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Correctional Force in the Form of Effective Relationships
By Gene Atherton, NLECTC - Rocky Mountain - Institutions Program Manager
Published: 04/11/2011

Inmates a David committed some very violent acts that got him into administrative segregation. From that point on he waged a war with staff. He remained at war continuously while in administrative segregation for 12 years. He worked out in his cell and was full of hate and violence to the extent that he almost seemed to look forward to every forced cell entry to see if he could defeat the team of officers. Then, as he explained to me, one day it was apparent to him that somebody had changed the rules of the game.

Suddenly, the new officers were more like kids to him, rather than the warriors he had known during those years. The new officers insisted on talking and having purposeful conversations before resorting to physical force. Even as we talked several years later, David seemed confused about the new rules. It was at this same time that David gave up fighting. He was released from segregation, reclassified to a lower security level, allowed to pursue his exceptional talent in art, and, within a few short years, was paroled to the community. Seven years later, I talked with David by phone. He is doing well and thoroughly committed to maintaining his new direction in life.

Physical force capability forms an important — and necessary — context in which we do business in corrections. However, if the truth be known, most all successes in corrections are managed through successful relationships among staff and inmates.

Although all would agree that the circumstances in corrections are vastly different than those in the free world, a level of trust must exist between staff and inmates for those relationships to occur. In fact, trust and accountability is probably more important in prison than any other place in the world. Dr. Stephen Covey has described trust as the crowning achievement that enables effective, successful relationships. It is my opinion that this principle applies to the world of corrections.

In corrections, we vacillate continually from times that we use physical force and authority to times in which we manage issues through dialogue and verbal problem solving. Far too often staff divide themselves as being supportive of one of these approaches. Correctional professionals continually prepare themselves as warriors, to protect themselves and to be the strongest in physical conflict. It is my opinion that correctional professionals need to possess effective skills in both areas. Just as they are physical force warriors, it is equally important for them to be relationship warriors. The positive force in effective relationships is as important as any physical force.

I suggested that, at times, good relationships can be as effective, if not more so, than the use of physical force. In order to be a relationship warrior in corrections, officers must develop and refine skills and attitudes that contribute to successful relationships. Some of those skills and attitudes are:
  • All officers learn through two main avenues: During basic and in-service training, and over time from their colleagues. I suggest correctional officers should not simply copy what they see or let those experiences be the sole determinant of their performance on the job. In order to be a successful relationship warrior, each correctional officer should have a personal vision of how they would like to see themselves on the next shift, in the next month, and down the road as their career unfolds. In order to be successful, that vision should include successful relationships with staff and inmates. I suggest correctional officers be concrete about that vision and be willing to take action towards its fulfillment.
  • I suggest that an effective relationship warrior in corrections have the courage to hold themselves responsible for the feelings and related behaviors that affect others on the job. When the shift begins and some staff and inmates are unhappy, in a bad mood, or openly offensive, it is important for them not to blame their attitude on corrections, the cellblock, or others. It is critical to understand those who are acting that way are the authors of that negative behavior; it is not caused by someone else or something out of their control. The good news is, at any time we can refuse to be triggered in the old familiar ways. We can take responsibility for our behavior and initiate extremely effective relationships with inmates and staff in corrections. Those improvements can have a direct impact on improving correctional safety.
  • A successful relationship warrior will seek every opportunity to dialogue with inmates and staff. Instead of avoiding tough relationships, staff should use every opportunity to engage with inmates and staff in a healthy, meaningful, and professional dialogue. In this sense, dialogue means the sharing of information among two or more individuals. It is one of the building blocks of healthy, productive relationships in corrections. It is a proactive, powerful approach to solving problems before a serious incident occurs. Every opportunity for healthy dialogue should be pursued by the relationship warrior. It is within this dialogue that attributes of respect can be displayed, demonstrating that corrections is “all about the people.”
  • An effective relationship warrior increases the possibility of success over time by not displaying anger, even in the most difficult situations. In my years among inmates and staff, I have never seen an instance in which anger had a positive influence. Anger distorts communications and causes participants to move away from building relationships. Except during brief moments under emergency conditions, displays of anger have no positive value in corrections.
  • Corrections is often limited by myths. One such limiting myth is that once someone is a criminal, he or she will always be a criminal. There are myths based on race, gender, and age. It is helpful for the relationship warrior to recognize that we all have personal mythologies that affect our judgment and, without creating undue risk, it is important to suspend our personal agendas in order to support positive changes in human behavior.
  • Staff who are effective relationship warriors work to earn the trust of both inmates and staff. Staff should be sincere and motivated in their desire to be actively involved in their relationships. Staff can make sure they make only commitments they can meet, and they meet the commitments they make. There are many other ways to earn trust.
  • Staff who are effective relationship warriors never lose touch with the idea that all correctional relationships have a relationship to the mission of corrections.

Correctional staff who reflect the skills and attitudes of a relationship warrior will be successful in their careers. Once relationship warriors in corrections achieve effective relationships in corrections, the day-to-day business becomes much more successful. Good things happen faster with much less effort. People achieve safety improved relationships. Corrections as a profession then experiences a previously untapped resource. I invite you to add your ideas about which tools are important to the success of the relationship warrior in corrections.


Perseverance, 2010, page 63, Margaret J. Wheatley, Barrett-Kohler Publishers, 235 Montgomery Street, Suite 650, San Francisco, CA 94104-2916.

Dialogue and The Art of Thinking Together, 1999, page 9, William Isaacs, Doubleday, 1540 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.

The Thin Book of Trust – An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work, 2009, Charles Feltman, Thin Book Publishing Co., 86 SW Century Dr #446, Bend, OR 97702.

The Speed of Trust –The One Thing That Changes Everything, 2006, Stephen Covey, Free Press, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020

Corrections.com author Gene Atherton is the Institutions Program Manager for the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center – Rocky Mountain Region. He served 27 years for the Colorado Department of Corrections. After promoting through the ranks, he became Director of Prisons for the Western Region in Colorado until retirement in 2004. For the last fifteen years Mr. Atherton has served as a technical assistance consultant and trainer for the National Institute of Corrections on a variety of topics related to corrections. He has served as an author of numerous ACA publications. He has provided evidence in Federal Court as an expert witness on a variety of correctional issues, including conditions of confinement, use of force, unlawful discrimination, and management of high risk offenders. He currently serves as a member of several committees for the American Correctional Association.

Other articles by Atherton


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  5. TDC on 04/21/2012:

    I agree that forming relationships is far superior to physical force. Force only changes behavior until the force is gone. Relationships change more than behavior but change the attitudes and thinking paterns that cause the behavior. I recently worked with an inmate that did not trust anyone. The only time he would talk was to tell other inmates to get out of his way. He talked to no one and no one talked to him. After about 12 weeks I had to warn this inmate about losing his temper. I was concerned about everyones safety: mine, other inmates, and even his own. I could have stood at a safe distance and in an authoritative stance suggested that his job was a stake if he didn't control himself. But I knew that would have no positive effect on him. so I took a bit of a chance and sat right next to this guy and I quitely told him my concern and that I just could not have someone like that work in my area because of the danger it caused. I expected a wall of silence or maybe resentment or anger but instead he readily acknowledged his problem. When I asked him why he let little things get under his skin he said he didn't know and said he was trying, he was trying real hard. I noticed his eyes getting watery fast. That all really surprised me. He had portrayed himself as such a tough guy. Suddeny I realized I needed to protect his dignity so I quickly told him just to do the best that he could and I got up and left before one dropped out of his eye. After that he started to trust me with bits of information about himself. He started to come out of the wall he had built up and talked to his fellow work inmates. Eventually he told me that I was the only officer he ever talked to. After a few months he had a new personality. He would greet people and have positive interactions and made inmate friends. The inmate that I thought had no personality ended up with a pretty good one. After he left my prison for a minimum prison, one of his friends told me that when this guy first entered the prison system he had planned to just do his time and change nothing. But in the midst of this he changed his mind and decided he would use his time in prison to get serious about changing his drug habbit and start his life over. This was the most satisfying thing I had ever experianced in corrections. I was in correctoions 17 years before this happened. It took a long time before I decided to take my own path instead of following the tough guys approach in everything. The only thing is that you run the danger of getting too friendly so you have to know that if you want them to respect you and you want them to succeed, you must remain professional. That wall of separation must remain in tact but that doesn't mean that we need to throw away our humanity. I started doing this a few years ago and I like my job a lot better now.

  6. booch on 04/13/2011:

    Gene Atherton is a great link for our professional growth from the methods of a time where odds are injuries and lawsuits to skilled methods of communications to put the reactionary choices on the person being corrected for negative behavior. A sound relationship with those under our supervision is a good key to allow for dialogue and also to provide a mirror of positive inter action for others to mirror.

  7. ddgala on 04/06/2011:

    After retiring from the BOP (21-years), I have to say that this sad story is shared by nearly each one of us. This "knee jerk" reaction is the result of incompetent managers and administrators. Yes, they think they have it together, but generally, without the SMEs working within a facility, these people would not have a clue, outside of custody, as to how to manage people and a facility. A recent presentation that I made at the ACJS annual meeting in Toronto last month addressed the evolutionary process of management styles in corrections (specifically, using the SES model and the BOP as an example). There is a lot of work to be done, and number of problems experienced at the federal level to avoid, but the need is quite clear. There is a need to write about these problems with greater frequency by practitioners. There is also a need to be more vigilant in contacting the representatives who have your life in their hands, and make clear as to the needs in this field. Anything less is a mistake....

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