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How correctional officers can improve inmate communication

The three minutes you invest by stopping and talking to an inmate is the hour you may save later in the day

By Zohar Zaied, C1 Contributor 

 “Are you working the floor today? Bring a can of ‘Leg-Off’ with you.”

We’ve all heard the warnings at shift change, or while running special assignments. Inmates are a needy group. They need toilet paper, their meds, a Band-Aid, yard time. For a deputy on the floor, the requests are singular and simple to address. However, the more decision-making power you have as an individual, the more you’re going to hear your name called out.

In this Aug. 17, 2011 file photo, reporters inspect one of the two-tiered cell pods in the Security Housing Unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
In this Aug. 17, 2011 file photo, reporters inspect one of the two-tiered cell pods in the Security Housing Unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

While assigned to classification, I walked into an administrative segregation unit one morning. I had a list of inmates to speak with and a tight schedule. I was already behind for the week. This was going to be the day I caught up. Sound familiar?

One wide-eyed inmate with hopes he would get good news that day called my name. He called it very loudly and made enough of an echo to wake the unit. I ignored him. Two others called my name and I waved them off, focused on the path I had set to complete my mission. With increasing sincerity and intensity, more inmates called my name to the point I was becoming distracted.

I looked around and found a few inmates laughing while they called my name. They didn’t need anything. They just saw me start to get distracted and wanted to watch the show. They got me!

I took a breath, got my composure back, and sang out, “Say my name, say my name” in a pretty good falsetto. I got a collective laugh and even a few claps. More important, I got control of the unit back with a bit of humor.

I addressed what was happening, I responded to it in a creative manner, and I continued on with my day, avoiding a potentially large and unnecessary detour.

The value of time spent listening

Talking to inmates is a much simpler proposition in direct supervision facilities. Staying focused on one unit allows you the time to remain engaged with the inmates. That same confined space can test your patience meter. Inmates have the opportunity to chip at you all day and, in some cases, for an entire six-month rotation in a housing unit.

In a setting where you’re walking through housing units for minutes on the hour, it’s much easier to wave off inmate attempts to engage you.

You can blow inmates off with, “Not now, I’ve got a lot to do, gotta go, here’s a request form.”

You can move on and stay off radar for a majority of the shift.

But you’re building overall discontent and pressure you may be passing on to a team member at shift change or back on yourself the following day.

The three minutes you invest by stopping and talking to any inmate is the hour you may save later in the day by not having to address bad behavior or a fight and most definitely a report. You can answer most questions within those minutes and often respond to simple requests with yes or no

Even if what the inmate wants is outside what you’re willing or able to give, your time spent listening will pay dividends. You’re showing the inmate you care enough to stop and listen. You’ve already done your duty. At this point, you can say no, as long as you are not in “Auto-No” mode.

How (and why you want to) explain “no”

You don’t have to explain your “no” answers, but what if you do?

Try following up with, “You’ve been doing time longer then me, Smith, you know better.” Or, “I’m not giving you an extra pair of socks because I don’t have an extra pair for Jones or Ford over there.”

In this case, you demonstrate your refusals come from a reasonable place and you’re not just saying no automatically. More important, you are giving a little extra time to the inmate.

You can apply the same method to any inmate attempts to manipulate via a positive interaction.

You just said yes to Inmate Taylor’s request and Taylor follows up with, “See, I told you guys Officer Bell is the good one. He’s the only one who really cares about us.”

Taylor is hoping you will do something for him no one else will do, most likely something against your facility policy. In ignoring Taylor, you don’t give yourself the opportunity to call him out on his efforts. You may also be demonstrating you are not smart enough to see what he’s doing. The inmates may think you’re too lazy to address the comment. Worst, now Inmate Taylor thinks you may be uncomfortable with confrontation.

Respond with something witty, serious, or any other appropriate comment from your tool bag. Even if you’ve used the same response a hundred times, you’re demonstrating you know what Inmate Taylor is up to, showing you’re not afraid of what he’s up to, and communicating to Taylor and his palls that the con is not effective. Most important, you have responded and remained engaged.

A danger to your facility

Disengaged corrections staff become a target for inmate tests. If you ignore the little things, inmates will want to know what else you will ignore. Your shifts will become harder as you move through, ignoring increasingly intensified attempts by inmates to push your limits and bend or break rules.

A disengaged staff member spells good news for any inmate with plans to avoid detection. Whether the inmate is hiding alcohol in their cell, or making plans to bring in a weapon from the yard, they will count on a disengaged staff member to allow success in their nefarious plans.

A disengaged staff member makes life more difficult for proactive staff members by creating an example to the inmates that is bad for staff, but good for any inmates who want to break rules.

The inmates learn to expect a lower level of care and become incredulous when a proactive staff member conducts a random cell search for contraband. Most of this inmate reaction is fabricated to make you uncomfortable, but some of it comes from the comparison they get to make between the proactive staff member and the “cool guard” who doesn’t care.

We’ve all had those moments where we were too busy to stop, or just needed a break from endless inmate requests.  It’s ok to check out for a few moments, take a walk, or spend a break talking to your partner about anything but work. Disengage away from inmates, but when you return, stay on point

The payoff

Think back to a moment in your facility when a group of inmates were out of control. Maybe they were protesting cold showers, they felt slighted, or the air conditioning didn’t work. Before CERT marched in, jail staff made attempts to communicate with the group and address the incident peacefully. Who did the inmates demand to speak with?

In some cases, inmates ask for a sergeant or lieutenant. Often they’ll ask for specific line staff members. Sure, sometimes it’s just a game to see how many hoops staff will run through, but when the inmates are actually angry, they want to talk with someone who has shown care in the past. 

If you establish a history of engaged interactions with inmates, you will be rewarded with the benefit of two-way communication. When there is a legitimate problem brewing in a housing unit, inmates seek out engaged staff members. The staff member who cares enough to stop and talk to inmates about their next court date is the same staff member who will pause to address issues before they blow up or while control of inmates is actively falling apart.

About the author
Zohar Zaied works as a corrections deputy in California.

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