A great deal has been written about the code for prisoners. In fact, people who have very little knowledge about the inner workings of a prison can usually recite at least part of that code. Don’t be a snitch is perhaps the part of the code that is most often found in portrayals in the media. Other components of the code usually include: do your own time, don’t trust the guards and stand your ground.
The employees who work within correctional facilities also have a code by which they work. While this code may not be so well known in the public, it is in fact, very effectively communicated to the employees. Additionally, this code is very similar throughout the country in a variety of different agencies and jurisdictions. In an effort to capture the key components of this code, a request was published through several social media outlets to ask corrections employees throughout the country to respond with elements that they believed make up the code. The responses were startling similar. Over a period of three weeks, 120 different responses were provided to this query, with an additional 40 other responses that indicated affirmation with the information provided. This simple exercise and request for information confirmed what I believed: the code is simple, universal, and effectively communicated to corrections employees. While the terms used in some instances differed, the message was the same.
These six components describe the corrections officer code describe the culture in which corrections employees work and these six components are applicable in most jurisdictions and agencies. The similarities between responses were amazing, but expected. As I travel through this country and talk to corrections professionals, I am constantly amazed at how similar we are. I have stated more than once “we can almost finish each other’s sentences.” The terms may be a little different, but the issues are usually the same. Parts of this code are certainly counter-productive to employee and organizational health but they are critical components that aid in the adaptation to the significant challenges and stressors that are present in the corrections work environment.
- Always Stand With Other Officers: The idea that corrections officers are united, despite any differences in background, beliefs, or philosophy was communicated in many forms. The term “family” and “your brother’s keeper” were provided by many respondents in this query. Other information referenced this bond by comments that indicated that at all costs, officers were expected to act as back up and never turn their back on an officer in trouble. One response included the rule that an officer should never walk to another officer’s call for assistance – they must run. This sense of family and of a bond also extends beyond the “walls” of the institution, into the community and off-duty lives. An interesting extension of this family analogy was captured by a response that included: “trust few, protect all.” This respondent further explained that officer may not like each other or trust each other, but they would always be there to protect each other. This protection was explained as needed from management and from inmates. Tips to protect each other from management were provided that included a prohibition against “ratting” on other officers. One response included: “don’t help a fellow officer out of a job – don’t ever rat.” A few respondents did provide a glimpse into the exception to this rule- when a staff member is developing a relationship with an inmate by having sex with the inmate or bringing in contraband. This type of mis-conduct crosses a line so that the offending employee no longer is provided protection from management or inmates. The difference was based upon the fact that when an employee crosses this line, they are no longer one of us. Protecting each other from inmates included guidance such as don’t talk about other staff in front of inmates and when talking with an inmate, make sure the conversation is about them – not about you or other staff member’s personal lives. This key component of the code is embodied in the concept of us vs. them.
- Don’t show emotion or vulnerability. This need to keep up a guard or wall around oneself at all times was communicated very frequently. This guard includes: never let them see you cry, kindness is a sign of weakness, and don’t ever let the inmates get to you. One response included the following: “It is their job to get your goat; it is your job to keep your goat.”
- Leave it at the gate. This idea of leaving work at work was an extension of protecting themselves from the negativity and unsavory aspects of the job. The term “8 and skate” is very common throughout the different jurisdictions. Implied in this rule is that officers must have the ability to disconnect from work when off duty, but also, to disconnect from community and family when they are on the clock. Of course, this particular skill is very difficult for any human being to do successfully and consistently.
- Never lie. The concept of owning your own behavior and decisions is a key component of the corrections officer code. In corrections mistakes happen, but when they do - own it. Integrity in and of itself is a great attribute, but in the corrections world it is perhaps magnified. There are very few actions that employees take that may not be observed by someone, so chances are that you will be held accountable, even if you try to hide it. Consequently, acknowledging the mistake and being up front with the issue is the best way to proceed.
- Firm, fair and consistent. This rule speaks about inmate management. This idea of fairness and consistency was communicated by responses such as “ fair ain’t always fun” and “you can be friendly, but never be friends” and “don’t lower yourself to the level of inmates.” The concept of firmness was found in how to respond to requests from inmates: “if unsure, say no. You can always come back and change it to a yes, but it is hard to change a yes to a no.” Inmate management included defining convicts as all the same, only the building (custody level) is different; the need to constantly be aware of the environment is paramount. One response included: “keep your head on a swivel” and “don’t let you guard down, ever.” A prohibition against using the “Q” (quiet) word was almost universal – never say it is quiet or that you are bored, because that will be the impetus to change your boring shift in a chaos. Then document everything, even the seemingly non-events, because if it isn’t in writing – it didn’t happen.
- Trust your gut. These three specific words were communicated by multiple people in a variety of jurisdictions. The need to be aware and to learn when things are not “right” is critical to surviving in this job. This response was provided as a way to deal with inmates but also as a way to deal with management. Trust your gut was tied to the need to” keep your mouth shut and your ears open -- because no one cares what you think.” The message was clear – back to the “trust no one” mentioned above.
Any true understanding of the corrections environment must begin with a good understanding of this code, because the code is at the basis of all employee actions. This full understanding is necessary for effective leadership of corrections systems and is particularly important for any type of change management.
Dr. Susan Jones retired from a warden’s position within the Colorado Department of Corrections. She worked in a variety of corrections positions in Colorado for 31 years, including: community corrections, correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, manager, associate warden and warden. Dr. Jones research interests have focused on the issues that correctional employees face on a daily basis. Visit Dr. Jones's Facebook page "A Glimpse Behind the Fence".