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Jail Units: ‘Aquariums’
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 05/24/2022

Jail interior In the fast-moving field of corrections, training, equipment, and knowledge about inmates is improving. We have better communications equipment, security surveillance equipment, and training curriculum.

However, one aspect of keeping inmates in custody has remained consistent through the years-how well the correctional officer (CO) observes the inmates in his or her area. Also-how well the CO gets to know the inmates continues to be very important. Supervising inmates inside a jail unit is not like being an usher inside a movie theatre. A theatre usher looks for safety violations (such as people smoking), people making noise or making sure that they safely walk through the darkened theatre.

Inside a jail unit-no matter what the security level-it is very different. The people in your charge resent two things. First, they resent being there. They were charged with or convicted of breaking the law. Second, they resent authority-your authority of enforcing the law and the rules. You govern what they can do, what they cannot do, where they can go, where and with whom they live, and so on. Some inmates accept their situation, and some do not.

You, as the on-duty CO, must get to know these inmates. You must ascertain how they may behave. Are there troublemakers? Are there immature inmates? Are there inmates who will simply ‘go with the flow’ and get along with others-and you?

According to retired New York City corrections officer Larone Koonce, supervising an inmate unit is like observing fish inside an aquarium. Officer Koonce, a veteran with 20 years’ experience makes some good points in his 2012 book: Correction Officer’s Guide to Understanding Inmates: The Forty-Four Keys to Power, Control and Respect. It is a good read, and I commend Officer Koonce on his insight.

Have you ever maintained an aquarium? I have and I can see the similarities between my career as a jail deputy and maintaining an aquarium, or ‘fish tank.’ As Koonce states, some fish swim alone. Some fish swim only with their species; others swim with others regardless of species. Some fish are predators and target others; some fish are prey and sometimes are sometimes easy prey. Some fish swim very slowly; others swim fast-darting here and there. Some fish appear healthy and active-while others do not.

Let us apply this to the field of corrections. You report for duty and are assigned to a housing unit. It may be your first tour in that unit, or you may have been there before. You may be a veteran, or you may have been ‘cut loose’ from on-the-job training and signed off to work independently by your field training officer. Your key duty and responsibility are to observe the inmates in your custody.

So-take the ‘Aquarium Approach.’ Interact with the inmates as often and as much as you can. Note that some inmates only associate or socialize with inmates of same gang or race. Other inmates like staying to themselves, wanting to be left alone. Look for inmates who are prey, and which inmates are predators.

Also, please be aware that some inmates may not appear well-either physically or mentally. When I had my fish tank, I would notice when a fish appeared ill or unhealthy. As you gain more experience, your ‘gut’ will tell you what is going on with inmates in your area.

What could be going on based on your observations? An inmate displaying strange and uncharacteristic behavior could be showing warning signs of the following:
  • Suicide: An inmate who is sociable, talkative, and jovial becomes quiet and withdrawn. He or she may not be able to sleep. He or she may start giving away items such as sneakers or canteen items while telling others that they should have them, ‘because I won’t be needing them.’ And you know that the inmate is not getting out any time soon. Or-an inmate’s demeanor changes dramatically after a court appearance, sentencing, an attorney visit, a personal visit (glass/phone or through a tablet), using the phone or after mail call. You observe that something is wrong-and it is your duty to investigate further. In addition, inmates become depressed after arguments with family, friends, attorneys, and significant others. The inmate is upset, and his or her thinking may be clouded, resulting in being impulsive. Ask the inmate if he or she is all right or if something is wrong. Be concerned-they are people and fall under your responsibility. You can ask if suicidal thoughts have entered the picture. If suicide is a possibility, follow your agency’s policy in suicide prevention. Do not be phony-you must be concerned.
  • Being a victim: An inmate who exhibits behavioral changes may be a victim. Being preyed upon may range from having food stolen off the trays, canteen being taken to more serious incidents such as physical and sexual assault. Once again, you must investigate. If you notice that an inmate’s behavior has changed, talk to the inmate and the inmates who know him/her. Most of the time, they will notice that something is wrong, or an inmate is being victimized by predators. Take action-talk to your supervisors.
  • Management problems: Everyone in corrections wants a ‘Smooth Shift.’ This means that inmates are calm, there are little or no arguments, inmate horseplay, rule violations, loud noises, etc. Do you observe inmates that are loud, boisterous and bother others? Do not ignore this behavior. An argument may occur-some inmates do not like immature, incompatible management problems. Many inmates like peace and quiet-just like you do.
In closing, look at your unit, dorm, or area as a type of aquarium. Like the fish swimming in an aquarium, inmates exhibit different types of behavior. Get to know the inmates in your area or unit and observe how they behave. Be aware of what their behavior may mean. It will make your job easier.

Reference:
Koonce, Larone. (2012). Correction Officer’s Guide to Understanding Inmates: The Forty-Four Keys to Power, Control and Respect. Atlanta: Koonce Publishing.

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: punishment and corrections, community corrections, jails and preparation for internship. 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. He has also presented webinars and Skype presentations on correctional issues. 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, including The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition, (2009) from the American Correctional Association, and
The American Jail: Cornerstone of Modern Corrections, (2008) from Pearson Prentice Hall. 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. In January 2011, Gary started a blog “Tales from the Local Jail” on The Corrections Connection (www.corrections.com) followed in December 2012 by his second blog, “Talks About Training” on Corrections One (www.correctionsone.com). Gary has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP) representing local adult corrections. He has corrections projects in development, including, a new second edition of The Twenty Minute Trainer, from the Civic Research Institute, and a new third edition of Stressed Out: Strategies For Living and Working in Corrections from Carolina Academic Press. Gary has appeared on CNN, MSNBC and Tier Talk, discussing corrections security, training and staff issues. He presents training for InTime Solutions and Lexipol. He resides in Williamsburg, Virginia.


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