How a dynamic response mindset improves correctional officer safety

Deploying multiple skills at the same time helps correctional professionals be more effective in an ever-changing environment


An inmate approaches you in your minimum-security housing unit. He chats you up a bit, telling you about his challenges. He tells you about what’s going on with his family on the outside, his dreams and his hopes, and how he still has a year until his out date. You listen to the inmate and offer some empathy for his situation. You encourage him to keep working on himself and get back on his feet.

At this point, you are using your communication skills to build rapport. This is a positive contact. You’re doing your part for the rehabilitation component of corrections.

The inmate then tells you that you are a good person and opines that you must truly care about the human beings under your care. Now, your observation skills kick in and your response to this inmate changes.

A true professional has the ability to employ many response tools at the same time when interacting with inmates. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
A true professional has the ability to employ many response tools at the same time when interacting with inmates. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

You maintain your professional demeanor, but bells ring in the back of your head. It could be that the inmate really means what he just said. If this guy is just having a positive reaction to your level of caring, then good for you for building some positive capital within the inmate population.

Then, while he figures  you are now emotionally connected with him, the inmate drops the question.

“Hey, man.”

(Informal, because you’re friends now, right?) 

“The game is on past lockdown today. Any chance we could keep the TV on during count? I tried asking the control officer, but he said you’re running the show.”

(The ego boost because you’re the boss.)

There it is. He was just working you for a small favor.

Maybe that would have worked on a rookie, but not you. You have been trained on this stuff. You have read articles about downing the duck. You know the games inmates play. You’re irritated and tell him to get lost.

You say to yourself, “Next time, just cut that friendly talk out when it starts, and move on. These inmates have all day to figure out ways to take down your defenses.” You determine you will build up your defensive shell for the next time an inmate tries to play you with a positive conversation.

However, before you come across this kind of inmate again, ask yourself if you are able to be both hard-shelled AND show care at the same time. Can you fend off an inmate’s manipulation attempt while maintaining a positive exchange with that same inmate?

The correctional response spectrum

We have a spectrum of responses to different inmate behaviors. It takes good training and experience for most of us to fill that spectrum with the tools we need every day to respond appropriately as inmate behavior changes from hour to hour, from inmate to inmate, and from unit to unit.

With time, we learn to adjust our response level on that spectrum, increasing and lowering the level of intensity as circumstances develop.

On one side of this sliding scale is the positive response to a well-behaved inmate who is just having a short conversation with you in passing. On the other side, is a call for backup and you going hands-on with a combative inmate. In between are all the different response mindsets we have to put ourselves into to function properly in a prison or jail in order to manage an inmate population that greatly outnumbers corrections staff.

When we de-escalate a scared mental health patient, we use a different tone of voice and different words than the average inmate. The angry gang member, who didn’t get his visits this week, requires a completely different attitude, choice of words and level of command presence than the inmate worker who didn’t make his bunk.

Combining your responses

High-functioning corrections officers pick and choose multiple tools from the spectrum of response and apply them at the same time. The farther on the spectrum from each other these deployed tools are, the more focused officers have to be to effectively use them in combination.

Next time you find yourself in a seemingly harmless exchange with a relaxed inmate, don’t be afraid to show some empathy and kindness. At the same time, keep your guard up and make sure the inmate knows you have not let your guard down. The old adage, “Don’t confuse my kindness for weakness” is exactly what your expressions and body language should project.

Most important, stay away from the sarcasm that inmate games can build in corrections staff. Sarcasm is an easy way to respond to a difficult reality, but if an inmate sees you have built a level of sarcasm into your demeanor, he will know the job and the inmate population has affected you and that you lack internal fortitude.

Instead of sarcasm, maintain vigilance, while exchanging a few kind words with an inmate. You will serve two important functions. You will project internal fortitude – a defense against inmate mind games – and you will, at the same time, build a positive moment with the inmate. When repeated, this process spreads a safer environment in your facility. At the same time, the mix of kindness and vigilance gives inmates fewer opportunities to find ways to get staff in trouble.

The professional

A local police officer once brought an arrestee into our county jail. The arrestee became combative with corrections staff right away and the arresting officer stayed on to assist. As the team worked to control the fighting arrestee, the arresting officer engaged, along with the team. Without losing any amount of intensity in his work to control the arrestee, the arresting officer talked to the arrestee in a reassuring tone and told him no one wanted to hurt him.

The arresting officer’s language, tone of voice and expressions were pulled from the opposite end of the response spectrum than his physical response to the arrestee. He was completely in control of his tools and the arresting officer was effective, not letting the incident affect his abilities. What’s more, the video and audio recording of the incident left no question that the officer was in control of his emotions and had no intention of harming the combative arrestee.

A true professional has the ability to employ many response tools at the same time when interacting with inmates. The ability to dynamically use multiple tools from your response spectrum takes focus and intent. In doing so, your response to any situation, whether it is a simple conversation, or a use of force incident, will be more effective and ultimately keep you safer and out of trouble.

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