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Tales From the Local Jail: A New Look at the 'Snitch'
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 05/02/2016

Information We have all seen the Hollywood versions of police informants-snitches-you know, those shady characters meeting under a bridge by a river across from the big city at 3 AM. Or- in an empty parking garage, where the ‘snitch’ is on one side of the pillar, out of sight-talking to the plain clothes cop. And then the cop gives the informant some money for the information and they both quietly leave.

In jails, correctional officers (COs) also do have informants. Sometimes an inmate ‘snitches’ for favors from the staff, sometimes a confidential informant (CI) will lie or exaggerate information so he or she can look good to staff, and sometimes the informant just wants to do the time in the jail and either be released, go into the prison system and get on with their sentences. If a jail CO has a good confidential informant that has proven to be reliable in giving critical information, it is common sense not to ever divulge the informant’s name. If that happens-the CI becomes a pariah among the inmates and a target for assault or worse.

We can learn a lot from veterans in the jail field. I highly recommend a book by retired New York City Department of Corrections officer Larone Koonce, Correction Officer’s Guide to Understanding Inmates: The Forty Four Keys to Inmate Management (2012, Koonce Publishing). I use this book in my in service classes and have found it well written and very informative.

Key 16- Always Have an Informant, is particularly interesting. Koonce defines an informant as someone who gives a CO information about potential problems in the facility, and by doing so, keeps staff well informed as to dangers and problems among the inmate population. He also advocates doing so by having a good interpersonal relationship with these inmates, and rewarding them when you can.

Establishing good officer-inmate relationships, he says are the key-and I agree. Let’s take a look at some of officer Koonce’s observations with some commentary:
  • The best time to establish officer-inmate interpersonal relationships is when the inmate is first admitted to the facility, whether from another jail, from court or right after arrest. The inmate, even the most hard core and streetwise, may be unfamiliar with your jail. Over time, the inmate population changes, as does the makeup of the officer corps. This time in, the inmate may not know many of the COs due to retirements and staff turnover. Rules and policies may have changed since the last time he was inside, and new offenders are anxious. New inmates may be vulnerable to harassment and assault, and have to learn quickly who among the inmates may be dangerous to them.
  • Inmates must adjust when they arrive, and they do so through one of three ways: first-some may keep to themselves and try not to offend anyone. Second-some may affiliate themselves with a group or gang. Finally, some may think that their adjustment may go safer and smoother if they stay close to you-the CO. This third type-the one who always seems to ‘hang around’ you a lot of the time-gives you the best opportunity of forging a good relationship.
  • The third type-the inmate ‘hanger on’ will always try to be in your presence and keep you in his line of sight. He knows that he is safer with you around, and that the other inmates will not bother him because you are nearby. This is your chance to become a positive role model, asking this inmate how he is doing, taking an interest in his well-being and watching out for him. Try also to give him advice on how to survive jail and stay out of trouble. Even though this inmate will adjust and get used to the jail and the inmate ways of doing time, he may let you know what is going on. That information could be information about predatory inmates, contraband, gangs, escape plans, and so forth.
Over time, this inmate will hopefully be grateful to you for the advice. As your CO-inmate relationship develops, you may in passing conversation discreetly and quietly ask what is going on in a cellblock or unit. Or-you can just keep in contact simply asking “How are you?” “What is going on?” “Everything all right?”

This inmate, now having adjusted to the jail, may think that he is surviving and is doing time all right, thanks to you. In return-he really may let you know some information about an impending assault on a staff member or inmate, contraband, gang communications inside the jail, and so forth. He may think “I’m doing all right-and nothing around me going on is going to screw that up”.

Finally-handle critical information discreetly and talk to your supervisor about following up. Don’t just jump in with both feet if you find something out. Be cautious. Try as much as possible to keep the informant’s identity a secret. But if the inmate has to be moved or transferred, be loyal to the informant and quietly let the officers in the new unit know that this inmate “has been helpful.” Seasoned veterans will know what you mean and will also watch out for him. Be loyal to inmates who help you out-if the CI is found out, his safety will be compromised.

Remember-the bond that you form with an inmate can go a long way to keep you, staff, fellow officers and inmates safe.

Reference: Koonce, Larone. (2012). Correction Officer’s Guide to Understanding Inmates: The Forty Four Keys to Inmate Management. Koonce Publishing.

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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