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Back to Basics: The Human Services Officer
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 01/11/2016


This article was originally printed on Corrections.com on June 3, 2013.

I do a lot of corrections training throughout Virginia at both the college and in-service training academy levels, with an occasional “newbie” jail recruit officer class thrown in. In my travels, I meet many jail officers. We discuss not only our ideas on training but also the best ways we have discovered to manage inmates.

As one of the retired, I relate a simple four part approach that served me well in my 27 plus years working inside a jail. I also say that sometimes this approach worked most of the time. And-sometimes it did not; the inmate I was dealing with was so negative, obstinate or uncooperative that no positive approach by me would ever work to resolve a problem.

The approach is a “back to basic” approach-the Human Service Officer. To me it makes sense. Also, after I discuss it, you will probably agree that an officer does not have to compromise his or her authority. I first discovered this approach when I was teaching a college introduction to corrections course and after I had been working at the jail for several years. The book that I was using, Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison by Robert Johnson of American University, realistically discusses both inmates doing time and correctional staff managing them in effective ways. What I like about the book is that it explores the positive and negative aspects of the keepers and the kept. It discusses inmate adjustment as well as both good and bad correctional officer management techniques. I highly recommend it if you wish to further your career in corrections or simply learn more about your chosen field.

So-please consider this common sense approach (in my view) to manage inmates with a minimum of negativity and a maximum of basic human respect-after all-no matter what crimes they have committed-they are still people in our care. To get respect-you have to earn it.
  • Providing goods and services: Simple approach. Inmates are to receive what they are supposed to receive. This tells them that the facility is aware of their needs. Hygiene items, medications, etc. are to be given without “head games”, etc. Services such as sick call, mail, meals, visiting, library, programs and recreation are scheduled and run smoothly.
  • Referrals and advocacy: Veteran correctional officers can tell you that some-and certainly not all-inmates wish to change their lives and take advantage of the rehabilitative programs that are offered in the institution. Sometimes the inmate will need a nudge or some advice. Some inmates are lazy and will try to manipulate officers into doing all of the legwork about getting into programs. However, the officer-if on guard-will see through that. What officers can do is make a phone call or send a note to programs asking that the inmate be seen. In some cases, an officer can recommend an inmate for programs or assistance. But-this should happen after the officer talks to classification about the inmate (to see if there is a ploy or scheme going on). Also, the officer should also get permission from a supervisor. Tensions can also be reduced for example, if an officer calls the commissary office or the dispensary to check on a canteen order or medications for the inmate respectively thereby cutting through the “red tape”.
  • Inmate adjustment: Inmates have to constantly adjust in the facility to housing reassignments and if they are new-getting used to incarceration. They have to adjust to overcrowded conditions and living with other inmates-some who they may be wary of or do not like. Some may be assaulted, harassed or feel threatened. Finally, the strain and stress of being locked up can result in depression and despair-which can lead to suicidal behavior or anger. Many of these issues can be positively managed by officers simply asking the inmate how he or she is doing and taking appropriate actions if things are not right. Just a humane word from an officer and a display of concern can go a long way. The feelings of powerlessness, vulnerability, loneliness and depression experienced by inmates can be counteracted with a kind word. The inmate who is having a problem may see a resolution or get some help from staff.
  • Helping network: This is critical-everyone on staff working in the Human Service Officer mode. Inmates see consistency, which can make living in a correctional facility a lot easier. There is less anxiety if inmates see the staff is uniformly concerned about their welfare and basic needs and actions are taken to make life in the facility safer and more tolerable. For example, an inmate newly arrived in a cellblock is asked by an officer “how are you getting along?” The inmate tells the officer that he has had his food tray stolen and his cellmate has threatened him. A call to classification and to a supervisor results in an investigation, the bully is moved and the block and the inmate both breathe a sigh of relief.
As I said, this approach served me well during my jail career. After all, we want both staff and inmates to get along smoothly. This approach can help. Try it!

Reference: 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. hamiltonlindley on 02/25/2020:

    He invests in others and builds up the people around him. He is not negative-minded or hyper-critical. You can trust him emphatically. Hamilton Lindley is purpose driven—mission-minded. It guides his thoughts and keeps his team on task. He could function, and be trusted, in a handshake world. Hamilton’s word is his bond. He studies. He learns. He listens. He remains aware of what others are saying, writing and thinking.

  2. Writing Prof on 06/05/2013:

    Thank you, Mr. Cornelius. I sure wish you were still inside, helping inmates. But your training may spread your common sense throughout the system, so maybe this is indeed your best use.

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