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Cultural Diversity Training: Achieving the ‘Smooth Shift’
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 07/15/2019

Prisonyard Any correctional officer (CO) that works inside an institution wants ‘The Smooth Shift’-the tour of duty where there are minimal problems with inmates, everyone gets along and there are few incident reports. Wouldn’t it be nice to work a 12 or 8-hour shift where the inmates are quiet and cooperative? The more years a CO has on the job, the more he or she just wants to work a quiet shift and go home safely.

Cultural diversity training can factor in to trying to achieve a ‘smooth shift’. I present an in service training class in Cultural Diversity, required by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Not only do I discuss the behaviors and customs of several ethnic groups, I also discuss racial profiling. This column will give the corrections trainer some advice on presenting cultural diversity training.

First, I advise COs to keep a level head. The problems along the United States southern border are in the news every day. I have encountered COs that are frustrated; some say that if a person enters the United States from another country, especially in the case of illegal aliens, he or she should speak English. In a perfect world, perhaps that is true. However, COs and staff must work with the ‘hand that they are dealt’. Some illegal aliens and legal immigrants are arrested-and some do not speak English. We still must provide safe and humane confinement. What can the line CO do to get more inmates from other countries to learn and speak English? Other than suggesting to the inmate to take English as a Second Language classes, very little. I advise COs to use their training and deal effectively with the problem.

Second-realize that we are a mobile country. People from other counties can travel anywhere, thanks to our Interstate Highway system, air travel, etc. As a result, if illegal aliens come in through the southern U.S. border, they can go anywhere in the United States. A trainer should get statistics of the ethnic and race breakdowns in their state and locality. It is important for COs to know the population make-up of the jurisdictions they serve.

Third, I discuss the customs of people from other countries or ethnic groups. Many do not look people of authority in the eye. Many are shamed by being arrested and incarcerated; depression and despair may set in. For any cultural diversity trainer, it is advised that you discuss how people from other countries and ethnic groups act. Some are quiet and reserved; others are more animated. Some like to be in close proximity to each other, while people in the U.S. like a little distance between them. Some distrust people in law enforcement because they may have been told by relatives and friends from the ‘old country’ that police and corrections officers are brutal and corrupt. I call this ‘The Front Door Syndrome’. For example, a young person comes into the U.S. and lives with or is raised by an extended family under one roof-parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. Some of them remember the old country and may have opinions about the police and prisons-and many are negative. This is what the youth hears when at home-and then goes out the front door into the U.S. community. In an encounter with law enforcement, he or she remembers what their relatives said-it is something to consider.

Fourth: Racial profiling, discrimination and using racial/ethnic slurs have no place in law enforcement, including corrections. Racial profiling or the targeting of people for law enforcement stopping, arrest and detention based on race or ethnicity is unconstitutional and illegal. Racial profiling acts under the belief that members of a specific race or ethnic groups are engaging in crimes. Many laws provide relief to individuals who claim that they were targeted by law enforcement in this manner. (Feder, 2012). This is similar to saying that “all young black males are members of a street gang”, or “all Hispanics are illegal aliens”. It uses race instead of looking at facts uncovered in a proper law enforcement investigation, such as eyewitness descriptions, physical evidence, interrogations, etc.

Using racial and ethnic slurs is despicable, and any CO that uses them towards staff and inmates should be disciplined and counseled. To get this point across, I play a clip from the 1982 film The Twilight Zone. The clip features the late actor, Vic Morrow ranting to his friends in a bar about the blacks, Asians, and Jews. He did not get a promotion at his job; the promotion went to a Jew. Morrow angrily uses several racial and ethnic slurs in just under five minutes. After the clip-I ask the class if they would like to work with a person like that. Furthermore, I ask them what the inmates would think if they heard a CO speaking that way to them or about them. I state that our ‘smooth shifts’ depend on the inmates receiving respect from us, and treating them as people. We want them to do what we want, and communicate any problems or concerns to us.

Treating them as people also means having an understanding of their customs and beliefs. For example, a foreign inmate approaches a lazy CO who has his feet up on the desk (Hopefully this is very rare in many facilities). To that inmate, having another person’s feet pointed at the head is insulting. Or-we use some gestures that we take for granted, such as the ‘thumbs up’ (OK-great!) In some cultures, this gesture means ‘up yours’ (Cotton, 2013).

I wrap up the training with advice:
  • COs should remember that a person’s honor, dignity and reputation are important. It is degrading to be incarcerated, and that feeling should not be made worse.
  • Communications with people of other ethnic groups, nationalities and cultures should be courteous. Some staff may be bi-lingual or from ethnic groups represented in the inmate population. They can be an asset as interpreters. Smile at someone form another culture-it is the universal sign of friendship.
  • Swearing, insults and obscenities can be very offensive to inmates from other cultures. Inmates may not understand the language, but they probably sense that they are being insulted.
  • Some of our habits and gestures may be offensive, avoid sensitive symbols. For example, the Confederate battle flag-the ‘Stars and Bars’ may symbolize history. To others-it represents racial hate groups and bigoted views of some concerning minorities.
  • Use interpreters, either from an outside source or with bi lingual staff members. Always get as much clear, accurate information as you can. You can find out adjustment, medical and mental health problems.
  • Do not engage in racial profiling; treat all individuals with respect.
  • Racial bigotry has no place in corrections. If you are working with a bigot, especially one who likes to push inmates’ buttons and get them agitated, report this behavior to your supervisor. If you do not-and it continues unchecked, you will not have a ‘smooth’ shift with that CO-you will have a long, ‘bumpy’ one. This CO must be confronted and counseled about his or her behavior, including remedial training and discipline.
Everyone wants the ‘smooth shift’-and by practicing respect to inmates of minority groups, ethnic groups or from other countries, the smooth shift is a reality. To get respect from inmates-you must give respect.


Cornelius, Gary F. Cultural Diversity. Jail Staff In-Service Training Seminar, 2018.

Cotton, Gayle. (June 13, 2013, updated August 13, 2013). Gestures to Avoid in Cross Cultural Business: In Other Words, ‘Keep Your Fingers to Yourself’. The Huffington Post, Retrieved from https://www.bing.com/search?q=Gestures+to+Avoid+Cotton&form=PRUSEN&mkt=en-us&httpsmsn=1&refig=29bffb0e2530482c9bd3b9df6f0686c5&sp=-1&ghc=1&pq=gestures+to+avoid+cotton&sc=0-24&qs=n&sk=&cvid=29bffb0e2530482c9bd3b9df6f0686c5#

Feder, Jody. (April 16, 2012). Racial Profiling: Legal and Constitutional Issues. Congressional Research Service. www.crs.gov

The Twilight Zone, 1982 Feature Film.

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.

Visit the Gary Cornelius page

Other articles by Cornelius


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