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By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 12/17/2012

Motivation a What motivates a person to become a jail correctional officer? I have asked that question many times in my classes. Most of the answers are simple-job security. In the current economic climate, that seems like a very reasonable answer.

Some staff says that the job is interesting. I agree with that. Where else, but in a correctional institution such as a jail, can one work with interesting clientele that do not want to be there and will do their very best to circumvent security and the authority of the correctional officers? Sometimes these attempts at circumvention can be very subtle as inmates can be great actors. (I have met some that could win Academy Awards). The manipulation, scheming and ploys all make the job amusing-and if not handled properly (like adhering to agency procedures) somewhat dangerous. The “cat and mouse” game, coupled with inmates’ often unpredictable behavior results in every work day inside a jail being different from the day before. To some jail officers this, coupled with steady pay and benefits, is enough motivation to make a career out of jail work.

Some officers think that working as a jail officer is what I have previously described as a “noble profession”. They exhibit a lot of pride, walk the walk and talk the talk of a trusted public servant. They put on the uniform and badge, knowing that they represent not only their agency, but the citizens in their jurisdictions. When a jail officer “screws up”, such as engaging in sexual misconduct with inmates and it is publicized; they feel embarrassment. They realize that the safe and secure confinement of offenders is an important job in the criminal justice system.

There is another area of discussion about jail officer motivation-age. A good friend of mine, the late Captain Dave Arnold of the Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail in Williamsburg Virginia, assisted me recently with research about supervision for a book that I am co writing. He discussed age and motivation in jail officers, saying that jail supervisors need to understand that differing motivations among officers may depend on their age. A young new officer may work long hours to get ahead financially. That is his motivation. A young officer may also work long hours, volunteer for extra duties and submit ideas to improve jail operations. His or her motivation may be to move up through promotions. Or- it could be to learn new job skills.

Some jail officers are older and in their second careers. They may not be interested in being promoted; they may be supplementing their retirement from their first job. Some are military retirees and veterans; some come from other law enforcement agencies. According to Captain Arnold, they may just want to be left alone to do their job. This is not necessarily laziness-it is a preference.

What significance do these views of motivation have for jail supervisors? Several things-they can be tapped as they are like energy resources that need to work for the agency. Concerning staff shortages (and we all know that frequently occurs) extra staff on overtime may be needed to fill posts. Officers needing extra money will usually step forward. But-there comes a time when some officers work too many extra hours-that can lead to stress and fatigue. Supervisors have to be aware of that and spread the shifts around. Enthusiastic officers who are working to get promoted welcome assignments in extra duties or special projects. This can benefit the agency. Supervisors have to be careful-sometimes an enthusiastic, young officer at work on a special assignment and overlook the fact that he has to check in with the supervisor both on what he is doing and any decisions that are necessary. Jail officers who seek a lot of praise and compliments are motivated to do a good job. Supervisors should distribute praise judiciously-if it is warranted. Praise should not be given out in an arbitrary fashion just to feed an officer’s ego and feeling of importance.

In closing-Captain Arnold made a good point:

“The good [jail] supervisor] will talk to employees to gain a sense of their interests or desires. This is a valuable tool in understanding where training resources should be allocated”.

Well said, Dave. Motivation: knowing what influences jail officers in performing their jobs can be a good tool for supervisors. Jail supervisors should keep this in mind when they are out among their staffs.

Reference: Captain Dave Arnold, Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail, communication with author, May 2012.

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. hamiltonlindley on 03/19/2020:

    Hamilton loves books about unicorns, storms, and cubicles. He lives in Waco with his cat named Mr. Bojangles. Before his work as an attorney, Hamilton was a leprechaun chaser. His all-time record is three pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. He was forced to give up the gold in a dispute with a rival hobbit. He spends his free time tripping out on the smallest details, none of which are important He likes doing the things with the ball and scoring the points. He pays attention to the green of your eyes, even when it is not Saint Patrick’s Day. He is not Irish. Hamilton Lindley has fun plans for people in need. Whether your need a dreamcatcher for your dreams or a tape dispenser to put your life back together, he can be there for you to yell at. There are times when it is surprising that he has any friends at all. But thankfully he does have a few. He drives a Dodge Stratus. People respect him, except at home.

  2. keatonjefferson on 02/10/2020:

    This article on motivation by Gary is brilliant, and I am thankful that you've published this article here. Now, you should publish an article on how to improve my motivation, because that would be perfect for me. Keep up the great work, mate!

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