From 'screw you' to 'thank you': How to talk to an inmate's parent

The lobby provides a majority of your contact with the public. Never discount the potential to build good will in the community


By Zohar Zaied

You’ve been on duty for seven hours with five more to go. It’s your fifth 12-hour shift of the week and your patience meter is way down. Control directs you to the lobby to speak with a man about his son.

“Sir, how can I help you?” you ask.

You start with a smile, but the words are routine. You’re phoning it in at this point, but at least you’re trying.

“Yeah, I hope you can help me,” he replies. “The guy on the intercom couldn’t help. I wanna know what’s going on here! Can you please tell me what my son is doing in jail?” 

This is public knowledge and you tell the man why his son was arrested. You make every attempt to give the information he wants. You tell him why you cannot give him certain information. You deflect his veiled insults.

Finally, he says it: “I pay your salary, you overpaid babysitter! You’re not a cop.  You’re not even a man!” He finishes his barrage. His face is red. Your face is red too, and you want so badly to give him a piece of your mind.  

How do you win when a tax-paying voter and a man not beholden to the strict behavioral rules set forth inside your jail directs his anger at you? How do you win an argument you lost on initial contact?

TURN IT AROUND

In incidents where a member of the public focuses verbal aggressions at corrections staff, the most rewarding outcomes involve an apology on his or her part. Better yet, you get a “thank you” when all is said and done.

One obstacle in converting “screw you” to “thank you” is your ego. You’re a correctional officer or a corrections deputy. You may be a facility supervisor.  You’ve had years of training. You know how to deescalate a violent mental health patient who may or may not know any better. You also know when it’s “go time” and a flailing drunk has to be physically restrained. Most important, you know how to control a situation.

You can’t control a person in your lobby when that person hasn’t broken any laws. You can excuse him. You can tell him you’re done helping him because he’s being rude. You can walk away. 

Don’t stop trying to help. Don’t walk away.

A LITTLE EMPATHY

The angry man who walked into your lobby isn’t angry at you. He’s probably not angry at the jail. Maybe he’s not even angry with the officer who arrested his son. He’s embarrassed. He’s a little lost as to what to do. He doesn’t have a clue how to navigate the justice system, or he’s expecting the worst from past navigations.  He’s probably very angry at his son.

He wants you to be angry back at him and give him the satisfaction of honoring his poor expectations. He wants you to turn away so he can say, “You see! I told you these people are completely incompetent and, what’s more, they don’t care!”

Engage the man. Address his anger, embarrassment and frustration. 

“Man, we love our kids, don’t we? They sure can give a man gray hairs.”

If you say that to any parent, I don’t care how angry they are at the world you will give that parent pause to think. You will make an instant connection. I’ve had people break down after I have said this, just moments after they charged into my lobby. 

 “They break our hearts sometimes, don’t they?” 

At this point, you are a dad and he is a dad. You’ve addressed, honored and validated what he is experiencing. Your conversation will be more cordial and your “nos” will land on softer ground. 

Making angry dad acutely aware you care will open him up to tell you what he needs from you. None of his other needs will come close to breaking the barrier you’ve already torn down. He may want to know what the bail is – done! He may ask what’s next – easy. He may want to know when his son goes to court. Tell him when. It’s not a secret. 

BUILD GOOD WILL

You’ve got plenty to do. Who has time to engage an angry man in the lobby?   Inmates need to be fed. You’re down two reports. You have a disciplinary hearing to follow up on. These functions are important, but don’t discount the potential to build good will in the community. In a correctional setting, the lobby provides a majority of your contact with the public. We build public trust one contact at a time. 

Imagine if you have 100 percent contact satisfaction when parents, lawyers, bail bonds agents and doctors walk away from your lobby, regardless of what condition each came into your lobby. What support will your jail receive if there’s a false complaint of mistreatment? How will the community respond when the jail needs help, understanding or empathy?

Imagine the day you walk by the tattooed OG who only cares about his mother and sister. This guy cares little for the law or anyone outside his family and gang. You walk by him and he stops you with a serious look on his face. You brace yourself for a complaint or attempted demand. The inmate nods and thanks you for treating his family with respect when they came into your lobby last week. Who wins in this scenario?    

WHO WE SERVE

At the end of the day, most inmates come from social circles that include the people who will end up in your lobby. When we help our angry lobby dads, we improve the jail’s standing with the citizenry. In doing so, we carry out our mission to serve and further partnerships in the community.

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