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Poker face, diversions and true reactions: What the hell is in that cell?
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 09/26/2016

Eyes open

Opinions about actors run the gamut. To some, actors serve the purpose of providing us an escape from the mundane with their presentation skills. Others may have a less noble view of performers. And between the poles are varying levels of admiration based on talent and popularity.

Seasoned corrections staff will likely agree that there are some superb actors in the prisoner ranks. And in this setting, perception and image are paramount. Some offenders are unbelievably convincing, even if they are selling the ultimate bluff.

But what of those corrections staff that can recognize a Robert Dinero from a Barney Rubble? Is this a necessary skill or just a fluke talent? In the end, it comes down to keeping things safe for staff, offenders, and the public. Those who can penetrate prevarications and masked messages often hold the key to a safer day for all.

Here is a simple test for those who see beneath the mask. Simply ask, “Do you have any contraband?” Once posed, one can expect a variety of possible answers:
  1. Well practiced poker face – This is the ultimate mask of innocence.
  2. Reading cues – A shift of the eyes may point to where the contraband is hidden. Of course, a well-practiced eye shift could lead away from the hiding spot.
  3. True reaction of denial – The prisoner simply does not have any contraband.
  4. Guilty look – Some cannot mask what they are thinking.
  5. Sacrifice contraband – The prisoner will “allow’ you to find something small and not too valuable in order that you give up the search. In the meantime, the valuable and possibly dangerous contraband remains hidden.
Perhaps you are not wired to detect the differences between a true reaction and the subtleties of acting. You still have a few tools at your disposal:
  1. Actual search – Look for bootleg even when you do not have a suspect. Even if the culprit of a scheme is not found, the contraband incident can be recorded and data stored for a fuller picture.
  2. Asking colleagues – Use the corrections employee network to search for likely suspects. Those who work in different areas have may key observations that you do not.
  3. Time is on your side – While it is true that contraband trade is often dynamic, catching contrabandists can be a long game. Staff have time to gather data and form strategies.
  4. Resources at your disposal – Think of the ample contraband control toolbox. Staff have other staff, cameras, experience and the resources of time.
Many contend that the bottom line is all that matters. In other words, contraband is where you look or it is not. But what about the subtle clues? Certainly, as a corrections professional, you likely are not on an Oscar Committee charged with selecting the best performance artists in the field. Still, we read little clues and apply them to our experiences. And these skills may help uncover danger.

Reading faces and understanding how individual offenders mask are useful in the contraband search. They can give a little boost in keeping the facility safer for staff, offenders and the public.

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.

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