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Firm, Fair and Consistent: It’s Not a Cliché
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 08/15/2016

Incarceration In my travels in retirement conducting jail staff training, I frequently ask jail officers: “What has worked for you when managing inmates both safely and professionally?”

One answer I always hear is a correctional officer (CO) should always be “firm, fair and consistent”. This is not a cliché-this simple phrase holds great meaning for us who enter our nation’s correctional facilities every workday, every year-to manage and keep in custody the inmate population. We deal with many types, personalities and no day is like another. It is unfortunate, also that many citizens and the media does not know what we do or what we experience. But- thanks to organizations such as the American Jail Association, the American Jail Association and the excellent International Association of Correctional Training personnel-corrections is being steadily recognized and appreciated.

Let’s take a look at the phrase and review what it really means. I will have some input, in conjunction with an excellent book by retired New York City corrections officer Larone Koonce. His book Correction Officer’s Guide to Understanding Inmates: The 44 Keys to Power, Control and Respect (2012, Koonce Publishing, Atlanta, Georgia). It is an excellent resource for COs and trainers. We will look at the chapter titled Key 2: Be Firm, Fair and Consistent and is subtitled: this will help to gain the respect of the inmates.

Firm: Koonce says, and I agree, that firmness means that a CO should stand his or her ground. The main goal of a CO is to enforce corrections rules, regulations, criminal statutes and the policies and procedures of the facility. COs are not there to be popular among the inmates or to be their ‘pal’. A CO will be pressured by inmates every shift to bend the rules or ignore policy and procedures. If COs think that it is all right to do this and delude themselves by thinking that inmates ‘are not all that bad’-the pressure will increase. COs must say no-firmly. Inmates may not like it at first, but slowly the CO who says no and adheres to procedures will earn inmates’ respect and be viewed as ‘squared away’. And-the CO who is firm will have the support of his or her squad, supervisors and the high up ‘brass’-the wardens, superintendents and sheriffs. The inmates will come to realize this. Respect will be reluctant from the inmates-but reluctant respect is better than none at all.

Fair: A professional CO applies the rules fairly to every inmate, regardless of crime, behavior, sentence, race, gender, physical size or education. One inmate should not be favored over another. If favoritism occurs, resentment among the inmates grows. They see some having a good ride from the CO while they have to go by the rules. Not only does resentment grow, but inmates may argue and resent each other because some feel that they are not being treated fairly. Also, favoritism, Koonce states, forms a two-tier system where the CO is sharing power with the inmates. Power and authority should remain solely with the CO. I remember that not playing favorites-even in a small way-can make the job easier. For example, early in my career I was working the day shift on the maximum security floor at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. Lunch for the inmates was a bowl of soup and a sandwich. After the trustees passed out lunches to the cellblocks, I settled down at my desk to eat mine-the same fare as the inmates. (In the old days, sometimes you could not be relieved for a meal due to short staffing.) A trusty came to the main door of the floor and said that he had some extra sandwiches and asked me if I would allow him to pass them out. I asked him if he had enough extras for the whole floor. He said that he did not and I sent him on his way back to the kitchen-without passing out the extras. Why? I did not want any arguments or resentments from the inmates who would not have received another sandwich.

Consistent: Inmates appreciate an institutional routine that is established and reliable. The mail is passed out regularly; the televisions come on at a certain time and programs are on schedule. Visiting and recreation go on without any difficulty. It helps to keep the place calm. Also-inmates appreciate COs who do not run ‘hot and cold’. They learn quickly that if you are behave the same on every shift, treat the inmates fairly in a steady, consistent manner, that they will feel comfortable around you. This shows that you are serious. You can be depended upon to do your job responsibly and treat inmates as people. They know what to expect from you. However, one down side is the CO who is sociable, polite and acts mature on Monday-and is grumpy, sarcastic and condescending towards inmates on Tuesday. We all like consistency when we deal with others and inmates are no different.

Finally the phrase “firm, fair and consistent” is very similar to the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. We would like to be treated with fairness, and in the same way as others. We would like to be treated in a firm manner-per the rules, not being subjected to one set of rules over another. Finally we would like to be treated the same way by people we encounter-not by people who are running hot and cold. Inmates will appreciate it too. It is not just a cliché: Firm, Fair and Consistent.

Koonce, Larone. (2012). Correction Officer’s Guide to Understanding Inmates: The 44 Keys to Power, Control and Respect. Atlanta: Koonce Publishing.

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius served the field of corrections in the Fairfax County Sheriff's Office from 1978 until his retirement in 2005. He has more than 30 years of experience in law enforcement and corrections. Gary is active as a trainer and consultant for the National Institute of Justice, the American Jail Association, the American Correctional Association, and the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP).


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