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The Twenty Minute Trainer: What Do You Tell a Rookie
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 09/06/2010

The way forward sign Recently I entered a new phase of my correctional career-conducting jail officer basic training in the Commonwealth of Virginia. After I retired from jail duty, I got back into writing and conducting jail in service training. I have now been asked to help out several academies by conducting state approved jail basic courses in legal matters, special inmate populations and suicide prevention.

I have to admit-I enjoy it. New recruits or what we affectionately like to call “rookies” not only need the book learning and skills training to pass the academy, but they need the wisdom and lessons learned by us veterans. All of us veterans who have worked in corrections a long time know that we are different at this point in our careers than when we started.

With that in mind, I sent out an e mail to several colleagues asking them for feedback as to what advice they would give to “rookies”. I received several good comments…….and away we go…….

From John Prewitt, retired jail officer, Tarrant County (Texas) Corrections Center:
  • Don’t become complacent: Complacent officers walk in front of inmates; an inmate with little or nothing to lose may try to escape or assault a staff member. You are in a dangerous profession-keep alert at all times and in all areas.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and what is going on around you: Inmates like to see officers not paying attention; it emboldens them. An inmate was walking around openly with envelopes that he had stolen from the law library. Finally, an officer confronted him as he was entering his housing area and inquired as to why he had 100 envelopes in his possession. That time it was envelopes-what else could the contraband have been?
  • Always search inmates when they enter or leave their housing areas: Inmates are counting on officers not to do this, especially in those “delicate areas” such as the groin. One inmate carried a 12 inch knife from the kitchen; none of the officers checked his “private” area. Fortunately, he later turned the knife in and stated that he was not searched.
  • Know who you are dealing with: Inmates are never to be trusted, no matter how nice they are. You do not know if you are being played on. Keep your personal life private. Do not discuss personal information in the dining room or in the housing unit. Jail walls have ears and inmates would like to know where you live, where your children go to school, what problems you are having, etc. What could an inmate do with that information? Befriend you? Threaten you? Play upon your sympathy? Think about it.

From Kraig D. Emery, officer, Merrimack County (New Hampshire) Department of Corrections:
  • Slow down and absorb the training: During both the classroom phase and the on the job training (OJT) period you may feel the “itch” to “get in the game”. Training appears to “drone on and on”. It may not appear challenging. But-think of this illustration. Remember the movie “The Karate Kid”? Remember how Daniel had to clean-“wax on-wax off”? Mr. Miyagi was training Daniel in muscle memory-how to do something critical automatically. The same principle applies to your training-automatically performing a task correctly such as searching an inmate or cell, keeping an inmate at a safe distance, engaging in defensive tactics, etc. This approach may save your life. Also remember this-there is no such thing as being over trained. Absorb and take advantage of all of the training that you can. Never assume that you “know it all”-you don’t.
  • Remember that there is an adjustment period in all that we do: In a corrections career, there is change. This change can take the forms of promotion, transfer, undergoing training in new skills, work assignments and shift work, just to name a few. Each of us, like a fingerprint, has our own adjustment period-some longer than others. For example, for some officers it may take a year. Embrace the adjustment period, be patient and learn. Also, remember that your life outside the jail and those in it-family, friends, those close to you-have to adjust, too. If your adjustment is hard, deal with the resulting stress in a positive way.
  • Be confident in your job skills and perspective: You will develop insight and skills. For example, having a quiet shift is having a good shift. You may like the action at first-but there are ways at times to deal with inmates without intimidation and force.

From Joe Bouchard, prison librarian, Baraga (MI) Maximum Correctional Facility, corrections trainer, author and blogger:
  • Learn to say NO: Saying no to inmates can be a skill. It can protect you. You do not automatically say no to everything. You will learn discretion as you become more seasoned and experienced. But-if an inmate persistently asks for you to grant a request that violates policy, procedure or common sense security, the way you say no should not be weak but firm. You may consider saying “negative”, which gives no doubt to your meaning, especially to a persistent inmate. You can check the request out with your supervisor and get back to the inmate.
  • Maintain a quiet presence: You do not have to be vocal to do your job. Look and act professional, carry yourself with confidence. Let the inmates know who you are-without arrogance. Maintain a command presence and good eye contact.
  • Do not let friendships and personal relationships get in the way of the goals of the institution: It is important to have friends and a good relationship with fellow officers. But-if your friend and colleague is making serious mistakes, or not up to the job-tell the person and tell your supervisor. No one wants to say to Internal Affairs “I knew he or she was screwing up, but I thought it would work itself out”.
  • Back up your word: If you tell an inmate you are going to do something, do it. For example, if you give an inmate a warning with future disciplinary consequences and the inmate continues to behave badly, initiate the discipline. More simply-say what you mean, mean what you say. In a related note, be honest and do not lie-to staff, supervisors or inmates. Honesty is always respected, admired and appreciated.
  • Lead by example: If you want to move up, be willing to do tasks and live by the expectations of the agency. This is essential to becoming a good leader and getting staff to follow you. If you perform tasks, they will too.
  • Corrections is not for everyone: You will see some people leave corrections for a variety of reasons. Some will leave due to stress, some will find better paying jobs, some will leave because their spouses and loved ones want them to; the reasons vary. No two goodbyes are the same. You will have days where you are stressed out, tired and will think that leaving the job may be beneficial. You must decide in view of the dangers, stress and demands of the corrections field if you can handle the job. You may decide to find something else.
  • The job will get easier: ‘The more you do something, the easier it becomes’. Do not forget that-and easier does not mean sloppier or faster. You can weather difficult times as your training kicks in. Think: “This too shall pass”. Bing a correctional officer is not pretty or comfortable-but it is what you signed up for.

From Gary F. Cornelius, retired deputy sheriff:
  • Remember that corrections is a noble profession worthy of the public trust: You are performing an essential function of the criminal justice system. You wear a badge, your uniform represents the faith that the agency had in hiring you, training you and entrusting you to keep people accused of and convicted of lawbreaking safely and humanely confined. Not everyone can do what you do and do it well.
  • You walk a tightrope: You are charged with keeping inmates under control and safe from each other and themselves. Also, you must do everything in your power to be assertive, exercising both physical and behavioral control of inmates when appropriate and authorized. But-you are in a human services profession, caring for the people in your custody. You will find the balance between assertiveness and empathy.
  • Remember that inmates are people: Treat them as you would like to be treated, with basic decency and respect. It is all right to call them Mister or Miss. Most likely, the response from them will be positive. Remember also that there will be some inmates that will not respond well to such acts. People have problems: substance abuse, mental illness, etc. These can make your job difficult.
  • Do not be judgmental: Officers who stereotype inmates into a “sub human” class will have a hard time interacting with them. Yes, inmates are accused or convicted lawbreakers. It is your job to keep them safely and securely confined until the criminal justice system is through with them. You are not to judge them-the courts will. Be aware of their charges and histories-that is good common sense. Brutalizing inmates to serve “justice” is dangerous; many an officer has ruined his or her life by such acts.
  • Be careful who you view as a mentor: You are out of the academy, you report for duty, and you feel like you are on top of the world! You will meet many types of officers, plus being supervised by a field training officer. Some you may admire and want to emulate. But be careful-if the officer you admire engages in abhorrent, negative behavior, ask yourself-do I really want to be like him [or her]?
  • Trust your gut: You will hear this throughout your career. Your gut-those inner feelings based on experience and intuition-is an accurate barometer.
  • Learn to communicate well and accurately in writing and speech: Corrections, as in other areas of law enforcement, is a profession where an officer must clearly communicate in writing-logs, reports, etc. and orally. If communications are not clear, people can become injured, inmates can escape, inmate criminal activity will not be detected or convicted, and someone may die. Never tire of the written word.
  • Manage your stress: This occupation is stressful. Learn to manage stress, and do not take it home. Maintain a physically and mentally healthy life outside of the job. You will most likely feel better and live longer. To relieve stress: maintain a sense of humor.

Now-you veteran officers, trainers, and supervisors working with “rookies”:

What advice do you have???????

Thanks to Joe Bouchard who authored the columns: The Keys to Corrections Success, Back From the Future, Just Say Negative, and “Ten Corrections Lessons From the Dog”.

Thanks also to John Prewitt, jail officer (retired), Tarrant County (Texas) Corrections Center, and Officer Kraig D. Emery, Merrimack County (New Hampshire) Department of Corrections.

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:


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  2. hallie on 08/14/2013:

    Just perused several of the articles by Cornelius and am very impressed. I'd like to use some of the information from these articles in my training of new jail volunteers. Can you tell me how I can receive permission to do this, please?

  3. AllSpark on 09/06/2010:

    I think this is a great, straight to the gut article. I can see the experience in this writing. Thank you and have a great Labor Day!

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