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The Twenty Minute Trainer: FEAR
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 07/24/2010

Shark 2 Recently I had the pleasure and privilege to attend the Virginia Association of Regional Jails (VARJ) in Virginia Beach. Not only was presenting two seminars enjoyable, but I finally met our very able, conscientious and competent editor of The Correctional Trainer-Joe Bouchard. It was nice to meet someone in person who I have held in high regard for so long.

In a condensed version of my jail in service class Safe Jail Climate: Proper Security Procedures I presented a short seminar titled Maintaining a Positive Jail Climate. I discussed how jail officers should observe the inmate population for signs of unrest, read the signs of trouble and take pro active action while at the same time practicing common sense safety guidelines.

One of my slides contained one word-fear. Did I mean jail officers experiencing fear of inmates? No. Did I mean jail officers fearing a riot? No. Or-did I mean jail officers fearing a serious injury or death? No.

While these are all legitimate concerns and can never be trivialized, what I meant was staff engaging in practices so unprofessional and so heinous that fear is elevated in inmates who are incarcerated in the institution. A positive jail climate includes not only safety and security for all inside (staff and inmates) but an atmosphere where inmates are not mistreated and staffs are caring professionals. Inmates should feel safe.

I mentioned several true incidents that have occurred in some U.S. correctional facilities:
  • Plainfield (Indiana) Juvenile Correctional Facility: A correctional officer (CO) who had not finished his six months probationary period was fired for brutalizing inmates. In December of 2002, he reportedly picked up an 18 year old inmate and slammed his head into the floor. The inmate suffered two broken vertebrae and is now a quadriplegic, requiring years of medical and rehabilitation care. News reports form February 2003 stated that the CO faced two felony charges in the above referenced case as well as eighteen additional counts involving punching at least nine other inmates at the facility.
  • Montague County, Texas: First reported in March of 2009, the Montague County Jail was known as the “Animal House”. The Associated Press and MSNBC reported that “inmates had the run of the place”, sex was occurring between inmates and “jailer girlfriends”, and recliners were brought in. Jail officers or friends supplied cell phones and inmates were using drugs. Several surveillance cameras were disabled; inmates made weapons out of nails. A Texas grand jury handed down a 106 count indictment against the former sheriff, seven female officers and two male officers.
  • Oklahoma County Jail, Oklahoma: An officer was fired, charged with allegedly beating a 16 year old inmate on the 13th floor of the jail with an expandable baton-one that he was not authorized to have. Other charges against jail officers include a jail officer hitting an inmate restrained in a chair with her radio; the cut on the forehead required 11 stitches. A clerical worker at the jail was charged with felony embezzlement of $500 from an inmate’s property bag.
  • Davidson County, Tennessee: In November of 2009, an offender being booked into Davidson County’s Metro Jail suffered painful injuries when a jail supervisor reached into his mouth and yanked out a gold dental grill. According to news reports, the inmate told the jail staff that the grill was permanently cemented to his teeth. The supervisor-a lieutenant- reached into his mouth and forcibly yanked the grill out, pulling the enamel off of his front teeth. He suffered excruciating pain and waited 10 days before receiving medical care beyond being given Tylenol. The Nashville Metro Council approved a settlement of $95,000 to avoid a lawsuit by the inmate, who had made futile requests for medical treatment. The supervisor violated sheriff’s policy by reaching into the inmate’s mouth, and was demoted and suspended for five days. The bill to repair the inmate’s teeth is estimated at $10,000.
  • U.S. v. Walsh, 194 F.3d 37 (2d Cir. 1999): A jail officer, self proclaiming himself as “Hammer Jack”, stepped on a mentally ill inmate’s penis, after requiring that the naked inmate put his penis on the bars of a holding cell in order to get a cigarette. “Hammer Jack”, -a lieutenant- had done this act on three different occasions, reportedly with the same inmate. He was convicted of three criminal charges and received two years concurrent on each charge; two years supervised release and a $150 special assessment.

I could go on…….but enough said. Hopefully you get the picture. Rogue officers exercising their own brand of corrections make the agency and all who work there appear unprofessional and unethical.

This reminds me of one of my favorite historical movies. In Glory, the 1989 film depicting the struggles of black men to be looked upon with respect as Union soldiers in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War I remember a powerful scene. The regiment’s commanding officer, Colonel Robert Shaw (played by Matthew Broderick) enters a quartermaster’s office to inquire about his regiment’s lack of supplies, especially sorely needed shoes. The smug quartermaster does a “song and dance” to avoid and trivialize the inquiries. Things get heated as Colonel Shaw starts looking around, upsetting items in the warehouse in the process. But there is a key question that he asks of the quartermaster that could be asked in a similar way to rogue officers. He said: “You think you can keep 700 Union soldiers without proper shoes because you think it’s funny? Now where would that power come from”?

We should ask the rogue officers-the ones that instill fear and cruelty in the jail climate-“you think it’s funny to brutalize inmates and make them cower? Now where would that power come from”? So I ask: “What were you thinking?”

Part of maintaining a positive jail climate is acting professional and maintaining an atmosphere of safety. Aren’t inmates better behaved if there is a professional attitude by the staff? Inmates who enter a correctional institution-some for the first time-all are undergoing some stress and apprehension. Magnify that situation to an offender-maybe a first timer- or at a minimum- one that is apprehensive, fearful, and “shaky” and is maybe depressed or contemplating suicide. How wonderful for an offender to be sitting in a holding area or trying to survive in a cellblock, observing rogue staff such as the ones described above distributing their own brand of “justice”. What could result? Anger? Depression? Suicide? Or- the inmate may place well timed phone call to a family member or an attorney describing just how bad some officers are. Once the news of such staff reaches the outside world, investigations and charges can result.

Let’s be realistic. Officers and staff can be accused of brutality and mistreatment by inmates and be innocent. After all, offenders as a rule are not upstanding good citizens. If an officer is falsely accused, he or she should be exonerated and the accusing inmates suffer consequences, such as criminal charges (filing a false police report, etc.) or civil litigation. But-if there are officers like “Hammer Jack” and ones that are “quick with a stick” or heavy handed with their fists, a climate of fear is created in a facility that should be operated professionally. The “Brotherhood of the Badge” does not apply if you know officers in your facility are mistreating inmates. They should be reported, face charges and disciplinary action, and if found guilty: fired.



Burke, Sheila. “After Tenn. Jailer rips gold grill from inmate’s teeth, city on the hook for $95,000.” The Washington Examiner, March 16, 2010. (Accessed May 6, 2010)

Dean, Bryan. “Oklahoma County Jail targets violence problem.” NewsOK.com, April 6, 2010. (Accessed April 19, 2010)

Internet Movie Data Base: www.imdb.com/

“No Excuse for rough inmate treatment.” Indystar.com, February 11, 2003. (Accessed February 13, 2003)

“Stepping on Inmate’s Privates Violates Eighth Amendment.” Correctional Law Reporter XI, No. 6 (April/May 2000): 89-90.

“Texas jail was like ‘Animal House’.” MSNBC.com, March 16, 2009. (Accessed March 16, 2009)

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. His newest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Second Edition is due out this summer. In 2008 he co founded ETC, LLC: Education and Training in Corrections. Gary can be reached at 571-233-0912 or at adjinstructor@aol.com .

Other articles by Cornelius:


  1. MDOC4life on 07/21/2010:

    I couldn't agree more! But I think it's equally important to point out that not only does physical abuse create this dangerous environment but verbal abuse as well. If the offenders don't "trust" staff will handle things tactfully and professionally then we create an environment in which the offender will do whatever it takes to feel safe... Which usually includes the development of their own arsenals full of hand- made weapons, hidden strategically throughout the facilities. This is information that I cover over and over with new hires... they are entering a career where the potential for violence is high... why would we permit someone to behave in a manner that increases the chance of violence to either another offender or ourselves!! We can't be scared to report abuse, not only is it illegal but it places us all in a much more volatile environment. Great article!!!! Thanks for sharing it!

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