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Correctional Officers: Never Underestimate
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 11/11/2013

Manyelling “There is no greater danger than underestimating your opponent.” ― Lao Tzu

Correctional Officers are threatened by inmates almost on a daily basis. The difficulty is to determine or estimate whether or not the threat was real and if it was made with the intent that could create hazards or personal peril for you or someone else down the road. One should not live in a world filled with paranoia but the truth is, a little bit of paranoia can be a saving factor to some extent for your personal safety.

The fact is that your job is a position that carries with it the unpopular duties and responsibilities of enforcing state and federal laws as well as institutional rules and regulations for those incorrigibles convicted of breaking society’s laws and institutional guidelines. One can almost immediately see this creates a clear conflict and the presence of threats are often made under stress or disguised as subtle comments and very hard to recognize at times.

Some threats are clearly understood and directly impact your own personal safety on or off duty. Some are refined and hidden in politically correct dialogue that is meant to banter or provoke but not clear enough to actually call it a threat. Last and definitely not the least in making an assessment, some are made as a foolish idea or comment and if ignored proven to be just as dangerous as those made direct and unmistakably real. Underestimating these kind of situations can prove to be dangerous to self or others as those inmates that devise them can’t resist to comment or make a statement that is irritable and without humor.

In this everlasting volatile relationship between officer and inmate there will be threats and counter-threats. There will be good and bad intentions and unfortunately if such bantering is common or frequent one has a difficult time to not see through his or her opponent’s threats and taking them as real. One must remain professional at all times but never let your guard down and disregard a threat when it is made.

Regardless whether you believe the threats are real or unreal, they must be taken at face value and never underestimated. They must be looked for and decisively put into content and context to determine legitimacy and possible risk or harm. Sharing with co-workers and supervisors is the first step in recognizing the validity of such behaviors and careful approaches should dictate future actions.

Don’t let your position of authority or your badge fool you into a position of vulnerability. You must try to see or work hard to realize that threats are always possible even if made by someone that has never threatened you before. Take into consideration what had just transpired between you and the inmate(s) and what triggered such a threat. What did the inmate(s) lose and what was the consequence of such a loss. Did your actions cause the inmate to lose face or respect with the other inmates present? If there was an embarrassing moment, humiliation or public display of “punking out” the inmate, he or she may want to save face and retaliate or attack you when the opportunity arises.

Remember just because you win an argument for one moment does not guarantee you the same result in the upcoming or next encounter on the job. Remember that conflicts can be both verbal and physical in nature and can be most unpredictable at times. Taking for granted or over-simplifying interactions or situations can cause a mental downfall of awareness and safety. It creates complacency and puts the officer in a mindset that he or she thinks no longer requires careful scrutiny of what is being said or done by the opponent. Overconfidence is unquestionably the primary quality that leads to correctional officers in overlooking their opponent’s threats and sets them up for failure or harm in a most unexpected manner.

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:


  1. markspressure on 12/15/2013:

    This is a very good and well written article . Mark K Retired Correctional Officer New Folsom Prison.

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