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Tales From the Local Jail: Inmate Schemers and ‘Mister Potter’
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 01/08/2018

Inmate leaning on cell At this time of year, many of us settle down in front of the television and watch the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Many of us shed a tear as we watch George Bailey run through a snowy Bedford Falls shouting ‘Merry Christmas’ to the people and institutions that he now realizes that are so important to him.

But there is one scene in the movie that can serve as a valuable lesson about correctional staff and the inmate manipulator. This past year, I was fortunate enough to attend a great seminar on manipulation through Vyne Education presented by licensed psychologist Dr. Alan Godwin. In the seminar, Inside the Manipulator’s Mind: The Insiders Guide to Ending Emotional Exploitation he discusses how manipulators present to us-their marks-the rosy picture of how life would be so much better for us if we do what they want.

There is a great example in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, according to Dr. Godwin, and I agree. Let’s set this up-in case some of you have not seen the movie. The film is set in the fictional town of Bedford Falls, where the Baileys-the good guys-run a family business, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan Association. They help people buy housing, they care about their customers and are moral and good. But-the antagonist in the town is mean old Mister Potter-who owns and controls many of the businesses in the town-except the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan. He wants to get control of that as well, and has failed over the years.

According to Dr. Godwin, Mr. Potter is an Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OPCD), and this means that he needs to be in control of his surroundings. In those surroundings are people-and he needs to control George Bailey-the ‘thorn in his side’. He has a relationship-not to his liking- with George Bailey.

So-in the movie there is a key scene. Mr. Potter tries a different approach. He calls George Bailey into his office to offer him a job. At first he compliments George on successfully thwarting him through the years, and offers him a high quality expensive cigar. He praises George for beating him, saying ‘that takes some doing’.

This is not Mr. Potter being self-aware of his failure and recognizing the mettle of George Bailey. He lays it on thick, ‘buttering’ George up with the offer of a high paying job, big salary, trips to Europe, etc. The goal is to get his hands on George Bailey’s business and get George to do what he-Mr. Potter-wants. He tells George that ‘his ship has just come in’.

If George caves, Mr. Potter wins the game. He is trying to manipulate George with promises of how things will be so much better if he says yes, takes the job and goes along. There are strings attached-George becomes beholding to Potter and the family business is gone.

George is mesmerized by Mr. Potter and the offer-and at first takes it, shaking Mr. Potter’s hand. But if you have seen the movie-you see that after shaking Potter’s hand, he realizes that it was just a ploy to control him. As Dr. Godwin observes, George reaches across the desk and shakes Potter’s hand. While doing so-he realizes that it is all a scam. He steps back and wipes his hand off on his jacket, “like a man who’d just fished something valuable out of a toilet”. He then tells Mr. Potter off, saying that “you sit around here and spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you”.

Now-let’s apply this scenario to working in a jail. Mr. Potter represents the manipulative inmates who want to control staff-the line correctional officers (COs), the volunteers, the medical staff, the programs staff, etc. They spin a good yarn-about how they can give staff money for favors, be their friends and if they are lonely, be a sexual or romantic partner. All of these have strings attached. They paint a rosy picture, saying ‘if you do what I want-your ship will come in.’

As we have unfortunately seen, some staff and COs swallow this manipulation hook, line and sinker. They actually are taken in by the inmate.

The bottom line? Most COs and staff are the George Baileys-good people, with good morals, handling personal and professional responsibilities and are making a difference in our nation’s jails. To continue to do so-the next time an inmate promises you something for doing that ‘one little, small favor’ for him or her:

Remember the scene of Mr. Potter and George Bailey.

For more information, please contact Dr. Alan Godwin at alangodwin@peopleproblems.org.


Godwin, Alan, Psy.D. (2017, December 29). In Relationships and Culture. Posted to The Drama Review (Gifts with Strings Attached). E mail, received 12/29/17.
Inside the Manipulator’s Mind: The Insider’s Guide to Ending Emotional Exploitation, seminar presented by Dr. Alan Godwin, Vyne Education, Richmond, VA, 08/24/2017. 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. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.

He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University since 1986, where he has taught four corrections courses. He also teaches corrections in service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. His latest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition was published in April 2017 by Carolina Academic Press. He has authored several other books in corrections. Gary has received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in Social Science from his alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an Instructor Appreciation Award from George Mason University.


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