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Officers Outnumbered, Inmates Unpredictable
By Tracy E. Barnhart, Gary F. Cornelius
Published: 10/26/2009

Different outnumbered So how do we do it? Now, I am not a psychologist but the following is what I see as powers that officers use to maintain order over inmates everyday in their units. Maintaining a secure environment in prisons and jails often consists of an uneasy cooperation between the inmates and correctional officers. In addition, having a strong leadership structure supporting line officers results in a more effective and organized institution. Strong leadership in the administration can enable services to be dispensed to inmates, allow correctional facilities to be properly supervised, and minimize the level of violence within the institution. There are some factors that contribute to strong facility unit leadership. These include the officers having enough quality training and time on the job to fully understand the agency’s proposed policies and then implement those policies. Officers play a hands-on role within the institution and common practices that consider the officers’ needs are critically important.

At the same time, the inmates, correctional officers, and administrators all play a vital role in the quality of life found within prisons and jails. Therefore, the various types of what I will call “motivational” powers used by the correctional staff may influence the level of compliance attained within an institution. Every correctional officer wants a “smooth shift” where he or she can go home at the end of the day-preferably in their own vehicles and not in a hearse. In correctional facilities, order can be achieved through four types of officer influential power:

Coercive Power (physical force):

Coercion is essentially the overwhelming of the will of another by force, threat of force, or through less noticeable forms such as fraud or deception. The use of coercion is the means by which a person or group of people impose their will upon another or others. Correctional officers have coercive power when inmates perceive that officers are able to punish disobedience of policies, rules or laws. The use of coercion to gain compliance corresponds to the coercive containment goals of the facility. Correctional facilities are inherently coercive environments, and correctional officers are the means of that coercion taking root. Examples of the use of coercive power are verbal warnings and intimidation, physical punishments and segregation. Coercive power, however, is not always a practical option; officers who rely solely on coercive power to gain compliance risk inmates’ retaliation against them. Also, supervisors may question the ability of an officer to control inmates and maintain a safe environment.

Officers then use violent and non violent informal sanctions. Nonviolent sanctions can include keeping the inmate locked in his cell when others are released, shutting off the electricity to outlets, turning off phones, making them wait for mail and phone calls, turning off the hot water or plumbing, or withholding necessities such as toilet paper or food. Although the use of physical coercion has diminished, there are still “notable exceptions” where the officers believe that this type of coercion is necessary to control inmates. Problems may arise as inmates who are treated this way resent the officer and anger can start building towards that officer and other staff.

Coercion as a primary method of gaining compliance can often fail. Within the facility there exists a hierarchy of those inmates who have power over others. Covertly, the institution supports the inmate hierarchy by assigning better jobs and quarters to its high-status members.

Coercive power is a widespread psychology across the corrections world. Some inmates just do not want to “go with the program”. This type of power-legitimately used through the use of force continuum, disciplinary codes, the enforcement of laws, legitimate uses of force, the ever present threat of changing custody levels, classification, and the use of segregation can be termed coercive power. These are formal sanctions.

A danger is the correctional officer who uses coercive power for “amusement”. Robert Johnson, in his book Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison, describes this view by correctional officers. He terms it a type of alienation or “trench warfare” approach-us against them. Citing research by Kelsey Kauffman, he describes officers using petty abuses and illicit sanctions (such as ignoring inmate requests and belittling them) to maintain control.

Concerning manipulation, in my experience, the harder correctional officers are and the tougher they act the more entertainment it is for the inmates to see him or her fall. Also, inmate manipulators will “step up to the line” by giving officers a hard time and hopefully getting them to lose control. For example, some inmates will give an officer a hard time, and if the officer resorts to use of force, the inmate can claim excessive force, etc. with an attorney waiting in the wings. Inmates love to “push buttons”.

A problem occurs when officers use more coercion and less interpersonal communication. In our careers, we discovered that if we were honestly blunt and direct with inmates, used a calm demeanor and treated them with respect, we experienced better results from them concerning their behavior. Officers should let them vent. In the book Stressed Out, by Gary F. Cornelius: Strategies for Living and Working in Corrections, “Positive Assertiveness” is advocated, described as:
  • Consider the context-the surroundings where you speak to inmates
  • Maintain calm
  • Consider the other’s point of view
  • Explain your side
  • Come to a solution
  • Consider the consequences
  • Be consistent

Officers who do not follow these simple, respectful views-yes inmates are people who should be respected like anyone else-will have a tough time in the facility and “bullying” inmates may be their approach. That approach may backfire and make the officers’ job more difficult.

Expert Power (skills):

A correctional officer has expert power if inmates perceive him or her as having some special skill or knowledge. This power may be more evident among correctional officers in treatment-oriented facilities. It may require the officer to have special skills in the therapeutic environment than those officers in custody-oriented security facilities. In custody-oriented facilities, however, officers may view their ability to resolve disputes and manipulate inmates as an expert power. Correctional officers not only believe that they have expert power, but also believe their control over inmates results from their reputations for competence in their job and good judgment. Expert power is ranked as more important by officers with high level of experience from years in the career than those with lower levels of experience. It is ranked as less important among officers with more education than officers with less formal education. Coercive and expert powers are likely to be interwoven and seasoned and effective officers know when to perform expert power and when to perform coercion. Officers must continually seek out continuing education in the law enforcement and corrections fields. You need to continually train hard off the job in the gym, the martial art dojo as well as the classroom. Reading the latest information on corrections can benefit both how you manage inmates and enhance your career standing.

Expert power can be positive in a facility if officers take the training seriously. For example, direct supervision requires the officer to handle inmates in positive but proactive ways, circulating among them and heading off negative events such as arguments, conflicts, etc. Good interpersonal and listening skills are important. They are effective only if training in direct supervision promotes basic human respect and concerns for inmates as people.

Reward Power (bribes):

An officer uses reward power when inmates perceive that officers have the ability to issue rewards. Although officers can give few formal privileges and benefits, they may still give informal rewards. A norm of reciprocity arises where, for example, an officer may overlook an inmate’s minor rule infraction in return for that inmate not causing any problems or making sure other inmates behave. This norm becomes the means by which guards depend on inmates’ satisfactory to perform their duties and keep stability and order. Informal, social rewards, such as praise may also be used. Unfortunately, reward power can be a detriment in a correctional facility if an inmate being praised or recognized by the officers or administration is ridiculed or ostracized by other inmates.

Officers’ use of rewards in facilities has numerous other problems. First, the rewards that officers can legitimately use are limited in scope and may be insufficient for gaining compliance. Second, if officers use illegitimate rewards (e.g., overlooking rule infractions), inmates can gain control over the officers through potential blackmail. Third, if rewards are handed out individually, even in response to good behavior, this mode of distribution can lead to contention among the inmates. Inmates can perceive those who receive rewards as receiving special treatment. Instead of enhancing control and compliance, this perception can lead to more conflict and tension. Ironically, if rewards are given to all inmates, then inmates can begin to perceive those rewards as entitlements. Inmates can also use this to pit officer against officer by complaining that one officer will allow behaviors or give them something so other officers should.

Reward power used wrongly can start an officer down the “slippery slope” of being victimized by inmate manipulators. If the officer is lazy, complacent and gets by over rewarding inmates, he or she may come to think that inmates are indispensable for getting the job done. Soon the inmates will “butter up” and flatter the officer to the point where the officer looks on them as assistants rather than criminal offenders. Minor violations and procedures will be overlooked. Inmates may become jealous of those being rewarded, but also the word will get out targeting the officer because they will give inmates a lot of latitude. This erodes control.

Praise and compliments are permissible-but if the inmate is made to believe that they were earned.

Respect Power (respect for the unit officer):

The final base of power, respect power, is where prisoners obey an officer because of their respect and admiration for those officers. Officers who are fair and impartial tend to get more respect from inmates without the needed use of intimidation and negative coercion. Although officers using this power view this as only moderately important, the most important aspect of this power is that, unlike reward, coercive, and expert powers, the presence of the officer is not required for it to be used. The inmates will obey their rules, practices and procedures even when the officer is off or absent from the unit. One professional described respect as, “treating others as you would like to be treated.” We agree, and also think the values of non-judgmentally and unconditional positive regard as worthy additions to the list of officer tools. Respect power is much harder to practice than preach but it is worthwhile nevertheless.

Respect power is a valuable tool. The group of four tenets that served us well in our many years in the jails and prison facilities is called the “Human Services Officer” approach. We dealt with all kinds of inmates-some bad, some good. We adhered to the following principles:

Good and Services: Make sure the inmates have the things and services that are due them-from working toilets to getting to sick call to having a towel, washcloth and toothbrush.

Referrals and advocacy: If an inmate is sincere about getting into a program, an officer can make recommendations or speak to programs staff. If an inmate needs legal work from his property, the officer can make an inquiry and try to get it for him. Your “gut”is the best gauge- always remember that an inmate can “play you” like a banjo. You can tell inmates: “I will notify programs about your request-the rest is up to you”. It is also a good rule that officers should let their supervisors know what they are doing.

Officers and Inmate Adjustment: Inmates tend to respect officers who check on their well being, especially in cases of first timers coming into the facility, or inmates moving into a new housing unit. This helps to defuse a tense institutional climate and may head off suicidal ideation and behavior. Officers must be careful to be empathetic-where they understand how the inmate may feel despondent and nervous due to incarceration. The inmate manipulator will target the officer who is sympathetic to the point where he or she feels sorry for the inmate to the point of losing their bearings. Remember- these are lawbreakers that they are dealing with. Overly sympathetic officers who pity inmates may be easily led down the “slippery slope”.

Helping Network: The climate of the facility and positive control of the inmates will benefit if all staff take the human service officer approach and work together. Fear, tension and anxiety can be reduced.

However, some types of power may be more effective than others are in changing behavior and lead to greater commitment to the organization by officers. Constant observation is impossible within an institution; therefore, it is important to investigate what methods are best at making inmates comply with behavior instructions and orders from officers and civilian staff.

All organizations must have some degree of control over its inmates to achieve desired goals. Furthermore, control in a correctional facility is the desired end; officers must then rely on informal mechanisms. However, these informal mechanisms are typically in the form of “structural accommodations” where the officer grants the inmate power over him or her by overlooking minor rule infractions, using inmates to control each other, and using inmates for information.

Changes in the institutional population size also interfere with the officers’ abilities to carry out their duties. As the population begins to drastically increase, the officers are less able to interact informally with prisoners, making positive informal relations difficult and less effective in maintaining compliance. This increase of inmate to staff ratio limits staff participation in programming, so inmates will spend more time in their cells. Furthermore, more inmates crowding could contribute to greater officer stress and tension which could affect their dealings with inmates. High staff turnover rates are common, and as a result, new, young and inexperienced officers are unpredictable in their dealings with hard core, violent inmates. It is often said that everyone needs a job but not everyone needs this particular job.

But then we go back to my our experiences and ask: “How do you deal with people for whom violence has been a way of life, some of whom would stab an officer just to show their peers how tough they are or to achieve some kind of status within the facility walls.” Inmates will toss cups of urine or feces at officers, or begin a violent, unprovoked attack without warning. Being the target of such an attack would certainly make anyone angry. Officer’s deal with this constant adversity everyday while being outnumbered and under trained.

In recent years, correctional administrators and training officers have become increasingly aware of the liability issues regarding officer conduct. As our institutions become more sophisticated in their structure and philosophy of detainment and rehabilitation, their concepts of inmate control have to also evolve. Concerns are increasing concerning maintaining the safety of inmates as much as possible, even when they are engaged in hostile violent acts towards other inmates or towards officers. We must evolve into communications and combat specialists and maintain the ability to understand what motivational powers are necessary and how they are used effectively to maintain control over inmate populations.

In answer to the question of how correctional officers deal with these negative and immoral types, our answer is “constant professionalism”. You look, walk and act the part of an officer who is security minded with some empathy mixed in. The inmate should see professionalism in every thing the officer does. Objectivity is also important-never forget where you are and who you are dealing with.

References: Cornelius, Gary F. (2005). Stressed Out: Strategies for Living and Working in Corrections. Alexandria: American Correctional Association.

Cornelius, Gary F. (2008). The American Jail: Cornerstone of Modern Corrections. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Johnson, Robert. (2002). Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison: Third Edition. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Visit the Tracy Barnhart page

Other articles by Gary F. Cornelius:


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