R-E-S-P-E-C-T, and what it means in corrections

Here’s how corrections professionals can utilize respect to their advantage in dealing with inmates


By Curtis Isele

“Respect” is a simple word that can be blamed for a multitude of things in America, including everything from simple acts of mutual combat to criminal homicides (both premeditated and “heat of the moment” offenses). Respect, to me, is one of the most misinterpreted terms in the English language in both its definition and application. Respect to some individuals can mean “Don’t look at me wrong,” while to others it can mean saying “sir” or “ma’am” when addressing supervisory personnel or the elderly. This article will attempt to define respect as it relates to inmates and how corrections professionals can utilize this to their advantage to deal with inmates more interpersonally and effectively.

In general, you will have three types of incarcerated individuals: convicts, inmates, and first-timers.

Convicts are typically institutionalized and can simply not function in the free world; they usually are the most respectful, mature, and lethal of any general population. Convicts enjoy living the incarcerated life (this dependence may not be voluntary, but a product of the system), but like to live in peace and are usually very weary of inmates.

Inmates, on the other hand, are generally more boisterous, obnoxious, and cause more disruptions within a housing unit.

First timers often suffer from “ignorant bliss,” and may get into trouble primarily due to the unfortunate fact that they do not know how to “do time.” It is important for corrections professionals to see and understand these differences in the general inmate subculture.

Regardless of what genre of incarcerated peoples an individual falls into, all three tend to respond well to respectful officers.

From my experience, inmates throw the term “respect” around like dirty laundry. What do they mean by this? What do the inmates hope to receive? What is their definition of respect?

First, we need to understand the general composition of a contemporary inmate. No matter what the charge, no matter how bad or hardcore an inmate may or may not be, or the particular inmate’s background, inmates are expected to act a certain way once they are incarcerated. Inmates are groomed by the subculture and expected to fight when “called-out,” mistreated, or disrespected.  Inmates are chastised and/or severely injured when they talk to the police, don’t stick up for themselves, or rely on staff to alleviate all of their problems/issues.

We as correctional staff need to understand this subculture and come to the realization that we will not always know why things occur, nor should we expect that all incarcerated persons will voluntarily divulge sensitive information to us that can assist in maintaining the security of an institution. Often times things will just happen and corrections professionals should be well equipped mentally and physically to deal with these situations promptly and efficiently.

Contrary to popular belief, (and media’s portrayals) most corrections officers are assaulted not because inmates are hostile and aggressive, but because corrections officers do not know how to effectively communicate with inmates. Often times, officers fall victim to their respective egos as well as to the notion that they now have power. A common mistake rookies make when dealing with incarcerated populations is treating these incarcerated individuals as being beneath them.

It doesn’t matter what the crime or who these inmates have hurt in the free world, corrections is a business and we simply cannot have power trips when dealing with offenders! Inmates are human beings and should be afforded the common courtesy of being treated as such until they voluntarily surrender it! Inmates desire consistency, officers that speak to them with courtesy and officers that will utilize force when necessary.

When it comes to communicating with inmates, there are several things an officer should do in order to gain respect and ensure an effective operation of the housing unit and/or cell block. First, an officer should always start off by asking an inmate to comply with a policy and/or procedure. Statements such as “Hey man, can you fix that bunk up for me” carry massive amounts of clout and usually will be received by the inmates in a positive way. I cannot count the number of times I have asked inmates to do things and they have done them almost instantaneously without me having to repeat myself.

If asking does not work, then the next step is a direct, verbal order. At this point the inmate has disrespected the officer by not complying with a request, so now the officer is required to exert authority by demanding that the task be completed. If an inmate is simply testing limits, they will often comply at this point. Use of force should be the last step and only implemented when both asking and ordering have failed. Jumping to use of force may result in inmates fearing you, but not respecting you.

It’s crucial that officers say what they mean and mean what they say. At no point should an officer backtrack and overturn their past decisions or sanctions. Officers should allow the inmates to “dig their own graves” and ensure that inmates’ actions dictate disciplinary action. This can be traced back to the old adage teachers used on students, “I did not give you a D, you earned it.” This enables inmates to actually realize their actions were uncalled for, and required sanctions. It has been my experience that inmates will respect officers that ask them basic questions like “How are you doing,” that do not treat them as less-thans or deviants, that follow through with verbal promises, that counsel inmates privately when they violate rules, and that are consistent when it comes to the enforcing of institutional policy and procedure.

The bottom line is that corrections is a business and we as professionals cannot take things personally. It is the inmates’ primary job to trick, get-over on, and manipulate officers. It is the officers’ duty to recognize games, enforce rules, and catch inmates that are attempting to work the system. Speaking to inmates in a cool and collective tone, asking before ordering, and showing concern for an inmate’s wellbeing are three general concepts that can assist officers when it comes to having reciprocated respect from the inmates, staying safe, and smoothly running an institution.

If you apply these tactics, you may find that the inmates whom you use force on will understand your reasoning for the force, will accept the decision, and will most likely respect you after the fact. Be real, but never flex your muscle unnecessarily nor stray away from who you are as a person! There will always be a portion of inmates who will never comply with you nor will they reciprocate respect, but I would rather have the majority working with me rather than against me. 

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