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The Twenty Minute Trainer: The Pains of Incarceration
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 12/12/2016

Inmate_leaning_on_cell This is posted with permission of IACTP and “The Correctional Trainer”. For more information, please visit www.IACTP.org.

Today’s law enforcement officers-both police and corrections-are faced with several daunting tasks. They are maintaining law and order, arresting criminal offenders and keeping a calm atmosphere in correctional facilities and on the street while being outnumbered. When I teach an in service class for jail staff, I tell class attendees that our jobs are similar to being in The Alamo-we are surrounded and outnumbered by inmates. Police departments and correctional agencies will always be outnumbered by the populations that they serve, maintain control of and observe. So-it is important to remember that we can get a lot further with people by maintaining good interpersonal relations with them. This means treating them with dignity and respect. Empathy plays a role as well. Officers should try to understand life from others’ points of view. Hopefully this mindset may result in an appreciation of the officer, and better interpersonal communications. For example, a police officer listens to a citizen talking about living in a high crime neighborhood and tries to put himself in the other person’s situation. This shows both concern and respect. Also, realistically speaking, this approach does not work all of the time; there are citizens that will always give police a hard time. But-the possible results are worth the effort.

The same can be applied to corrections officers (COs) working among incarcerated inmates. COs work inside a building where there are more inmates than officers. Secondly, the inmates do not want to be there. Third-most of the inmates do not like the staff. And fourth-when combining these factors, many inmates will try to get around our best security efforts.

As for me, I have always thought that if you treat inmates like humans, and respect their basic dignity, you will get along better with them and sometimes they may tell you what is going on in the housing units. You want positive relations with them-and that means not ‘pissing them off’. Ask yourself this: I have to work inside this building, surrounded by people who inwardly may be angry. I want to get along with them….why would I want to ‘piss them off’? So, let’s take a look at how painful incarceration is, how you can understand it, and by doing so-you will not unduly make the inmates angry. This information comes from a great work that I highly recommend by Robert Johnson of American University: Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison, Third Edition (Wadsworth, 2002). A few points to note:
  • Being imprisoned is disheartening and threatening for most inmates. Inmates know that their relationships with loved ones are soured or suspended, their careers are disrupted and any hopes and dreams are dashed. More simply-their lives are a mess.
  • Pain is psychological. Inmates begin to realize that they are missing out a lot-both mentally and physically. They hear COs talk about how great their new car is or how they attended their children’s’ school play or graduation. Inmates are stuck inside; many have children. They realize that due to their sentence, lack of good decisions and criminal behavior, they won’t be driving a new car and they will be missing out on family life, birthdays, graduations, Christmas, etc. They come to realize that life is passing them by and when they do get out, life for them will be a never ending uphill struggle. Their loved ones and friends may have written them off. Understandably, there may be an undercurrent of anger in the inmate. If another inmate or CO ‘pushes their buttons’, this anger may be released. In other words, a sarcastic CO unnecessarily saying something condescending to an inmate who is already feeling down may get a reaction that is very unpleasant-or dangerous.
  • Incarceration deprives inmates of many things that we enjoy on the outside. First is liberty-or the choices that we enjoy in our daily lives. We can eat and drink what we want, get up when we want, and go where we want. Secondly-inmates are deprived of goods and services. They receive the basics, and although facilities are becoming cleaner, more comfortable, and may offer more in television, commissary, etc., inmates receive the basics in food, medical care, etc. They also are limited in personal choices. Third, inmates are deprived of intimacy and sexual contact. But, as COs know, some may try to have their sexual desires met inside-with corrupt staff or with other inmates. Finally, incarceration deprives of safety and security. While we control our security and who we allow into our lives, into our homes, near our families and near us, inmates must live with people that they probably would not associate with on the street. Combine this with predatory inmates, thieves, gang members and ‘hotheads’, many inmates do not feel safe-despite our best efforts to maintain security and safety for them.
How then do we interact with inmates that are feeling the effects of these deprivations and psychological pain? We want good relations with them as much as possible, not anger and ill feelings. Here are a couple common sense pointers:
  • Understand how they feel-life is passing them by, deprivations, etc., and don’t make fun of their plight or ridicule them. They feel bad enough; why make it worse? You may tap into some angry feelings-which may escalate into a tense situation.
  • Be “respectfully empathetic”. Empathy keeps your objectivity intact-you understand their situation while not feeling overly sorry for them-which is sympathy. Also remember that they will try to manipulate and play the ‘sympathy’ card on you.
  • Whenever you can, talk to inmates about how they can work to correct the course that their lives have taken. While many inmates do not take advantage of programs, there are some that do. Even when serving long prison terms, there are opportunities for inmates to improve themselves-and salvage some aspects of dignity. Encourage inmates to take advantage of facility programs. Do this as much as you can. Inmates who have accomplished something in programs-such as sobriety, being clean from drugs, getting a GED, learning a vocational skill, etc., will feel better about themselves. If they do, they will get along better with you-and that can go a long way in making your job easier.
Let’s be realistic. There are some inmates who are so negative and angry to the point that this approach will never work. But in my experience-most inmates will appreciate this approach. And-it may serve to keep the institutional climate calm. And if the climate is calm-the safer you are.

Reference: Johnson, Robert. (2002). Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning.

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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