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How to handle fear in corrections

Recent videos appear to show correctional officers failing to intervene during inmate attacks on their co-workers. What factors could be at play behind this inaction?


Six Rikers Island inmates attacked a 39-year-old correctional officer sending him to the intensive care unit at the New York Presbyterian Queens on February 10, 2018. Video of this incident shows an officer appear to stand by and watch as his fellow officer is beaten by these six inmates. Even after backup arrives, the officer does not intervene to help stop the inmates or remove the attacking inmates from the scene.

On the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day 2017, two Rikers Island captains were caught on video surveillance running away while another captain was viciously attacked by an inmate. Both captains have since been demoted.

Violent attacks on correctional officers are becoming more prevalent than ever. Correctional officers must be alert and ready to assist fellow officers at any given moment. Our lives depend on our partner’s physical training and mental fortitude to intervene and protect us if we are assaulted by inmates. But how do we ensure fear doesn’t paralyze correctional officers? Here are five steps you can take to handle fear in corrections:

Pictured is a still shot of the surveillance video that captured six inmates attacking a CO in the George Motchan Detention Center at Rikers. (Photo/NYC DOC)
Pictured is a still shot of the surveillance video that captured six inmates attacking a CO in the George Motchan Detention Center at Rikers. (Photo/NYC DOC)

1. Adequately train and screen new officers

Agencies must train correctional officers how to use force to stop an inmate attacker. We must remove the fear that we could lose our job over a necessary life-saving use of force. We must also train that hesitation will cause serious injury or death during an inmate attack against an officer.

Any officer who believes another officer is scared of inmates needs to inform a supervisor. The supervisor should speak privately with the officer who may be in fear of the inmates. It takes all of us to work together to train and teach each other. Supervisors must also get out of their office to see what is going on with their people.

2. Provide peer support

Correctional officers face many stressful situations. If a CO feels he or she cannot handle the stress, they must find the strength to tell a supervisor before someone gets seriously hurt. Many agencies have programs that can help you with stress and fear. If an officer comes to a supervisor with this issue I truly hope the officer will be taken seriously and guided in the right direction.

Remember it takes strength to come forward and report a weakness; this is not a laughing matter. It is our duty to protect and help our staff. If counseling and training fails to help the officer then maybe this is the wrong career field for that officer. 

3. Leaders must support their staff

When I see not one but two incidents of COs failing to intervene at the same facility, I begin to wonder, where has the leadership gone?  This type of behavior damages staff morale. How can officers go to work every day and wonder:

  • Does this officer have my back?
  • Am I going to get help if attacked by an inmate?
  • Who can I trust?

We all know these questions are going through the minds of COs, causing additional stress and low morale.

When staff are attacked, it is time for leaders to start talking both to the media and the legislature, so everyone knows the problems we are facing.

4. Investigate the CO

When I see officers appear not to help a fellow officer who is being attacked by inmates, I am reminded of my prison inspector days and I start questioning the integrity of these officers. Not only would I investigate the inmates and file criminal charges for the highest felony possible, I would also investigate the officer who failed to assist an officer in need.

I would also investigate to see if the officer was in with the inmates. Maybe he or she had prior dealings with these inmates involving contraband or gang affiliated activities. It would not be the first time this was the case.

5. Understand what causes performance failure

Several studies show that fear is the number one reason an officer hesitates to engage in a dangerous situation.  Fear is a completely normal human emotion we sometimes deal with at the subconscious level.  An officer can fear his or her own death and totally freeze up and not react. Fear then causes performance failure.

Another cause of performance failure for officers is the fear of losing their jobs. Many administrations today are placing disciplinary sanctions on officers for a number of reasons and some officers are afraid to use force in any situation. Second guessing what should be done causes injury or worse during an inmate attack on an officer. Again we must train that it is not a violation to use force on an attacking inmate.

Officers also fear retaliation from the media. In many cases a correctional officer who defends himself or another officer is described by the media as “another abusive guard.” Many COs are fearful of being labeled for life and not being able to find another job.

These are all factors that can contribute to fear or hesitation. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described above, get help now. If you do not help your fellow officer, you will in most cases be demoted or lose your job, while your colleague could lose their life.

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