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Just Shut Up!
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 04/02/2018

Silence The following is an installment in "Icebreakers 101 - Volume IX: UNDAMMING THE ICE", a series featuring "Ice Breaker's" designed to promote training awareness and capabilities in the corrections industry.

You have to break some eggs to make an omelet, but making this rather than scrambled eggs requires more skill. And there is even more skill required when creating the perfect poached eggs. So, making eggs can be easy or may require a good deal of skills and patience. It depends on what you are going for.

The same could be said of communications.

A major part of success in the corrections profession is in how well we communicate with each other. The messages we wish to convey may be the same point but delivered in different manners. Sometimes we have time for subtleties. Other times things are blurted out without regard to consequences. Words have an impact and what we say and how we say things will guide our success in our daily operations.

Perhaps the name of this icebreaker has the distinction of featuring the rudest title in the entire catalog. Fair enough! It certainly is an attention grabber. And it begs the question, “What is in the wording?”

Comedy superstar George Carlin, famous for cutting through the bovine scat, once said of euphemisms, “Shoot is shit with two 0’s.” When you speak, do you gravitate towards ‘shoot’ or the similar expletive?

Part 1: Reminder of the rule 8 about a quiet atmosphere

Imagine that you are supervising the law library. Your agency’s policy directive mandates a quiet atmosphere conducive to legal research. In other words, you are authorized to maintain quiet. In fact, posted law library rule number 8 states that a quiet atmosphere conducive to legal research shall be maintained in the library.

This rule is approved of by the Warden’s signature. It is backed up by your agency’s policy directive. You must keep it quiet. How do you do this?

Select a scribe or volunteer to list the many alternatives to the phrase, “Just shut up!” Direct the scribe to list the words prominently for all in attendance to see.

Some phrases you might hear are:
  • Can it!
  • Keep the noise down, gentlemen.
  • Shaddap, youse guys!
  • Shhh.
  • Rule number 8 states, “…”
Naturally, an active group will offer a rich variety of suggestions.

Before moving on, the tactic of saying nothing should be mentioned. With this, there are many alternatives. These include ignoring the noise, evicting the loud person(s), and issuing a written misconduct report.

Part 2: Consequences

Certainly, circumstances will impact the utility of any phrase uttered. Some groups may be receptive to a feigned plea of “Come on, fellas. When you are loud, you make me sad.” Others might find that phrasing is clownish and without teeth. If circumstances show that a corrections professional used this phrase in the past and issued misconduct reports, the quiet may be secure. The reputation of the practitioner is part of the totality of circumstances.

One by one, the facilitator will review each phrase suggested in Part 1. Ask the likely outcomes of phrase. Would the corrections professional who uses a certain phrase to inspire quiet gain compliance?

Part 3: Teachable moment

Which phrase is most likely to get one assaulted? Rank the phrases in order of likelihood of physical harm.

Is the use of “Just shut up!” necessary? There are many stops on the road to compliance. For further considerations on the topic of quiet and silence, distribute the following article to participants. How quietly you did this is up to you. After all, you are the facilitator.

Silence is Suspicious: Dealing with the Uncomfortable Quiet in Corrections

"Quiet is good in this business." I have heard this phrase stated in various terms from corrections professionals over the years. That is certainly true. We all want a quiet day. That usually translates into a safe day.

But, there is extreme quiet. That is the unnerving silence that we are faced with from time to time. It can be described in a Hollywood cliché. In many war, police, or western movies, the hero’s sidekick notes that things seem quiet. The hero then offers the assertion, "It's almost too quiet."

How quiet is too quiet in corrections? What does the quiet mean? Are there ways that corrections staff should or should not react to the silence from the prisoner body?

Of course, you should judge the tranquility based on your own institution. What is normal-quiet for one institution may be loud for another. Generally speaking, when things are too quiet, they are abnormally silent. The prisoners that staff can always depend on to converse in loud voices are now non-verbal. There is no murmur. There are no vocalizations. The silence is normally reserved for the quiet loners and those who have adopted a vow of non-speaking for religious or personal reasons. It now has infected the other prisoners. Staff's institutional intuition is usually heightened as a result of the talking moratorium. A silent dining hall is as disturbing as a loud one.

What could silence mean? The dead silence periods can be described in one of the three T's. They are Tension, Test, and Threat.

Tension. If it is too quiet, it may be that prisoners are afraid for their own personal safety. Prisoners unwittingly act in concert in this instance. They collectively know that something terrible might happen soon. Usually, it can be supposed that there will be a major prisoner to prisoner grudge manifested in a fight or assault. The more quiet it is and the longer the period of silence, the bigger the expectation of violence.

Generally, when people are preoccupied and tense with a foreshadowing of danger, they become reflective and watchful. Tension-silence is the institutional version of this human condition. Here, prisoners are not acting together to purposely rattle staff.

Test. This sort of silence is a feign. Sometimes, prisoners join forces to test staff. Inmate leaders typically ask questions in this situation. How effective is this group of staff? Can we intimidate the officers with silence? Will they try to break the silence with nervous conversation when prisoners as a group hush themselves?

One purpose of this test may be just to use the information later. For example, this test could point out which officers easily succumb to the stress of broken communications. This is typically done in a newly opened prison with rather green staff.

It may also be a test of personal persuasion. The instigator may spread the word to see if prisoners will follow the lead. Also, the initiator will probably note which prisoners follow the suggestion. Whether it is a test of staff, prisoners, or of personal charisma and leadership, it is still a test.

Threat. Silence in the prisoner body can actually mean a threat for imminent action against staff. It is much more serious than the test because action is forthcoming. The test is only a reaction and information gathering exercise. With the treat-silence, the quiet is the signal for some maneuver. This is where the phrase, "It's almost too quiet!" fits best.

Certainly, the tension driven silence is potentially dangerous. However, it is different from the threat silence. In the former, the prisoners are not necessarily in control. In the latter, prisoners are purposely tying to control the tone. Remember; in the tension silence prisoners only anticipate that there may be some excitement. For the threat silence, prisoners intend to hurt staff.

Vigiliance, communications, and planning are major weapons in fighting any corrections battle. These work well against the three T's of silence. These are important habits of operation that corrections professionals use on a daily basis.

Vigilance is our primary function to perpetuate security. A forgotten part of watchfulness is documenting significant events. Unusual silence is an event to note. All staff feed information to the communications machine.

Communication should be between all areas of the facility. It is here that we brainstorm as to the cause of the silence. And, if there is a lingering silence in the prisoner body, other institutions should be informed. Perhaps the same phenomenon is occurring elsewhere simultaneously.

And, lastly, all facilities should have policies and procedures in place to deal with disturbances. Part of planning is reviewing and remembering what to do in case of emergencies. So, silence may not necessarily be golden in corrections. However, silence in corrections can be significant.

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” and "Operation Icebreakers: Shooting for Excellence" among others. 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.

Visit the Joe Bouchard page

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