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The Twenty Minute Trainer: Desperate People Do Desperate Things
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 04/26/2010

Distraught man

Recently I was asked to fill in at a local criminal justice academy for a basic jail recruit instructor who was ill. I usually teach in service classes, so it was rather fun to teach some “rookies”. I spoke of my experiences and tried to give them the best advice that I could.

One slogan that I came up with and I am sure that it has been used before by other trainers was:
“Desperate People Do Desperate Things”

This applies to all facets of corrections custody work, and I will discuss several. Let me preface it by getting back to basics: all correctional facilities are inhabited by people who:
  • Do not want to be there
  • Resent authority
  • Want to do time on their terms.

Trainers must communicate to their staffs that desperate acts by offenders involve more than trying to escape. Escaping custody is a given. But since it is out there, offenders have tried to escape using these desperate acts:
  • Kicking out windows in cruisers
  • Running towards an exit door
  • Stealing anything that is lying around to be used later as weapons or tools of escape-such as from a hospital while transported for a medical visit
  • Escaping from a stop during a transport
  • Breaking facility windows and jumping out
  • Climbing down walls using makeshift ropes
  • Digging tunnels and holes in exterior walls
  • Climbing security fences bristling with razor wire
  • Getting to the roof of a facility and jumping
  • Manufacturing a fake staff identification badge
  • Trying to steal civilian clothes or uniforms
  • Taking hostages
  • Enlisting the help of staff-sworn and civilian-by fake “love”, romances, eliciting sympathy, etc.

Can you think of any that have happened in your facility??? One thing to remember is that life in a correctional facility is boring. It is fun for an inmate to wrangle a transport in order to see the many sights and sounds of the outside world, including breathing fresh air and seeing people of the opposite sex. Once outside-any inmate is an escape risk.

Let’s look at some others:

Drug and contraband smuggling: the pull and addictions of street drugs is powerful; inmates will “con” and enlist the help of gullible staff and volunteers to bring in drugs from the street. They also may bring in weapons, alcohol, cigarettes, etc.

Messages: in a correctional facility, offenders cannot text message, make cell phone calls or write letters to fellow offenders such as gang members or co defendants. They will try to have messages smuggled or delivered, by gullible staff or other inmates such as trusties. Don’t rule out desperation when offenders try to get messages and threats to people on the street, including fellow criminals, families, witnesses or victims of their crimes.

Sex: Hormones continue to rage when men and women are locked up. Having a sexual relationship with a staff member gives the inmate power, a lever to control the staff member and a means of access to the outside world. Why? Because a staff member “in love” with an offender will have their good common sense and objectivity clouded.

Suicide: To solicit sympathy from staff, the courts or family, offenders may try self destructive behavior-from cutting themselves to making a suicide attempt. While some offenders do want to die, the desperation of manipulative suicidal behavior can end tragically in death or injury.

Faking illnesses- both physical and mental: to beat the system, offenders try to fake psychotic symptoms and medical problems. The payoff? Trips to the hospital, more comfortable housing such as in a dispensary, living in a cell alone or a trip to the mental hospital. After all-how can the court hand down a conviction or strict sentence if the offender is sick or mentally ill?

Staff trainers: Discuss desperate acts by offenders in your training sessions. You probably will remember “war stories” about offenders especially from older veterans. Search the media and the Internet-there are plenty of examples.

Good luck!! Brainstorm-get staff thinking!!!

About the author: Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.

He is an adjunct faculty member of the Administration of Justice Department at George Mason University, where he has taught four corrections courses. He also teaches corrections in service sessions in Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association, and the National Institute of Justice. He has authored eight books in corrections. His most recent books are The American Jail: Cornerstone of Modern Corrections, 2007, from Pearson [see IACTP Buyer’s Guide] and The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation Second Edition 2009, both available from the American Correctional Association. In 2008 Gary co founded ETC, LLC: Education and Training in Corrections with Timothy P. Manley, MSW, LCSW. Gary can be reached at 571-233-0912 or at adjinstructor@aol.com .


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