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Civilians Naive? Not Hardly!
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 11/28/2011

Volunteer Last month I had the privilege of attending the 10th annual National Prisoner Reentry Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, sponsored by the Christian Association for Prison Aftercare (CAPA). As a jail officer veteran I was asked to present a seminar titled “Maintaining Boundaries as a Reentry Professional”. I prepared a seminar focusing on offender behavior, the characteristics of sworn and non sworn staff and tools they can use to guard against offender manipulation. I, being sworn staff, expected to “enlighten them” somewhat. I was pleasantly surprised that my material was well received and appreciated.

My point is this: Those of us who wear the uniform in the jail may be led to believe-through our experiences of dealing with offenders-that civilians-some and certainly not all-are naive and need to be bluntly informed about offenders. After all, many and certainly not all of us wearing the badge, say the good old adage-”Inmates only get religion when they come to jail”. Yes-many do and not for positive reasons such as to try to reform their criminal behavior. I have heard and have been disgusted by comments from jail officers describing volunteers and civilians “do-gooders” and “Bible Thumpers”. In my career-the most rewarding job that I had was programs director. I worked with many good, decent, kind, caring volunteers and civilians. Like the ones that I encountered in my jail career, many of the folks attending the CAPA Conference were not naive and uninformed about offenders. I presented the seminar twice, and in both sessions had good discussions with reentry full time staff and volunteers. In meeting these folks, I was glad to discover that many are very much aware about criminal behavior and manipulation. CAPA is commended for hosting a worthwhile conference where good people receive training to help offenders reform. I also met several ex offenders who were involved in offender reentry and rehabilitation

So-with that in mind, I would like to address a few issues:

Concerning the comment: “Inmates only get religion when they come into the jail”, some do. I am not naive. But-some offenders try to do the right thing by attending religious programs and activities as well as working one on one with chaplains’ staffs and volunteers. My view is that while many offenders sign up for religious activities, reforming behavior is hard work. The manipulative ones will usually be exposed and “weeded out”. Some offenders will not ever change. These types of offenders will always be coming into jails and prisons. The ones who stay with it most likely behave towards staff and other offenders in positive ways. More simply: Being involved in positive programs such as religious activity's and mentoring cancels out negative behavior.

The second issue is the comment from sworn staff: “Civilians do not understand security”. Why not? How are they trained? Is the training very cursory or is enough time spent training civilians in security, communicating with staff, what to do in emergencies, criminal thinking, manipulation and the responsibilities of sworn staff? My staff and I trained many civilians, and in retirement, I still enjoy that. It is crucial that all civilians-staff receive good training in operations, dealing with offenders and security. Also-does the sworn staff receive training on what the civilians do? Sworn staff should realize that civilians conducting counseling and programs can have a positive effect on the facility climate. Inmates can talk to people who care-and by doing so much anger and anxiety can be reduced.

The final issue concerns comments such as “Volunteers and civilians make the security job harder”. To that I say this: Civilians and volunteers, when properly trained, serve as extra eyes and ears among the offender populations. Offenders can talk to them-sometimes letting them know about problems in the housing areas or in their personal lives. In my programs director career, concerned civilians let me and my staff know about offender behavioral issues- and in doing so, two potential suicides were thwarted because the mental health staff was informed. I always thought that anyone-wearing a badge or not-who was observant and communicated with staff about what was going on inside the facility was worthy of respect.

Editor's note: Corrections.com author, Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff after 27 years of service from 1978-2005. Prior to corrections, Gary was a police dispatcher, police officer and an officer in the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division. He is from Pittsburgh, PA and received his BA degree in Arts and Social Sciences with a Criminal Justice Focus in 1974 from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania (EUP). In 2005 EUP awarded Gary a Distinguished Alumni Award in Social Sciences.

Gary is an interim member on the Board of the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP) representing local jails. He is also a member of ACA, AJA, and the American Association of Correctional and Forensic Psychology. In 2008, Gary co founded ETC, LLC, Education and Training in Corrections with colleague Timothy P. Manley, MSW, LCSW, Forensic Social Worker.

Visit the Gary Cornelius page

Other articles by Cornelius:


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