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Correctional Officers - Judgment & Decision-Making
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 09/09/2013

Decision h Most correctional officers are adequately prepared for the job and in most cases resilient in nature and disposition and do remarkably well under the circumstances of working inside a large jail or prison. However, we must all admit that stress does take its toll and one of their main challenges is to deal and manage stress while making good sound decisions and appropriately based judgment calls that keeps everyone safe and sound twenty four hours a day seven days a week.

To be a good decision maker, we must first stabilize our emotional conduct and resist the natural negative impacts of stress. This requires self-awareness and self-care. Once this is achieved the mindset is much clearer and better in most cases to offer better decision making efforts and safer environments to work in most of the time. Therefore it is important to mention that a clear mind makes better decisions especially under duress.

Focusing on the fact that many officers and correctional employees are aware how to combat stress we should focus on better judgment and decision making processes and actions beyond the fair, firm and consistent concept taught in many law enforcement academies throughout the country. So it is favorable to start looking at quality of judgment and decision making in the corrections field. Whether or not the ability to measure judgment is reasonable or even possible we shall examine what constitutes good judgment and compare it with the job at hand as a correctional officer.

First off, correctional officers have an array of tools at his or her disposal besides their basic training. This includes post orders, institutional orders and agency directives or policies. It is a well-accepted practice that most decisions are based on such a foundations and requires little coaxing or motivation to stay on track with such guidance.

However, not every decision can be made out of a book or policy thus the individual must be capable of making independent judgment with independent criteria based on individual qualifications and standards to boost their basic foundation when trained or mentored by others. In addition there are firm emergency preparedness plans that need to be reviewed and learned to make critical decisions under stressful situations.

Using a basic skill such as a situational awareness assessment, one can expect a number of different decisions for different situations. This fact has long been established over time and through practical experience and time. Regardless, correctional officers need to realize that whatever decision they make it will have a significant impact on the situational outcome and lessons learned from taking such actions.

In corrections there are blurred boundaries that are often misread or in some cases unrecognized at the time of the assessment. Thus theoretically, officers must learn how to approach each problem and evaluate and analyze things quickly in order to determine the correct approach to the problem and be put at risk that they do not have all the information needed to make a good decision.

This is quite complex in nature and often neglected in training line staff to prepare them for command decision positions. First we must recognize that judgment and decision making are intimately linked but are two separate concepts requiring separate processing.

Judgment is an assessment tool that allows alternatives between choices suggested in the problem solving process. It takes into consideration a continuum of different aspects that are based about a person, an object or a situation. Hence the final result based on judgment is an overall evaluation based on factors provided or given for each person, object or situation.

Decision making is determined to be a choice between alternatives and determines a specific response to a persons, object or situation. Herein because there are consequences for such a decision and accountability why such a decision was made in the first place it is important to distinguish the difference between these two concepts.

When it is all said and done, a correctional officer relies on the quality of judgment to do the job properly. This requires an analysis for accuracy and review the quality of facts gathered or provided and then encompass those established guidelines provided for such a condition. This leaves little wiggle room in the level of accuracy or for taking incorrect or deviating practices to make it come together as a valid evaluation that can be resolved satisfactorily.

So what makes a decision a good decision you have to ask? Working in such a complex environment that is influenced by many uncertainties the best decisions are those that yield the best results, conditions or consequences for achieving a safe and secure environment. However, one must take into account such results could in fact have come about by chance and not because of a thorough evaluation of the process involved. Some may call it luck but others call it a calculated guess for making the “best” decision at the time.

Regardless good decision-making involves using your training, your experience, the laws of logic and probability along with common sense. Keeping it rational and determining the probability of the outcome is a common approach and should keep in mind that the optimum decision may be ideal for one situation or person but not in other situations or persons. In other words, evaluating the outcome should include comparing options or decision how to resolve it taking into consideration of all the facts before finalizing a decision.

However, what is reasonable for one person may not apply for another person. One decision maker can be of average experience while the other may be relatively better experienced and determine which strategy is better based on the examination of the problem and comparing possible outcomes with various strategies while in the end looking at tradeoffs or compromising factors.

Regardless the process should include the goals, the consequences, and the relative value of outcomes of different approaches or options. This would logically be considered a good decision making process that takes much into consideration before the final decision is reached.

Therefore, here we have to caution the decision maker not to rely on ‘lessons learned” in the past as the factors may not be identical or duplicated creating a different outcome possibility and flawing the process. This is where the judgment comes into play and create a need to assess and decide the outcomes through comparisons and some level of consensus, peer acknowledgment and or evaluation and the appropriateness of the action proposed to be taken with the challenge to take the ultimate or best decisions for each problem or call to make.

Henceforward in a correctional setting one must be cautioned and be made aware that such evaluations if taken as a routine matter could reveal a degree of predictable or anticipated course of action of the proposed action and would be to the benefit of controversy as how well the inmates know the decision will be made ahead of time and how consistently these facts gathered are applied with the individual’s knowledge base creating a pre-determined response to a problem.

In other words, specifically in a critical or crisis situation, there should be room made for actions or decisions made by the antagonistic group and that it is a strong possibility that they will make tactical or strategically implied assumptions that whatever decision is made, formulated and finalized within a hostile situation or environment the method [solution] chosen could fall into the hands of the inmates and thus the response is compromised even when following the process but failing to compare potential outcomes and consequences laid on the table beforehand.

Like it was mentioned and said in the beginning of this article, working inside a prison has many uncertainties and planning a situational assessment using judgment and decision-making tools should be done with caution and with some level of expertise and experience as well as taking the time to conduct peer assessments [for consensus] and share evaluation materials before finalizing the resolution.

Corrections.com author, Carl ToersBijns, (retired), has worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Car’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

Other articles by ToersBijns:


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  2. Joe on 09/13/2013:

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