|Tales from the Local Jail: Your ‘Gut’|
|By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)|
This article was originally printed on Corrections.com on January 28, 2013.
It’s time to explore one of the most commonly used phrases of advice that correctional officers say to each other: “Trust your gut”. There are variations of this theme such as “What does your ‘gut’ say?” or “I had a ‘gut’ feeling about what was going on in that cellblock.” In life, we all have had gut feelings. While driving in traffic, you are approaching a light that has been green for a while-and your ‘gut’ tells you to be ready for the yellow light. In a shopping trip, you look at two items-one costs more than the other one and your ‘gut’ may tell you it is better quality than the cheaper one.
In my years of working inside a jail, my ‘gut’ turned out to be my best friend. In some situations, I seemed to know how an inmate would react to an order, a reassignment to another cellblock or a denial of a request. But as a trainer-I always wanted to explore this aspect of corrections. What, exactly, is the ‘gut’? How exactly does it work?
To a correctional officer-the gut makes you more wary when you enter a cellblock, or see an inmate who is a known management problem approach you. It is the little ‘bell’ in your head that rings when a known manipulator says “Can I see you a minute?” It can be the difference between being alert or being complacent or being in danger or being safe.
So-let’s examine the finer points of the human mind’s ‘gut’ as applied to jail correctional officers, based on research published in the well known publication Psychology Today, in the article “Gut Almighty” by Carlin Flora.
When we talk about the gut, we realize that we know things, often with a sense of certainty. You see an inmate walking down the hall of the jail, an inmate who is usually sociable and communicative to staff. Today he is looking at the floor and avoiding any contact with you. You experience a “gut” feeling that there is something wrong with this inmate. He could be getting harassed in the cellblock; he could have received bad news from home or he received some information from his attorney that he was not expecting. You are experiencing a strong judgment about this inmate based on your perceptions that something is wrong. It could be his facial expression or body language.
Or-On post, you respond to a noisy cellblock. You walk in and every inmate becomes quiet. You know something is up as you look around at their faces. Some are smirking; some are nervous as they deal cards furiously at the dayroom table. Your gut tells you to state a warning to them about the noise, your gut tells you to take a look around (with backup present), your gut tells you to keep a wary eye on that cellblock and your gut tells you that you had better be careful when you go in there, as a little fear can keep you safe.
The brain has what Flora calls “built in shortcuts” that are used to make rapid cognition or condensed reasoning. These mental operations are quick-the brain observes a situation, quickly searches its files and gives meaning as to what the correctional officer sees. The files consist of memories that the officer has stored and knowledge that he or she has learned throughout his career. The situation now has a meaning to the officer.
Emotions are very much a part of the “gut feeling”. According to Columbia University professor Michael Gershon, the gut feeds itself feelings; these are the “butterflies” that we feel when a decision or course of action is pending. And-according to cognitive scientist Alexandre Linhares of the Brazilian School of Business and Public Administration, emotion and intuition cannot be separated. The guidepost for how we learn from experience is emotion-if a correctional officer witnesses something or handles a situation in the jail while the adrenaline is pumping, it will be remembered very vividly and probably very clearly. More simply-the more stressful the situation, the more clearly and readily it will be remembered and quickly recalled. Then, the correctional officer will understand the emotional intensity of the situation. Linhares states that experience is encoded in the brain as a web that contains both facts (things that we see and know) and feelings (the emotions). When the correctional officer experiences a situation that is new, but the pattern is similar to a previous experience, both stored knowledge (the facts) and an emotional state of mind (the feelings) are called up. What results is a disposition for the officer to handle the situation or respond in a pre determined way.
A simple equation could be:
Situation observed + memories stored/knowledge + emotions = pre determined response
Any of us who have worked inside a jail know that our “gut” can assist us in many situations that are more intense than others. They also can provide a margin of safety. Field training officers, supervisors and training instructors should discuss this with new, inexperienced correctional officers.
These discussions should be in the form of debriefings. Examples abound in a jail. For example, jail officers know that the booking area can be very volatile and unpredictable. Jail housing units can be unpredictable. Many inmates are observed; some are easy to handle and some are not. Let’s talk about some scenarios:
The ‘gut’ is identified in the law enforcement community as a valuable tool that can keep correctional officer safe. It is that intuition that we all have a “sixth sense” about how a situation may play out, how to handle an inmate and what we should do to keep safe. Researchers have studied the ‘gut’ and think that the brain has built in shortcuts and condensed reasoning. An officer sees a situation and quickly has an idea of what is happening and what he should do. This is based on memories and knowledge-what we have experienced and what we know. A simple formula for the ‘gut’ reaction states that the correctional officer observes an inmate, inmates or situation, becomes aware of memories and knowledge that has been stored and when combined with emotions, decides on a pre determined course of action. Researchers also state that situations will be remembered vividly when adrenaline is pumping and the stress level is high. Gut reactions can provide a margin of safety. Supervisors should discuss gut reactions in roll calls and make use of the concept in training staff, especially with new, inexperienced officers. The ‘war story’ is part of the correctional officer culture; it can be discussed and used in training. Officers remember ‘war stories’. War stories can be positive, where effective ways to handle situations can be learned, or negative where negative staff touts their ways to handle things, which could involve bad attitudes towards inmates and use of excessive force. Supervisors and trainers should be aware of this.
Flora, Carlin, “Gut Almighty”, Psychology Today, http://www.pyschologytoday.com, Accessed January 7, 2013.
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:
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT