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Fear, Power and Respect
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 06/25/2018

Alphalion Since joining the New Mexico Corrections Department in 1985, I have learned that many interactions with another person or groups, you must be empathic and show respect. In a class delivered by the late George Thompson, the founder of Verbal Judo, I learned that if you take the time to invest in human behavior and study it well, you will find the clues of balancing the rules of power and fear.

This is something that every correctional employee could possess in their jobs. We know that by accepting the position of the job, you can claim a certain level of authority to exercise this legal power. However, authority rarely solves the problem when faced with resistance or noncompliance in a prison setting.

Today, only a fool would deny that there is a correlation between fear and the amount of power people seek as well as how fear and power relate to respect of oneself and of another person. Can you recall those times when you transported a noncompliant and hostile prisoner to obey to your directives and managed to get the person into total compliance? When asked by fellow officers how you managed to get the prisoner there without the use of force, did you attributed the perp’s placidity to having been treated with respect? Often enough, the answer is yes.

Think about it seriously. Did you attribute this task to your authority or your level of respect? Do you really believe that authority trumps respect and that power gives you respect? Of course not, the authority you carry or possess can bring fear and fear can make any situation unbalanced or unfavorable in odds for compliance.

Treating people with respect is happening less and less with many correctional officers today. With the shifting prison policies of correctional agencies that are increasing in size and becoming a bit militarized, we are experiencing more aggressive and bully-like tactics. They rely on their authority to give them power and it is this power that many people fear to cause adverse reactions that escalate many situations.

For those in the public sector, this translates into allegations of police brutality and is a symptom of a greater problem. Corrections is an honorable occupation and with it carries long-standing customs and traditions that are often interrelated with the police on the street and how they handle violators of law or institutional rules and regulations. What I am concerned about is that I believe that the more power an officer holds, the more ruthless - that is lacking in empathy – they become as they draw potential new employees who are attracted to it. I’m only referring to government jobs because those positions hold an exclusive role and monopoly on legal force. I am also concerned about what may be the motivation behind the desire to hold these jobs.

I recalled how our instructor, George Thompson, taught us that to be empathic, we must know or learn what motivates a person to resist or to comply. What it is called is simply, a situational awareness and or a behavioral assessment. There are many motivations that tempt us every day but inside a prison, freedom to move, housing, food, visits, medical care, family, access to personal property etc. are strong drivers of behavior.

In many cases, whenever you encounter someone who is on the brink of breaking a rule or law, they fear retaliation and punishment as fear is a prime motivator for humans. It’s true that when they break a rule, consequences are rarely thought about. If that was the case, there would be fewer people incarcerated in jails and prisons.

Fear is something we learned through our own life experiences and rooted deeply to cause or create positive or negative reactions. In the terms of being empathic, it is their identity with their fear that is important to recognize so you can calm them down. Keep in mind, our identity is created by the fear we have experienced in our childhood and life.

The same rules apply to those who are incarcerated and who have experienced the same things including trauma and pain in life. I believe there is a correlation between fear and the amount of power people seek. As an officer, we must be about working hard to identify the prisoner’s fear and amount of self-power he or she must maintain a respectful approach and balance to the situation.

Keep in mind those important elements of legitimate psychological forces that play into every scenario. Take into consideration the embarrassment, humiliation, the stripping of their power and submittal to the rules and regulations in an audience presence type of situation and keep in mind how their own fears play in their heads when it comes time to decide which course is the best action to take.

In some related issues, e.g. gang linked encounters, hostage taking, barricaded in a cell or confined area, etc. there are strong dynamic forces at play that one must recognize to make the best decision. In those cases, policy supersedes anything that is harmful to the end of the crisis or situation.

An individual’s motivation for power is to acquire control over his or her environment. A certain amount of controlling behavior is a normal and natural survival instinct, but after a point it becomes harmful. If not managed, it will leak over the red line of applying force to take control of the situation and person resisting. Time and patience are sometimes the best management tools available as the situation permits. A face to face encounter inside a housing unit or recreation field may yield a solution if not taken personal and egos don’t block the empathy required to solve the problem.

When that happens, normal survival is no longer the motivator. Keep in mind, respect works both ways. Underlying the quest for power is fear, and the desire for power is to eliminate fear. An equalizer of sorts. The fear of losing respect may push someone over the line. The more fearful a person is the more control over their environment the more they believe they have a need to feel safe.

Merriam-Webster offers this definition of Power: “possession of control, authority, or influence over others.” The average person understands that it must be earned. Known as “Referent Power,” it is the ability of an individual to attract followers and build loyalty through charisma, leadership, and management skills as this transfer into the ability to achieve compliance with the least amount of effort or force to control the situation at hand.

Keep this in mind when you are dealing with someone who has this referent power in the yard, in the unit or during dialogues in meetings. Disrespect can trigger negative events to occur. For a correctional officer, this power, and the prestige [respect] that goes with it is only as good as the individual’s honor and reputation.

Corrections.com author, Carl ToersBijns, (retired), has worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Carl’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

Other articles by ToersBijns:


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