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Cell Block Expletives
By William Daly , CPM, CCE, CJM
Published: 10/18/2010

Cuss jar Recently there has been some highly publicized media coverage and controversy over the use of profanity "Curse" words. People were surprised, amused, beside themselves, etc. when the likes of President Obama stated weeks into the gulf oil spill, he wanted to know “whose ass to kick", as in the accountability kind.

Now before all you politicians out there jump the gun and assume this is a politically motivated article, stand down a second. I am merely stating that those strong words coming from the typically reserved leader, in the highest office of our land did create some hullabaloo. At least enough to warrant media coverage and the inspiration for this article. Might I also add that this article is not directly associated with the use of profanity by our "clientele" either.

Let's put aside the current President and many before him and the inmates, if you like. For giggles let's pick on the New York Jets coach Rex Ryan for his tirades during the HBO showing of "Hard Knocks". After the show aired, he was criticized by former Head Coach of the Indianapolis Colts and now commentator Tony Dungy who stated in short, "I'm disappointed with all the profanity". How about Actor Mel Gibson, Vice President Joe Biden and a host of other highly visible personalities and professions such as radio show hosts, TV anchors, sales people who are heard stating what is thought to be inappropriate, unprofessional and less than courteous language?

Which brings us to the "World of Corrections."

As Bob Sutton, a Stanford University professor and author of the book “The No Asshole Rule” (yes this is an actual book) says, "used in the right context, swearing can actually be useful in conveying emotions that are beyond the reach of ordinary words". He explains, "Cursing in the workplace can show confidence, convey a no-nonsense attitude, or even overcome gender stereotypes".

Now, before you go running through the cell block or tier, cursing like a sailor, no offense to sailors, let me explain and confess to a few things. I am far from "pure" and admit to being guilty of off color language even to this day. What's my excuse you may ask? I would like to think that the environment I have worked in during my 24 years fueled this behavior as a matter of survival, more so than if I had not been in this particular business, simply because of the people we generally deal with. Is that a cop out? You be the judge. Was it the brash East Coast, NY attitude or possible personal acquaintances I have had over the years?

Surely, those that have been guilty of some type of swearing do not believe that their parents bestowed upon us the license to use such language and/or learning environment. So what gives?

My Dad, God rest his soul, was a 26 year veteran in the field of corrections and very well respected. I like to think that he and my Mom provided me with the many tools and character I have today. He did not bring home the job nor the language, at least that I can remember or at least until I was old enough and interested enough to ask. He, too, was no saint when it came to harsh language on the job, but it was never displayed and was shut off when he arrived home. At least most of time. Why? Simply because he knew it was wrong! Here's a fitting quote,

'My father did not tell me how to live, he lived,
and let me watch him do it"

~Clarence Buddington Kelland


This is not an excuse and I am in no way sanctioning the use of profanity in the work place or anywhere else for that matter, but the question has to be asked, is there credence to the pro Curse word research that is out there and why we do use profanity, in Corrections?

In a 2007 study published in, The Leadership and Organizational Development Journal by Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England research stated that swearing "is regularly used to reinforce solidarity among staff, enabling them to develop social relationships and express their feelings of frustration and stress".

OK, I am guilty on all charges. Especially when on the golf course.

But their analysis is typical of what most people may think the use of R-rated language:
  • Self-censorship at home around children is often more successful than around colleagues at work.
  • Using profanity at the office, it's almost always "social swearing" in private conversations with colleagues, in which its intent is to show candor, strong feeling or to try to create a "we're-all-in-this-together".
  • Bosses who drop the F-bomb now and again are no doubt out there but the most senior executives in any organization generally avoid "Curse" words, at least in mixed company.
  • Many use this language simply out of habit, in an attempt to bond- a naughty, "I-shouldn't-be-saying-this-but-I-can-trust-you" act.
  • Does it relieve stress, increase morale, or build teamwork?
  • Is it a violation of law or department policy?
  • Is it your experience that a firm tone of voice when giving instructions effectively reaches those that it is intended for (staff and inmates) all the time?
  • Do higher adrenaline situations during cell extractions, mess hall duty or riot situations pose a greater risk of using such provocative language?
  • Would you be ostracized if you were to say to one of your colleagues, "hey, please do not use that type of language?"
  • Does firm and direct language without being foul and abusive work for you most of the time?
  • What about litigation and testimony, do we want to add fuel to a fire when faced with highly volatile operations where we may have to not only explain in court of law a use of force, as well as the unnecessary language used? Will that distort the courts or jury view of our conduct and professionalism?
  • Does it make it alright to curse in public or mixed company if you “excuse your French" before hand?

I think we all can agree that profanity is not a positive virtue that we would encourage and/or defend on a regular basis.

So what is the application?

What I can affirm to is this: the vast majority of people in law enforcement are professionals and do their very best everyday to keep the public safe and present an image that is commendable. Next time you have the opportunity to utilize your interpersonal communication skills (IPC) in our Correction setting or otherwise, we should think before we speak and ensure that it is appropriate to the situation that presents itself. Whether it may involve Curse words is up to you. Professionalism comes with a certain standard. The question is how far you go to comply with and/or improve that standard.

Editors Note: Corrections.com author William Daly, a veteran in the field of Corrections, entering his 24th year. Daly is a retired Captain from the New York City Department of Correction and Currently the Acting Director of the Salt River Department of Correction, in Scottsdale, Arizona.


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