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Building the Communications Puzzle: Reinforce the Importance of Good Communications
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 04/06/2015

Teamwork The following is an installment in "The Bouchard 101", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

All successful institutions have healthy communications grapevines. And one of the most important lessons in corrections, without a doubt, is that accurate intelligence gathering and sharing has immense value in our field. When different shifts, custody and programs, and even different institutions share information, overall facility security is ultimately enhanced.

So, how does an instructor instill that message? This can be done by using tangible examples of exchange of shared information. Content is better learned if it is accompanied by a good memory cue. That is where the puzzle comes in.

Metaphorically speaking, the mysteries that we are faced with every day on the job are like jigsaw puzzles. Just as we assign meaning to fragments of incoming information, we also bring together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The skeleton, or the edge pieces of the puzzle, is the easiest to put together. Then come the parts with the most obvious shapes, sizes, or appearance. After that, one by one, comes the fitting of each unobtrusive piece into the picture.

Conceptually, assembling a jigsaw puzzle it is no different than figuring the dynamics and specifics of a smuggling enterprise. Like puzzle parts, the information is considered and fitted into the larger picture, one element at a time – from the known to the unknown.

Option one: Same apparent scheme, different particulars

This is based on the notion that there are two similar events happening in any institution. But they are not identical. At this time, the trainer should provide a concrete illustration.

It is discovered that there are two different attempts by certain prisoner groups to dominate a gym call out by coordinating written requests.


This can be conceptually simulated by using two puzzles with the same picture, but not with the same puzzle pieces.

Equipment needed: two puzzles with the same picture, but with differently cut pieces. These should ideally be a puzzle with 10-25 pieces.

Duration: about five minutes.

Participants are told to assemble the puzzle with the pieces they have. They are not told, however, that two interior pieces from puzzle A are switched with two interior pieces from puzzle B. It is up to the instructor to nudge an information exchange between builders of puzzle A and puzzle B.

Principle lesson: The instructor explains that, just like the puzzles, sometimes two different events that we investigate are not exactly alike, but similar enough for information parts to be inadvertently interchanged.

Option two: Three independent investigations

The teacher paints this picture:

Imagine a huge tobacco smuggling scheme where the commodity, which is forbidden in segregation units, creates a vast market. This makes individual prisoners or the group that controls the illicit commerce more powerful and, therefore, more dangerous to staff. The library staff is conducting its own investigation of how prisoners attempt to use law books as trading vehicles. Food services is researching how segregation food trays are being utilized to move tobacco into forbidden areas. Inspectors are working with case managers to secure samples of unsigned correspondence outlining the plan. The problem is, none of the three groups are compiling and forwarding their information to other parties.


Equipment needed: one puzzle. This should ideally be 100 pieces.

Duration: about ten minutes.

Three people or three small teams are given roughly 1/3 each of the same puzzle. The pieces will be roughly divided and distributed from a completely assembled puzzle, but the pieces will not be together when they are given. That is, each independent investigator or investigation team will be able to put together all pieces provided. However, they will not be able to assemble a full picture.. The three individuals or teams will work away from each other and encouraged to finish before the other team, fostering a spirit of competition.

After a five minute period, someone will be “volunteered” to act as a liaison. That person will inform the others that they may share resources. The puzzles will eventually be brought together and solved by 3 independent investigation teams acting as one.

Principle lesson: The instructor explains that three competing teams will not yield the results of one team united. Some investigations extend beyond the observations, resources, talents, and work of a small team. Information sharing is crucial. Communication of findings helps to bridge the knowledge gaps and creates a fuller picture. Teams should share results to promote a safer environment.

Option Three: Missing Information

The instructor tells of a scenario in which –

A staff person overhears a very clear threat on one prisoner by another over gambling debts. The wager empire is strong, and very covert. It is so successful that the chief bookie is able to hire silent thugs to maintain control over the illegal entrepreneurial exercise.


Equipment needed: This should ideally have 3 puzzles with about 25 pieces.

Duration: about ten minutes

One interior piece from each of the three puzzles is covertly spirited to a participating student, or retained by the trainer. As the puzzles are assembled, it becomes obvious to the assemblers that there is a missing piece. The instructor then allows the investigation teams to make inquiries of others about the missing pieces. They are prompted to make very specific queries about the size, shape, and color schemes of the piece. If they are descriptive enough, the piece can be rendered by the holding party.

Principle lesson: The instructor explains that sometimes an investigation cannot become complete until the hidden information is uncovered. Sometimes we must seek that last crucial piece. Many times we fail to simply ask others what they might have seen or heard concerning the matter. Crucial information nuggets, like missing puzzle pieces, can be found if one asks colleagues.

Some considerations:
  • Mix custody, programs, and administration to foster extra-area cooperation.
  • This set of icebreakers is most useful when preceding any module on communications or investigation.
  • Try to acquire non-controversial puzzles. Make sure that they are nondenominational and are unlikely to offend anyone.
  • Aim to select participants who appear to have decent senses of humor. Do not humiliate participants with taunts.
  • Of course, puzzles that feature less than 100 pieces are generally geared toward children. Therefore, there will be many childlike themes. The low number of pieces is selected for convenience of the exercise and to accommodate time constraints. It is not intended to be condescending to participants. In fact, in some cases, the whimsical themes may engage student and lighten the mood. This could promote more broken ice.
  • If you intentionally select difficult puzzles, you will waste time and frustrate trainees. The idea is to buttress the notion of shared communications. The exercises are instructive. The aim is to teach about the many subtleties of sharing information. It is not a professional puzzle building competition.
  • If the trainer feels compelled to buy a suggestive, double-meaning puzzle, there may be a loss of control. For example, if a class is faced with building a picture of a cartoon rat or an animated donkey, one should be prepared for the sometimes cruel humor that come with those topics.
If we do not share observations and information, we suffer as a vocation. While there is not always an immediate manifestation of a disadvantage, information apathy eventually debilitates the whole. Many departments offer training in how to strengthen information exchange between staff. But this can be further emphasized with these seemingly simple puzzle exercises. This icebreaker runs deeper than a diversion to work one’s fine motor skills. They reinforce the importance of sharing information.

Joe Bouchard is a Librarian employed with the Michigan Department of Corrections and a collaborator with The International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP). He is also the author of “IACTP’s Corrections Icebreakers: The Bouchard 101, 2014”. The installments in this series include his opinions. The agency for which he works is not in any way responsible for the content or accuracy of this material, and the views are those of the contributor and not necessarily those of the agency. While some material is influenced by other works, all of the icebreakers have been developed by Joe Bouchard.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

Other articles by Bouchard:


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