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Image Ruses
By Joe Bouchard, and Mike Plourde
Published: 12/06/2010

Cat standing fur The cat's fur stood on end to make it appear larger and fiercer...

The little dog barked loudly, from the safe side of the fence...

The man sucked in his stomach as the woman on the beach walked by...

These are three common behaviors in nature. We cannot suppose that animals who try to appear formidable or fit do so for any other reason than to ward off predators. Even the beach enthusiast in the example has an instinctual reason to promote a not entirely true image of physical fitness.

But there are times that people perform in order to project a truth. Some of those times, the performer is only convincing herself or himself of that image. That is an instance of self-delusion.

It should come as no surprise to most corrections veterans that things are not always what they seem. The phrase, "What you see is what it ain't" is appropriate here.

As trained observers, we excel in spotting those who portray themselves to be quite different from what they actually are. People at work or in the outside world have a variety of reasons to project an altered image of themselves. Common tactics are through false humility, the intellectual card, as a voice beyond one’s experience, and the illusion of bravery or strength.

Here are some examples of ruses:


Some staff care nothing about the job they are supposed to do. They are at work only to move up the ladder as far, and as fast as they can. There is no altruism here; just self promotion which the perpetrator believes is cleverly hidden.

Offenders with a hidden agenda

Some offenders show staff only what they want them to think. Some are particularly adept at projecting perceptions of compliance. While some staff do look beyond that projection to see what is really there, many do not.


On the contraband issue, many prisoners will set up their cell, their property, their work location, so that it appears to be proper and correct. But often it is not. There may actually be a lot of contraband in a particular area, but kept well hidden.

Very scared staff

All of us become nervous on the job from time to time. However, some staff are full of trepidation every minute they are at work. And they don't know how to deal with this fear in a healthy and positive way. In fact, they don't even realize that such fear is normal and even healthy.

Is this really a big deal in corrections? After all, we are not the image police. And it is our differences that make life interesting. However, safety is at stake.

For example, those who project false bravado are a potential road block to safety. These are the prime targets of those prisoners who are looking to compromise a staff member. That's why they are so dangerous to the prison environment as a whole. Staff with faux bravery pose a sad, yet viable target.

Another impediment comes from staff who do not wish to associate with the self-deluder. This leads to loneliness, a lower self image, loathing of work, and self reflection that can deflect from the vigilance necessary for the job. The road blocked here is that of camaraderie.

With either road blocked, there is danger for all, not just the self-deluder. Any disenfranchised staff represents a weak link in our vocational armor. That could lead to a chain of events that slowly build peril for staff, prisoners and the public. Prisoners who have served a substantial amount of time can generally be considered experts at "street psychology". The majority can pick out "phonies" almost immediately.

One can wonder why a person engages in image ruses. There may be a hidden agenda or deeper reasons. But perhaps it is best to accept certain behavior and to reintegrate lost staff back into the fold. Perhaps that is like a helpful pedestrian who offers alternate directing to someone whose two other routes are impassible.

All of us at one time or another are that cat who puffs up to avoid danger. But when it is a constant posture, it could be a problem. It is up to the professionalism of colleagues to keep staff division at bay, no matter what the causes.

Corrections.com author Mike Plourde, now retired, is a 31 year veteran of the Michigan Department of Corrections. He has a B.S. degree in Criminal Justice from Northern Michigan University. He has been a Corrections Officer and has held several Corrections Supervisory positions. The ideas and opinions expressed in the above article are those of Mike Plourde alone and should not be attributed to any other entity.

Other articles by Plourde:

Corrections.com author Joe Bouchard is a Correctional Trainer and a Librarian with the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:


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