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The Concerns of Inmates
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 08/13/2012

Inmatewindow sm Correctional officers who have been in the field for some time realize that inmates are in many respects people-just like us. We all have needs and concerns; life is uncertain. We could fall ill, lose our job, have a traffic accident-we never know. It is an unsettling feeling at times and we all have been through it. The difference is that when one is a law abiding citizen, and not locked up, it is easier to cope with life’s concerns, problems and worries than if one were incarcerated. Correctional officers also know that if they work with the inmates and alleviating some of these fears, the inmates will be easier to manage.

Is this concept addressed in training? Hopefully in some correctional agencies it is. Besides the important concept of security and all it includes, it is important for officers to recognize the effects that being incarcerated has on anyone-especially the inmate. This column will attempt to show correctional officers that in many respects, inmates and officers think alike. Even the veteran officer who is a little jaded will realize that they and inmates are just…..human. Being jaded can come from dealing with inmates who are assaultive, are troublemakers and seem to exist in the facility just to give officers and staff “hell”. It becomes easy to stereotype inmates as all being negative when some are not.

I teach an in service class for jail officers called: From Booking to Release: How Inmates Do Time. Recently, I was presenting to a class of jail officers for several large, modern jails. I discussed the seven needs of inmates, first researched by Hans Toch and discussed by Robert Johnson in his book Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison, Third Edition. If correctional officers know these needs and preferences the climate of the facility will be more positive for the keepers and the kept.

First, these are the concerns needs researched and codified by Hans Toch. Each is followed by a concise description (Johnson, 2002):
  • Activity: to be occupied, fill time, a need for distraction, entertained

  • Privacy: being over stimulated (such as in a noisy, crowded environment)

  • Safety: concern about physical attack, well being, harassment, theft of property

  • Emotional feedback: desire to be loved, appreciated, emotional sustenance, empathy

  • Support: concern about reliable and tangible assistance from persons and access to services that promote and support self improvement and advancement

  • Structure: environmental stability, consistent rules, events and routines

  • Freedom: being able to govern one’s own conduct

In summary, inmates are concerned about being occupied and not idle, seeking privacy where possible, being safe, being healthy, being loved and considered to be someone besides a law breaker, having access to ways to improve themselves, being in a facility where the routine is structured, predictable and has no surprises and finally to be able to govern their own behavior and to be treated like an adult. Inmate concerns can also include worry: asking what will happen? What will happen in court? Will I still have a job if and when I get released? How will my family survive while I am in here? When will I be released? Another concern could be remorse: Will I ever be able to make up for what I did? [Generally rare-but some inmates do think that way!]. Some inmates also worry about health: getting sick, being around other inmates who are not hygienic, etc.

Now-let’s take the class of jail officers. I asked them what their concerns and worries would be if they were locked up. What would go through their minds if they walked through a jail door, knowing that they will be incarcerated there for a while? The responses from the class in my view are very similar to Toch’s views of inmates’ concerns. So-let’s revisit the seven concerns and after each, I have listed in italics the views of the officers. I have also added the additional concerns. Keep in mind that some views of the officers can apply to more than one concern.
  • Activity: getting fresh air [outside recreation], visits, phone calls.

  • Privacy: will inmate housing be double or single [one or two inmates to a cell.

  • Safety: who will I be housed with and what other inmates are like, will I get sick.

  • Emotional feedback: visiting, mail, phone [keeping in contact with family].

  • Support: substance abuse programs and help, legal help, mental health programs, religious programs, Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous groups and reintegration programs.

  • Structure: health needs [sick call, medical services], property and money being safeguarded, food service and meals, rules being fairly enforced.

  • Freedom: while class did not think of this, all agreed that inmates like to be treated as adults and be informed of the consequences of good behavior and bad behavior.

  • Worry: what will happen in court, legal worries, money and job worries, when I will be released.

  • Remorse: having emotional distress, guilt and remorse and what can they do about them.

  • Health: maintaining a high level of hygiene, keeping healthy.

This discussion can go further in any class of jail officers. The point that I am making-hopefully clear-is that the concerns of inmates as indicated by research shows the human side of them. True-they are accused or convicted of breaking the law. They do live by a different moral code than correctional officers. The purpose of this exercise is to show to officers that if faced with incarceration, they would be worried and concerned in certain areas-just like inmates. If some considerations are shown by officers in understanding the worries and concerns of inmates, and staff behavior respects what inmates are going through-some of the worries and fears may be abated. For example, if an inmate is concerned about threats from other inmates and officers take quick action to protect him, word may travel through the cellblocks that in this place the officers will listen. Or-if an inmate is concerned about getting clean and sober and an officer assists with placement in a program-that inmate will get along with that officer. Correctional officers and inmates may get along better-and that benefits the institution.

In closing I must remind officers to watch out for the manipulators and keep safety in mind. They are inmates-but they are people, too; people that have concerns-just like us.


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

Corrections.com author, Gary Cornelius, 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:


  1. Fred Davis on 08/16/2012:

    Hypnosis ans empathy are two horns on the same goat.

  2. Fred Davis on 08/16/2012:

    Many hypno-therapists are manipulators also and they get paid more money by working 24 hours a day to control others. Control is what politics and psychopolitics is all about. Look at all the information on empathy and hypnosis.

  3. Fred Davis on 08/15/2012:

    Let's face it. Incarceration is generally for the vengeance of the masses. It does little to change the heart of a human being. The system can do mental gymnastics and appear to help but the "malleable clay" must be formed properly in the family unit or that brittle person may be hard to mold later. The very fabric of society is the family unit with structure, with the male as the head authority in the home. It worked very well fifty years ago. What a mess we have now! We have a government that wants to redefine marriage when the churches did a fine job of doing such until the progressives got into power. Once the government gets their foot in the door, the power addiction continues and more devastation results. Just as a drug dealer walks around egotistically, putting his head into the sand, he, too, thinks he has empathy for his "patient" while making money at the same time. A drug dealer may see himself as a businessman. Politicians making legislation to pump drugs into individuals, rather than getting to the root of the problem which is the family unit; and how the traditional family worked for many years should be called back to memory. The law of incest or having relations with an someone too close in the family to marry was to keep the family in order. Now we have disorder in the family and that disorder starts in the bedroom or the kitchen between a husband and a wife, and then extends outward. That same confusion is what we now have in politics. If soccer mom stayed home and actually watched over her children, then the government would not need to confiscate monies from the working man to raise the children for her from the cradle to the grave.

  4. Fred Davis on 08/15/2012:

    Privacy issues can be accomplished by supplying each human being that is incarcerated with a single cell. This is the way civilized people incarcerated inmates long ago. Stuffing people into cells like they are products in a warehouse by settings, appearances, and manners does not help.When an individual turns from a wrong and lets go of that issue, that individual is ready for release. I know that institutions cannot know the heart and mind or the motives of individuals. Only those that are of the thought police mentality believe they know such things. Even the thought police can be helped when they realize the collateral damage that they have caused for families and society as a whole. One cannot tell whether one is lying or telling the truth by the sweat on their hands or their heart rate. Anyone believing such things needs a good dose of anti-empathy.

  5. Fred Davis on 08/15/2012:

    Remorse before men can be manipulation. Repentance (being honest and turning away from the wrong no matter what the cost before God) in one's mind and action without groveling to the "pettiness of people" is a good first step in "turning away' from that wrong one has done. One can do the "turning away" without tears or emotion before the letter of the law types. It might not please the unjust or just judge but it will make Jesus smile.

  6. Fred Davis on 08/15/2012:

    Worry is self imposed "mental gymnastics" rooted in fear rather than faith. Worry is self-abuse. To have peace one must not allow too much brainstorming unless, as my old mother in law used to say, your head might blow up. Inmates should get out of their heads through prayer and meditation. Those "coddling" inmates as if they are a soccer mom looking after a five year old are the ones that have a condescending attitude that needs adjusting.

  7. Fred Davis on 08/14/2012:

    Empathy has nothing to do with love, but with projection using the "masks" of another to perceive an authority by settings, appearances, and manners. Symbols can represent pseudo-authority. The one using empathy is programming the other individual to accept the "mask" as being reality. In a play one actor used to change masks, and thus, the image projected something that was not real and authority on the stage was not reality. The image is performed through using settings, appearances, and manners. The projector using the film puts an image for the audience watching the screen that is not real. This is why one can cry at an image or something (miasma) that is projected with an authority figure or with authority in one's mind, but the actual authority behind the image or mask is less moral or honest than the image given. Many movie stars put on many masks and the Joker thought they were real. He had received his esteem from pseudo-love or the projection or mask of empathy. Those on the top of the pyramid give enough information in order to control the target by either pseudo-love or intimidation (pseudo-hate). Neither is real. There is no righteous indignation or love where masks are concerned or imprinting of the mind. Our mind is like a screen and most believe that what they see in the natural is real. This is not always the case. The person using empathy is feigning their beliefs for the audience. Some of the most corrupt people in Hollywood look better than others to the degenerate masses. Hitler's empathic flag caused many to believe him to as loving towards the German people. They did not understand the dangers of the setting that he was conjuring up, nor how the Nazi flag was far from being love. Many fell into this psychological sinkhole, and the ovens were waiting for the Jew who had a higher moral standard than those in authority. We must be careful judging by settings, appearances, and manners.

  8. Fred Davis on 08/14/2012:

    There is a vast difference between acknowledgment and projection.

  9. Fred Davis on 08/14/2012:

    Empathy: 1903, from Ger. Einfuhlung (from ein “in” + Fuhlung “feeling”), coined 1858 by German philosopher Rudolf Lotze (1817-81) as a translation of Gk. empatheia “passion, state of emotion,” from en “in” (see en-(2)) + pathos “feeling” (see pathos). A term from a theory of art appreciation that maintains appreciation depends on the viewer’s ability to project his personality into the viewed object. (www.etymonline.com) What I find interesting here is the left out fact that empathy is merely projecting one’s own personality into the subject. This is dangerous indeed since empathy requires an individual to take on the personality or ideology of another. Empathy is just as dangerous as sympathy. Sympathy enables the wrong in another person, and empathy robs another person of grace or being his own self through conforming or rebelling. How awful is that! They must be proselytized into another’s religious beliefs or secular ideology through another’s passion, state of emotion, or feelings. This is dangerous indeed for an inmate! It negates the other individual from thinking for his self, just as a drug keeps one in a hypnotic state. Just as AA or false religions that can become cultish keep the sheeple controlled and following the leader, empathy does the same thing and blocks one from thinking for themselves. I deliberately put the definition at the beginning of this post for a reason. Those on medication are so strong because of pent up resentment and anger, and this anger projects an aura or miasma that is like a magnet that draws in everything that is wrong. When I was in prison, I had to share a cell with a Seventh-day Adventist, and he zapped on me and started banging on the door of the cell for a guard to get him out of my cell or he would kill me. I knew he was hot air. It was the projection of an ideology that was placed in him, and his anger was not really him. I told him that he needed to calm down, and that no guard was going to move him around, and he would have to live with me and deal with life. This guy was really getting crazy, and the crazier he got, the more I began to laugh at his anger and he was just turning red. He had these religious items in the cell, and a couple of the idols fell over as he was yelling at me. I told him I am sorry that his gods fell over and he didn’t take that lightly. The reason he was angry was because he could not place his personality or use empathy to cause me to take on his ideology or bitterness. I knew he was sick and that it was not him that resented me but what was in him through ideology. He finally settled down and still they would not let him move. I was glad they didn’t because I was able to tell him that I couldn’t forgive him because I am not God and that only God has provided for forgiveness and I had never made a judgment against him. Empathy is active projection and can be more dangerous in a long run than sympathy for a time. If a person uses empathy then the one using that concept is projecting their own personality and belief systems into another and people are not objects to be controlled by intimidation or false love. Empathy is a form of intimidation and sympathy is feeling someone else’s pain which is impossible unless one has been down that same road of incarceration. A guard cannot have sympathy because most shake their wooden heads at inmates as if they are less human than themselves. There is some self-righteousness here and drugs inhibit spiritual growth and allow an opening for projection through empathy.

  10. Fred Davis on 08/14/2012:

    An totally honest person cannot be manipulated. To the degree that the manipulated is vulnerable that is the same degree of his own dishonesty.

  11. Fred Davis on 08/14/2012:

    My three years in that single cell was great! When that metal door shut with a loud clank at night it was heaven. People who need people are vulnerable in my opinion. I worked teaching literacy for eight hours a day and assisted college students in their homework at night for three years. I never fit into any group even on the outside either. I am self taught, independent, self sufficient and never had a day of any fear during during my whole incarceration. I think it is all about other inmates thinking one is really crazy. I am dangerous in a psychological way because I generally "feel" nothing when confronted and barely act with any emotion if I must act. Every day was interesting and I learned how the system really worked from inside the womb of it. Iron sharpens iron. It takes patience and letting go of all family and outside associates where a lengthy sentence is ahead. I died out to family and basically everyone on the outside in a psychological way. I never missed any family member but my mom wrote once a month. Whoever never came by in there to see me, I feel like I owe them nothing now that I am out. I have God and now a great wife. One guard was not only a friend but also a brave and fearless man. Thanks

  12. jamestown0509 on 08/14/2012:

    I wrote my own article similar to what this discussion is. Empathy and Sympathy. As an officer you can always show empathy towards an inmate which acknowledges what their issues are and that you understand. What correction officers (and police officers) cannot do is show sympathy toward an inmate (suspect). Once you show sympathy you get into their personal lives which is not what officers are trained to do nor should they be doing that. Inmates are great manipulators. They have 24 hours a day to think of ways to goof with the officers. Inmates will lie, cheat and steal without a second thought to the consequences. As for moving an inmate from one unit to another because he or she doesn't like it in that particular block we don't do that. If we move one inmate you will end up moving 10 more because they will whine they want to move. Some of these moves are dangerous because they will ask for a particular area of a facility where an enemy is to attack them. Officers are not allowed to recommend any inmate to a rehab program, that is not our job. The rehab is handled by civilian personnel who are trained in that specialty.

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