretty much a waste of time.

What do you expect when you walk through the metal detector each day? What are your daily expectations? Do you expect to be verbally abused, insulted, taunted, and cursed at? Do you expect not to be understood or listened to by the inmates, co-workers as well as the administration, nor will they follow your advice? Will you endure the risk of physical and mental assault as well as the realization of constant intimidation, manipulation and ridicule? I believe that if you expect and endure all of this on a daily basis, you do so because you’re a, “Corrections Professional.” However, if you expect this everyday and it does not happen on your shift, look at it as if the day exceeded your expectations.

Above all, you must understand that you are the professional and you must remain so even under the utmost stress. If you lose your bearing and temper you have lost the battle even before it begins. If you have to resort to violence, then you have already lost the fight. When dealing with criminals they will attempt to establish an environment of chaos, because there is where they feel most comfortable. They can excel in chaos when others are vulnerable and fearful. Understanding this, you can anticipate their manipulative tactics and thereby cut them off at the pass.

Their ranting and raving, yelling and screaming at you is primarily directed to illicit a response from you. Now, it may be that you will get angry, scared or full of rage but some sort of a physical response from you is preferred I recently had seen a baseball umpire stand at home plate while a major league manager chewed his butt for at least five minutes. He threw bases, spit and rolled around on the ground like a small child in an attempt to get the umpire to change his mind about a call. The umpire stood his ground, remained expressionless and spoke softly and allowed the manager to completely vent his anger and frustration. After the manager was through the umpire without anger, frustration or revenge informed the manager that he was now to remove himself from the game and he needed to leave at that time.

The umpire knew that if he allowed the manager to vent and stood his ground he would ultimately have the last say during the rampage. He knew the reasons for the manager’s rage but yet never provoked or allowed the manager to pull him into his childlike tantrum. The umpire remained the steadfast professional and appeared to be the guiding light during the raging storm that was taking place. Does this scenario sound familiar? I know that I see it almost everyday within my institution but sometimes with different results. Sometimes officers will get sucked into inmate drama and argue and insult back. Sometimes they will illicit inappropriate comments and insert profanities, encouraging the tantrum to escalate. When the officer loses his bearing and professional demeanor, ultimately he can never recover from a bad situational outcome.

I initially wrote about the referee scenario when I first put out this training but since then another referee scenario hit the press:

The NBA’s referees union criticized the league on Friday for fining an official who was involved in a dispute with Boston coach Doc Rivers. Rivers was fined $25,000 Thursday for his postgame rant two nights earlier in Chicago against Bill Kennedy, who was also docked an undisclosed amount. Rivers complained afterward that Kennedy had stared at him, goading the Celtics coach into receiving a second technical foul and an automatic ejection.

“He stood there and goaded me and goaded me and goaded me and stared at me,” Rivers said after the game. “Look at the film. I actually walked away. He asked me, ‘Where do you want the ball?’ And I said, ‘Ask them,’ talking about our players. “That’s my right to say that,” and I walked away. He, the referee, stood there and stared me down and stared at me and goaded me until I turned around and said, ‘What?’ That’s when I got thrown out of the game.”

I ask you this; can your facial expressions mean more than your verbal expressions? Now the referee said nothing to the coach but the coach took his facial expressions as an act of aggressions. A “majority” of the meaning we attribute to words comes not from the words themselves, but from nonverbal factors such as gestures, facial expressions, tone, body language, etc. Nonverbal cues can play five roles:
  1. Repetition: You can repeat the message you are making verbally
  2. Contradiction: You can contradict a message the individual is trying to convey
  3. Substitution: You can substitute for a verbal message. For example, a person’s eyes can often convey a far more vivid message than words.
  4. Complementing: You may add to or complement a verbal message. A supervisor who pats an officer on the back in addition to giving praise can increase the impact of the compliment.
  5. Accenting: non-verbal communication may accept or underline a verbal message. Pounding the table, for example, can underline a message.

There are certain communication pitfalls during interactions with inmates that will prevent further meaningful communication to continue.
  1. Commanding: Giving orders or issuing directives, now understand, there will be a clear cut time for this verbalization tactic, the key is knowing when.
  2. Warning: Threatening or admonishment, like commanding there will be time for this tactic but be clear and specific in your communications.
  3. Preaching: Don’t yell, nag or whine, it may not be your place to preach.
  4. Giving Advise: Be realistic in your statements, is your daily activities without reproach?
  5. Teaching: Inmates may think that you are saying that they are stupid.
  6. Judging: At that place and time it may not be appropriate to pass judgments.
  7. Shaming: This will only generate anger instead of the sorrow it’s intended to provoke, your grandmother used this well.
  8. Analyzing: When you analyze their actions you seem not to be sincere in your delivery.

The key to combative verbalization is 1) Keeping the officer from being attacked and; 2) Keeping the officer in control of the situation. These tactics can be summed up simply as “Don’t give them a reason to go off, but do give them a lot of reasons not to.” Those reasons not to attack you aren’t just because you are the authority figure standing before them. They include the simple fact that if he does attack, he will lose. It is the criminal individual’s very belief in the effectiveness of violence that makes them susceptible to deterrence of a formidable opposing force. When dealing with violent inmates your ability to foil violence is a critical part of your ability to de-escalate. Never think that inmates do not know who they can and cannot attack safely.

De-escalation is not just a stage on the use of force continuum. It is an integrated tactical component of a much larger strategy. A tactical strategy that ensures your safety when using it as well as the safety of your career. This is because a critical component of de-escalation is both the willingness to use force if necessary and having the ability to do so, and to do so effectively. In this manor, your ability to respond forcefully is not only a deterrent but also an assisting element in verbal de-escalation. Verbal de-escalation is not intimidating them into submission; it is manipulating them into choosing a second or third course of action. Moreover, doing so because he realizes that his first course of action will not work or the consequences are far too great.

I feel that this topic is greatly underrated as it pertains to training of new correctional officers. Verbal tactics are so very important today because more than 80% of all officers who fail at their careers do so because they fail to communicate and relate to inmates appropriately. Officers need to be taught that when they find themselves in a verbal confrontation that is turning bad and force in imminent, winning is the only option. Corrections officers need to become the predator, not the prey in a metaphorical sense. A tie or a loss may be acceptable in the sports arena, but not in the correctional profession.

Society may not fully understand the threats and daily violence that we incur, and many choose not to. As long as their worlds are safe and free from corruption and ternary they are happy. Corrections is a violent environment and those brave souls that choose to attend the party will only be rewarded by their own satisfaction of a job well done at the end of each shift.

Visit the Tracy Barnhart page


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  8. Steelheader on 09/11/2009:

    This article has hit home very well. I will be sharing this with my new officers. Verbal skills are one of the most important skils that you carry into work everyday in this type of setting. They are also skills that will become more polished over the years. This advice is some of the best I have read in a while. Thanks

  9. Kate on 09/08/2009:

    This is a fantastic article. I hope to work in a prison in the future as a therapist for the inmates, and this kind of wisdom is invaluable. Thank you for your sage advice!

  10. Chuck on 09/02/2009:

    This is an often overlooked area of expertise. It is amazing how much we convey by facial expressions and body language. In my humble opinion, every correctional worker needs to be schooled in how to present themselves and how to read offender body language. Critical situations could be difused at times before they escalate if the telegraphed postures were better understood. This could be a very potent weapon in the correctional worker's arsenal. Hopefully, those that are good at this will share their talents with those that are lacking that skill.

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