Why 'firm, fair and consistent' works in inmate management

Remaining firm, fair, and consistent in managing inmates has stood the test of time


Successful officers are those committed to being consistently firm and consistently fair.

For decades, one of the basic principles taught to correctional officers has been to “always remain firm, fair and consistent.” As trends in corrections have changed and new approaches to managing inmates emerged, this one foundational rule seems to be as valuable today as it was 40 years ago.

There has been concern expressed, however, by those who feel that, as we learn more about mental illness and other cognitive disorders, officers should deviate from the firm, fair and consistent approach.  

Developing a consistent work personality can define your reputation as an officer for the duration of a career. (Photo/Pixabay)
Developing a consistent work personality can define your reputation as an officer for the duration of a career. (Photo/Pixabay)

Evidence shows that different inmates respond differently to various management and communication approaches. These differences can be based on variables ranging from an offender’s gender to their level of cognitive functioning and mental health status to their trauma history. Frequently, individuals respond to supervision differently based on their own unique personality and personal history. This fact is not exclusive to inmates or to corrections.

Those with more than one child can attest to the fact that each child is unique and each may require a different approach when it comes to discipline, communication and motivation.

Still there are those who feel that a firm, fair and consistent attitude somehow contradicts a philosophy of targeted and fluid approach to supervision. These people likely picture an officer who is rigid, unwavering and who lacks creativity in problem solving. In reality, however, the opposite is true.

Officers who are firm, fair, and consistent frequently have several things in common. It’s important to define the term and what it is about the approach that enables it to stand the test of time.

Firm

The term “firm” is likely where the confusion begins. A simple internet search of the definition of “firm” reveals that it refers to “being solid or unyielding.” With this in mind, it’s no wonder why some view firm, fair and consistent as being a style that does not support a more dynamic and fluid method of supervision. It’s important to note however, that “firm” can also refer to an “attitude showing resolute determination and strength of character.”

The “firm” in firm, fair and consistent refers to officers who are resolute in their commitment to doing the right thing. Officers should come to work each day, committed to doing the job that the public expects of them. This means enforcing rules and laws, following proper procedures and serving as an effective role model. They should not be swayed, persuaded, or intimidated by offenders (or staff) and should stand firm in their resolve and commitment to doing the right thing.

Fair

Being “fair” is meant to compliment “firm” rather than contradict it. Being fair does not mean managing every offender and every situation exactly the same, using the same approach, and certainly does not suggest being a pushover.  Instead, it refers to giving every offender the same opportunity or a fair baseline from which to start, depending on the offender in question. A fair approach to managing offenders would include fairly exercising discretion, fairly administering discipline, and not allowing personal bias to prejudice decision-making.

Consistent

The “consistent” aspect is perhaps the most encompassing and involved component of firm, fair and consistent. The consistency needed to effectively supervise offenders begins the moment that you walk into your facility. Have you left your personal problems at home? Are you in a bad mood? The answers to these and other questions can determine the approach you take when supervising offenders.

Developing a consistent work personality can define your reputation as an officer for the duration of a career.

The larger aspect of “consistent” encompasses the first two: firm and fair. Officers should consistently remain firm and fair in their supervision and management approach. To be firm and fair one day and to be something different the next creates conflict among the offenders being supervised. For example, if inmates know that a particular officer consistently enforces a specific rule, they are less likely to act out when that rule is enforced. Compare this to an officer who never enforces a particular rule one day, then goes on a rampage the next day enforcing the rule as if it’s “the crime of the century.”

The “consistent” aspect is where many opponents of firm, fair, and consistent find the greatest area of dissent. Consistency suggests treating every situation exactly the same. This disparity should be clarified as this is not the intent of within the firm, fair, and consistent inmate management philosophy.

For example, an offender with extremely low cognitive functioning may break a rule simply not knowing any better or as a product of his cognitive disability. Another higher functioning inmate may willingly and knowingly break that same rule. If the objective of discipline is to correct behavior, then writing the same disciplinary report and administering the same sanction may not yield the same result with both offenders.

The chances are that if the first offender lacked the ability to understand the inappropriateness of the initial behavior, he’s not likely to understand the purpose of the report and the connection with the subsequent discipline. It’s possible that a more immediate and appropriate sanction may be better suited. The second offender, on the other hand, may better understand that his behavior ultimately led to the sanction that stripped him of some of his “good time.”

The goal with both offenders is connecting the dots between certain behaviors, their consequences, and changing the unwanted behavior. This means being consistent in our efforts to make decisions appropriate to the individual and circumstances at hand.

Not black and white

As those working in law enforcement and corrections understand, every decision is not black and white. There’s an incredible amount of discretion involved when it comes to decision-making. The goal of officers is to exercise appropriate discretion and judgment in effectively managing offenders within our custody. Successful officers are those who are firm in their resolve and commitment to doing the right thing. Successful officers are those who are fair in assessing each situation, making decisions and administering sanctions.

Finally, successful officers are those who are committed to being consistently firm and consistently fair. The job of a corrections officer is one that is as complex as the human being. The key to being a successful corrections officer is being firm, fair and consistent.  

About the author

Rusty is a corrections academy Training Specialist. He began his career in 1997 working as a Correctional Officer at a men’s medium security prison. While working in the prison he also served as K-9 Sergeant, Lieutenant, and Captain. He was a member of the Correctional Emergency Response Team for 15 years and holds current law enforcement instructor certifications in Defensive Tactics, Chemical Agents, and Firearms. In 2013 he moved to his current position where he instructs courses in several topics within the field of corrections. Rusty received his Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice Administration from Bellevue University and completed graduate work at Fort Hayes State University. Rusty can be contacted by by email.

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