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Tales from the Local Jail: A Good Mentor Is....
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 03/18/2019

Rolemodel This article was originally published on Corrections.com on June 23, 2014.

Everyone in corrections can remember officers from their early days when they were new to the institution. Some of us had prior law enforcement experience; to others the working in a correctional facility and managing criminal offenders were things to be experienced and learned. Recently I was reading Doug Wylie’s PoliceOne column 10 Traits of a Good Mentor. He discussed the great mentors in his life and career; one was his father. I began to think of one of the mentors in my career.

In early 1978, I had just entered the corrections field after a combined four years working the street in two different law enforcement agencies. The only jail view I had was the booking area where offenders under arrest were brought.Though I studied corrections in college and had toured the nearby local jail, I was not that familiar with the inner operations, security procedures, contraband concerns, etc., as veteran deputies were. The deputies in my squad had worked the jail for a few years, I had not.

After passing the two week jail certification course mandated by the state, I reported for duty. This was 1978. Many training practices for rookies had been in place for a while and were informal. They usually consisted of pairing up a veteran officer or deputy with a new one and working as a team until the squad supervisor was comfortable with a rookie being ‘cut loose’ to work independently. My squad members were OK, ranging from quiet to talkative. All knew their jobs well. We all got along.

Although everyone gave me a warm welcome, I will always remember a deputy sheriff supervisor who made a lasting impression on me that stayed with me throughout my career. He was my immediate supervisor, a corporal. His name I will keep to myself; he was never one for the spotlight. Let’s call him “Corporal Bob”. As I read the column by Doug Wylie, it became clear to me that many of the traits of a good mentor he wrote about I could apply to Corporal Bob.

Every correctional officer can think of another officer that got them started down the right path and left an impression that stayed with them. Everyone could state what traits that this person had; lists would vary, but all would have positive attributes. Good mentors can be supervisors, training officers, or just experienced officers in the facility. Based on my experience with Corporal Bob and drawing from Doug Wylie’s column, I have devised my own list on what traits make a good mentor in corrections. So-here they are:
  • Willingness: Good mentors have a willingness to teach, instruct and bring out the best in the officers they are working with. They want to do this, and look upon the task of training as much more as just part of the job. By cajoling and positive coaching, they bring out the best work practices in an officer, which will help the agency.
  • Ethics: Good mentors believe in the code of ethics and living up to the public trust. You will not see them, for example, taking home office supplies, shirking their duties or taking ‘freebies’ from local restaurants. They view the badge and uniform as much more than ‘baubles’ and clothing. They represent the mission of the agency, the public trust and the serious nature of the job.
  • Leading by example: They walk around, asking officers how they are doing and what they need. They perform their duties professionally; they are people to look up to. They get down in the trenches occasionally to see what is going on, jumping in to help the front line with their duties.
  • Learning: Good mentors never think that they know it all. There are always opportunities to learn. Some have to be made. For example, when I started in 1978, there was no manual of standard operating procedures to speak of, just a book of memorandums that agency supervisors had available for staff to look at once per shift. Roll calls were short and corrections classes available in the academy were few. Corporal Bob had copied every operational memo and organized them into his own manual. The first day on the job he showed me around and loaned his manual to me. He said to read it and he would be glad to answer any questions or clear up anything I did not understand. A good mentor supports the training branch and encourages staff to attend seminars to learn, not just to get their hours in.
  • Enthusiasm and curiosity: Mentors recognize enthusiasm in their staff and encourage it. They say thank you and are complimentary when a task is performed well. They want staff to be curious as to why things are done a certain way and can they be done more efficiently. Mentors always encourage new ideas to work smarter, not harder. They recognize hard work.
  • Communications: Corporal Bob was a good listener and great verbal communicator. I cannot remember a single instance of interrupting, controlling a conversation or sarcasm. He listened and responded clearly, articulately and maturely. When he spoke or gave advice or orders, it was clear and we knew what was expected of us.
  • Maturity: A good mentor is mature, acts like an adult and treats others like adults. Maturity comes from having a balance in one’s life-a personal life with interests to counteract the stress of the job. I never saw Corporal Bob stressed out, tired or angry. I looked forward to going to work knowing that he was my supervisor.
Corporal Bob went on to become one of the best squad lieutenants the agency had. Corporal Bob-I don’t know where you are now or what you are doing. You retired before me and I hope that you are enjoying life. If by chance you read this, you probably will recognize yourself and hopefully remember me. All I can say is that I had a great jail career and learned a lot-thanks to you.

Thank you, Corporal Bob.

10 Traits of a Great Mentor, by Doug Wylie, PoliceOne Editor in Chief.
www.policeone.com, May 8, 2014.

Corrections.com author, Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. He conducts corrections in service training sessions and has taught corrections classes at George Mason University since 1986. Gary’s books include The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition (2009) from the American Correctional Association and The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, Second Edition (2010) from Carolina Academic Press.

Visit the Gary Cornelius page

Other articles by Cornelius


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