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Attacking Civilians in Correctional Facilities
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 08/04/2014

Danger button

Correctional institutions are dangerous places. This is a basic statement of fact and is plain to understand by anyone who works inside a jail, prison or juvenile center. Many offenders are locked up for dangerous crimes. When I retired, someone asked me what I learned from a 27 year jail career. The first thing I recall saying was that “nothing surprises me”. In a correctional facility, offenders or inmates are charged or convicted of various crimes and exhibit at times dangerous behavior. We know this.

Sworn staffs in correctional facilities are task oriented-we perform headcounts, searches, checks, and are always on the lookout for security breaches. Non-sworn staff-including counselors, chaplains’ staff, teachers and volunteers know that the facility houses dangerous people. They are more service oriented and depend on sworn correctional officers to keep them safe. They want to help by being positive role models for inmates and helping the inmates who want to change turn their lives around. As a jail programs director, I admired civilians, paid and volunteers alike, who choose to come into a jail, a juvenile detention center or a prison to help offenders, rather than conducting their activities outside in the much safer community.

The safety of all staff who works inside a correctional facility is a critical priority. The recent attack in January, 2014 by an inmate on a teacher in an Arizona correctional facility should be discussed at roll calls, during shifts, at supervisor’s meetings, in correctional officer basic and in service training sessions in every corrections academy and at training sessions for non-sworn correctional staff. A recent news report (www.presstv.ir, 2014) states that the teacher has filed a $4 million dollar lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC). This is a headache that all corrections staff, especially the correctional staff of the Arizona DOC does not need. Correctional officers are professionally trained and conscientious workers, including those in the Arizona DOC. This tragic event could have been prevented, and we all should strive to learn from it.

While this case has resulted in a lot of publicity and questions as to why a convicted rapist was in the educational program and his classification level inside the facility, I would like to concentrate on some basic principles where safety of civilians are concerned. The problems about procedures, staff operations and classification at the Arizona facility will be addressed in court and in internal audits and investigations. According to two news articles about the attack and the lawsuit, the following facts were reported (www.presstv.ir, 2014, Christie, 2014):
  • The teacher (victim) was administering a high school equivalency test to a group of seven sex offenders.
  • No correctional officers (COs) were supervising the program.
  • The teacher usually taught in the facility visitation room, which was monitored by corrections staff and video surveillance. Because of a special event in the facility that day, the class was moved to a room without security cameras.
  • The teacher was handed a radio with instructions to let staff know if anyone [offender] “acts out”.
  • According to her claim, no correctional officers performed security checks on her class for 90 minutes.
  • According to her claim and news reports an inmate (classified into a medium security unit) remained behind after class and asked to use the bathroom, then repeatedly stabbed the woman in the head with a pen, choked her, forced her to the ground, slammed her head into the floor, tore off her clothes and raped her.
  • After the attack, the teacher called (“screamed”) for help. No one arrived. The inmate then tried to use the radio that was given to the teacher, but the frequency had been changed to one not used by the correctional officers. He allowed her to use a phone to call for help.
  • The accused inmate (age 20) was serving a 30 year sentence on convictions of a 2011 sexual assault, kidnapping and dangerous crimes against children. He was 17 years old when he knocked on a woman’s door at mid-day, asking for a drink of water. After forcing entry, he repeatedly raped and beat the woman with her 2 year old child present in the home. When her roommate came home, he fled-naked. He pleaded guilty after DNA evidence linked him to the offenses.
  • The inmate was charged in the prison attack with sexual assault, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. He was found guilty in a disciplinary hearing of sexual assault on a staff member, and his security classification was increased two levels. Three weeks after the assault on the teacher, he reportedly assaulted another prison staff member.
In her lawsuit, the teacher accuses the Arizona Department of Corrections (DOC) of failing to provide an environment that was safe for her, creating a situation “where a violent rapist was left alone wholly unsupervised in a classroom with a teacher who did not have sufficient training, expertise and equipment to manage the inmate and protect herself” (www.presstv.ir, 2014).

The DOC has initiated steps such as officers carrying pepper spray and more frequently checking on civilians. A DOC spokesman said that the inmate suspect bears the responsibility for this “despicable act”. He also said that prisons are dangerous places and staffs are trained accordingly. According to him, not having an officer inside classrooms or in the nearby area “follows accepted corrections practices nationwide” (Christie, 2014).

This was met with criticism from Professor Carolyn Eggleston of California State University at San Bernardino, a former prison teacher and now director of the university’s Correctional and Alternative Education Program. She states that the DOC’s view is not consistent with standards and that correctional officers should always be present, counting offenders as they leave classes and being in close proximity to monitor programs and render aid to the teachers (Christie, 2014).

This attack is a bad situation. Civilians in facilities, either paid or volunteers are depending on correctional officers to keep them safe. They perform valuable and cost saving services: maintenance, food service, medical, educational classes, religious programs, substance abuse counseling programs, mental health counseling and mentoring. There is a need for their activities; some inmates do benefit, and the mood among offenders in the facility may be more positive. Civilians must be comfortable in knowing that the correctional officers-from agency senior supervisors to mid management down to the squad level-are all watching out for their safety.

I have some suggestions on how to deal with this problem. If you are reading this and your agency has taken a proactive approach to civilian safety and are adapting any of these, I congratulate you.
  • Supervisors should make sure that correctional officers are aware of civilian activities: what tasks they are doing and where they are doing them.
  • Supervisors should advise COs that even if they have a dim view of programs staff and volunteers, they are still responsible for their safety, and should keep their opinions to themselves, period.
  • Any inmate that is a security risk or a behavior problem will be barred from programs, in adherence with due process procedures. Rule violators will be charged, both in house and criminally.
  • Careful scrutiny must be given to the classification levels of inmates who request programs. The inmate charged in the attack reportedly was considered a low level threat to security, despite his convictions.
  • Correctional sworn staff should take part in civilian facility trainings and orientations. They should explain to civilians where they work, what their post/areas duties are and how they are available for assistance. Civilians should be comfortable around COs, and be able to communicate easily with them if they have any concerns about offenders.
  • All civilians working inside a correctional facility should receive training in offender culture, manipulation and the importance of adhering to all rules and regulations of the facility.
  • There must be clear communications from the classroom to the CO control centers: intercoms, closed circuit television, etc. [Just handing civilians a radio and telling them to call if there is a problem is not the best way to communicate.]
  • COs must be aggressive in maintaining presence in civilian activity areas: taking attendance, opening up the classroom door and asking if all is well, stopping in a program and being present for a while, escorting offenders to and from programs, counting offenders as they go into a program and as they leave, knocking on the classroom door window and letting offenders and teachers know that they are in the area. Offenders must see this-they should be ALWAYS looking over their shoulder to see where the COs are.

I realize that correctional facilities are short staffed. Offenders should see a very mobile staff making frequent patrols focusing on staff welfare and security. It is a challenge, but being on your feet and walking around a lot is better than a multi-million dollar lawsuit being filed because a civilian was attacked or needed help and there was no one to assist.

As a former jail programs director, I realize that the risk of assaults by offenders will never be eliminated, but it can be reduced. The importance of keeping our civilian personnel safe is critical. Civilians do not have to work inside a correctional facility with the types of offenders that COs deal with day after day. They do not receive the academy training that sworn staff receives. They can work, mentor and help people outside in the community if they choose. But they have decided to help us and offenders who want to change. Civilians who come into a jail, prison or juvenile detention center should have our thanks, our ongoing respect, and our pledge to keep them safe.


Arizona prison teacher files $4mn for being raped in classroom. July 18, 2014. Presstv, www.presstv.ir (Accessed July 21, 2014).

Christie, Bob. June 20, 2014. Details in Attack on Teacher in Arizona Prison. Associated Press. Officer.com www.officer.com (Accessed July 21, 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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    Excellent article. Clear, concise, well organized. Nine years ago when I began working as mental health free staff in a prison, my official training/working-in-a-prison education consisted of a couple of hours in a classroom, being told to watch my back and viewing pictures of inmate-manufactured weapons. Since then, I have had hundreds of mental health departmental training hours devoted to which piece of paper to use, but nothing about safety. I work in lock-up units and rely upon the wonderful custody officers to help me stay safe. They give me heads-up on individuals and remind me to stand away from the solid door that an inmate is beckoning me towards - "He can hear you just fine from where you are!" I am grateful for the on-going training the C/Os provide me.

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