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The Jail Correctional Officer: The Lifeguard
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 09/12/2016

Lifeguard This article was previously printed on Corrections.com in June 2011.

An odd title, no doubt. When one thinks of a lifeguard, the image that comes to mind is of a young, tanned man or woman sitting in a tower chair overlooking a beach or a swimming pool. When swimmers engage in risky behavior or go out too far from the beach, the lifeguard blows the whistle and heads off a potentially dangerous situation. In many cases they rescue people from drowning.

Public safety personnel (police, fire and corrections) are in a sense, lifeguards. All strive to head off dangerous behavior and at times rescue people from dangerous situations. People are pulled from auto accidents, burning buildings and dangerous situations such as being stranded in the wild-just to name a few. Correctional officers also strive to save lives, especially when encountering the suicidal inmate.

In suicide prevention training, suicidal behavior is described as a “cry for help”. The person, in this case the inmate, often doesn’t really want to die, and in many cases intervention by concerned staff have prevented many, but unfortunately not all suicides. Any officer that works inside a prison or jail can knows this.

The recent suicide in San Francisco Bay serves as an image of how a suicidal person is adrift in a sea of despair. As reported by Reuters, a 53 year old man waded into neck deep water of San Francisco Bay off Alameda, California. He had tried to kill himself previously by drowning. As police and fire personnel watched from the shore, the man succumbed to the 54 degree water and drowned. Efforts to convince him to return to shore proved fruitless, and a civilian onlooker finally swam out and pulled his body to shore. Resuscitation efforts were in vain. The Coast Guard could not get a boat into the shallow area where the man was; a Coast Guard helicopter arrived too late. The local police and fire agencies are being severely criticized for their inaction. Both the police and fire departments stated that investigations would be conducted and policies revised. One police official said that the victim’s actions were no different than “a person going out to the ledge of a building or [on] the tracks of a train….. [he was] using the hypothermic qualities of the water to commit suicide” (Saveri, June 1, 2011).

This article is not being written with the intention of pointing blame at the police and fire departments involved in this incident. Public opinion will be formed and most likely the victim’s family will file lawsuits. This article will make a point: that suicidal people are frequently calling for help, drowning in a sea of despair, depression and despondency. The public safety professionals-including jail corrections officers (COs)-are not to judge them, but must try to prevent them from taking one of our most precious gifts-life.

In the profession of corrections, jail suicide prevention training has come a long way. Training academies offer seminars in the subject, and it is required in order to meet accreditation from the American Correctional Association (American Correctional Association, 2010, p. 37). More is known now about inmate suicide than probably at any other time in the history of corrections. Also, courts have recognized that negligence by jail staff and/or inept practices have resulted in heartbreak for the victim’s families as well as expensive monetary damages against the correctional agencies. There are a lot of studies and a lot of data, both readily available to jail training staffs.

Besides these observations, there must be an examination on the human aspect of jail suicide. In your mind, move the image of the man drowning in the bay to inside a jail. You know that you cannot just stand there and let someone end his or her life.

Jail officers must realize that no matter if they are in the lifeboat or on the shore, they must attempt to save the drowning inmate. They must try to throw a lifeline or rope to try to keep the inmate from going under, no matter what they think of the inmate. In jail work, it is easy to become jaded and calloused towards the thousands of inmates that are encountered in a career. When a depressed inmate says something like “the world will be better off without me”, it is human to think: “Sure will”. But-we cannot let him take his own life.

There are several steps in the process of correctional officers developing a mindset of guarded compassion regarding the suicidal inmate. Guarded compassion means what it says….it is all right to be compassionate, but due to the manipulative behavior of some apparently suicidal inmates in trying to enlist staff sympathy for purposes of escape or trust, officers must always be on their guard. A jail CO must think all the time about safety. These development steps are:

Realizing that you are in a people profession: You are responsible for the people in your custody. Yes-they are criminal offenders. One of the hardest parts of being a jail correctional officer is to hold your emotions in check. Some offenders are management problems; some are assaultive and will not “go along” with the rules. But they are people: they must not, as much as possible, be subjected to harm from others or themselves. The courts will judge them; the jail CO’s job and professional mission is to keep inmates safe and securely confined until lawfully released or transferred to another correctional facility or program.

Realizing that inmates have problems: Incarceration is painful. A CO may think-“so what? They put themselves in their predicaments.” Once again-the CO’s job is not to judge. The key is for the CO to have empathy for the inmate’s problems-understanding how their lives are “screwed up” without getting emotionally involved and losing objectivity, especially about manipulation and safety.

Jail correctional officers should be aware of that imprisonment is a “disheartening and threatening experience” for men and women. People-when they find themselves locked up- discover that their careers [jobs] are disrupted, their relationships with people, such as with significant others, families and friends are disrupted and their hopes, aspirations and dreams “have gone sour”. Due to immature coping with life’s many problems, they have not developed effective coping mechanisms which results in aggravated levels of stress. (Johnson, 2002, pp. 82-83).

Realizing that “lifelines” can take many forms: They are drowning and may decide to go under. You can throw them a lifeline. Lifelines can be non verbal, such as showing through body language concern, empathy and guarded compassion. For example, you pass by an inmate’s cell. She is crying. You stop and look in. You don’t do things like look skeptical, roll your eyes or look at your watch. You show concern-and that inmate may think that you do care, and that at that moment, she is your top priority. Also, throwing lifelines is not an individual effort-it is a team effort involving all staff that has daily contact with the inmates: confinement, medical, classification, chaplains’ and mental health staffs. All must collaborate and share information about potentially suicidal inmates.

Verbal lifelines can be simple: “Are you all right”? “What’s wrong”? “Do you need to talk to someone?” The best lifeline is showing concern, letting the inmate talk and being a good listener.

Verbal lifelines can be thrown to counteract what the inmate may be saying. These lifelines give the inmate something to hold onto. Some examples could be (Ellis and Newman, 1996, pp. 48-49):

The inmate says that his death “will show them”: A counteractive statement from the CO-the lifeline-could be “Show them what-sorrow, grief? Friends and family still care about you. And you want revenge. How can you feel revenge if you are dead?”

The inmate says that “her family will be better off”: A lifeline statement could use the children factor. A CO can ask if the inmate has children. If so, the inmate could be asked to imagine the children going to school and having to face questions and teasing about her mother’s death in the jail.

The inmate says: “I’ll be happier in the hereafter”: The CO can use the “religious card”: “God’s greatest gift to us is life. If you defy God and take your life, the hereafter for you may not be pleasant. Do you want to take that chance and run the risk that you may be mistaken about your version of the hereafter?”

The inmate says “my life is over”: The CO can say “Death is final. You do not know what is coming down the road. You do not know what will happen in court, or what sentence you may receive. There are appeals, etc. But if you are dead-you will never know”.

The inmate says: “By doing this, I will be in control.” The CO can pointedly remind the inmate that death is final and is also the ultimate loss of control.

The inmate says: “At last they will see how much I loved them; they will love me in return”: The CO counteracts with: “You will be dead-so how will you know?”

Lifelines such as these can be blunt and abrasive…but saving a life is sometimes a tough job. You won’t prevent all suicides, but acting as a lifeguard can prevent many. Also, if the inmate appears to change their suicidal ideation, this does not mean that the danger is over. They can relapse, and the staff has to monitor them and frequently talk to them no matter where they are housed in the jail. By throwing lifelines, you are keeping the innate afloat until qualified mental health staff can see the inmate.

One more thought: In the movies, the water rescuers are given a blanket and a cup of hot coffee. Why? They are tired. Keep in mind that when you throw inmates lifelines and head off suicides, it is a draining experience. But-if you exercise guarded compassion, empathy and you do care about the inmates in your custody………..saving a life can be a worthwhile experience. After all-the greatest gift is…..life.


American Correctional Association. (2010). Core Jail Standards. Alexandria: American Correctional Association.

Ellis, Thomas E., PSY.D. and Cory F. Newman, Ph.D. (1996). Choosing to Live: How to Defeat Suicide Through Cognitive Therapy. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.

Johnson, Robert. (2002). Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison, Third Edition. Belmont: Wadsworth.

Saveri, Gabrielle. (June 1, 2011). Man kills self in San Francisco Bay as police watch. Retrieved June 7, 2011, from http://www.reuters.com

Visit the Gary Cornelius page

Other articles by Cornelius:


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