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How emotional intelligence benefits correctional officers

When faced with a volatile situation, we must act with the utmost integrity and ensure our actions remain within the legal and departmental boundaries of our jobs


By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

In their bestselling book Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves discuss the importance of understanding emotions in ourselves and in others – and write about how to use this information to manage our behavior and relationships. Over the last decade, emotional intelligence has attracted the attention of researchers, practitioners and the general public. It has also captured my own personal fascination.

As a 28-year criminal justice veteran, I was interested in how emotional intelligence applies to the field of corrections. On November 17, I presented at the 37th annual North Carolina Correctional Association training conference. In my presentation, “Transformational Leadership: Improving the Culture of American Corrections,” I found it was useful to incorporate some of the concepts from Bradberry and Greaves’ book.

Our safety, and that of our co-workers, inmates and visitors, is dependent on our ability to remain in control of our emotions at all times. (Photo/American Military University)
Our safety, and that of our co-workers, inmates and visitors, is dependent on our ability to remain in control of our emotions at all times. (Photo/American Military University)

Emotional intelligence is crucial for a correctional officer for whom dealing with prisoners on a daily basis can be both challenging and draining. However, despite growing awareness about suicide rates among law enforcement officers, little has been said for correctional officers. Indeed, in the law enforcement classes I teach, we go into great depth about the risks of stress, burnout, depression and suicide among police officers. But in my corrections classes, emotions are rarely, if ever, discussed.

Society as a whole tends to undervalue interpersonal communication skills, but we can’t afford to overlook their importance in the field of corrections. Mastering emotional intelligence can help us to harness the skills that are vital for doing our job and maintaining a healthy state of mind.

Emotional Intelligence in Daily Life

Unlike intelligence quotient (IQ) and personality, which are fixed from an early age, emotional intelligence is adaptable and flexible throughout an individual’s lifetime. Intelligence, defined as the ability to learn new information, will be the same at age 15 as at age 50. Personality also remains largely constant and any changes are subtle. However, emotional intelligence can be continually refined and enriched like any skillset with the proper amount of time, patience and practice.

Collectively, IQ, personality and emotional intelligence determine how we think and act as individuals. But as Bradberry and Greaves explain in their book, emotional intelligence is the single biggest predictor of job performance in the workplace and the strongest foundation for workplace leadership and personal excellence.

Recent research and advances in our knowledge of emotional intelligence have consistently shown that a higher emotional intelligence can also equate to higher salaries. These high-level emotional intelligence findings hold true for people in all industries, at all levels, and in every region of the world.

Applying Emotional Intelligence to Corrections

Emotional intelligence can be particularly important for those of us who serve in corrections. Correctional officers are often required to adapt to situations that people outside the criminal justice and public safety fields rarely encounter. On any given day, an officer might work with hundreds of prisoners, who collectively tend to be manipulative, deceptive and at times, violent.

Our safety, and that of our co-workers, inmates and visitors, is dependent on our ability to remain in control of our emotions at all times. Even when faced with a volatile or violent situation, we must act with the utmost integrity and ensure our actions remain within the legal and departmental boundaries of our jobs. Harnessing emotional intelligence can help us to quickly, effectively and professionally assess each situation and act appropriately.

At the basis of emotional intelligence is the ability to monitor our own emotions as well as the emotions of others. This requires four essential skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness and relationship management.

These four skills can be further divided into two categories, namely personal competence and social competence. Self-awareness and self-management make up your personal competence, which involves controlling your individual emotions. Social awareness and relationship management make up your social competence, which is more concerned with how those emotions influence your interactions with other people.

Self-Awareness

I strive to relay to my criminal justice students the importance of self-awareness or “self-checking.” This is the ability to understand, make sense of, and perceive our emotions at any precise moment. Self-awareness is the first of four essential skills for mastering emotional intelligence.

Emotions are essentially our reactions and responses to what is happening in world around us. Emotions always serve a purpose, but if you work in corrections, there can be greater consequences if you fail to check yourself and end up saying or doing something you’ll regret. Even more importantly, correctional officers must restrain themselves from acting in a way that might lead to disciplinary actions, criminal charges and civil suits.

In this line of work, there will always be people and situations that push our buttons. On a daily basis, law enforcement officers, correctional officers and probation officers might face an array of dangerous situations that are physically and emotionally challenging. Nevertheless, it is important that we never allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with impulsive thinking and acting. To remain in control, the first step is to always remain vigilant and aware of our emotional state.

Self-Management

Self-management is the second skill required for emotional intelligence and it is largely dependent on your self-awareness. According to Bradberry and Greaves, it is the ability to manage your emotional reactions to both people and situations. This involves more than resisting explosive or regrettable behavior. Once you are aware of your emotional state, managing those emotions requires you to observe your breathing, assess what is likely to occur next, and evaluate how to quell a situation quickly and safely.

In corrections, the prisoners we watch over spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week studying our behaviors, our daily rituals and our body language. They are constantly assessing us. When I teach, I tell my students to prepare to be tested by the prisoners, especially when you are new to the job or to a particular housing unit.

For example, if a prisoner tries to provoke you by by stepping into your personal space and screaming at you, they are likely trying to evoke an emotional reaction. However, rather than giving them the reaction they want, it’s important to manage your emotions and respond in a calm manner. Your commitment to self-management, particularly in corrections, will be repeatedly tested throughout your career.

Social Awareness

Social awareness is the third skill necessary for emotional intelligence. Social awareness is your ability to accurately and quickly notice and assess the emotions of other people. You must understand the underlying reasons for their behaviors and actions, so you can respond accordingly.

In one situation I was faced with, a prisoner had just gotten off the phone with his girlfriend. He started yelling, screaming and destroying the phone. His behavior prompted us to approach the situation as a potentially volatile one. However, rather than use physical force to remove him from the location, we wanted to defuse the situation as calmly as possible.

We explained in a straightforward but calm manner that if we had to use force and he retaliated, he might end up with additional charges for assaulting an officer. The prisoner calmed down and told us that his girlfriend had not only ended the relationship, but was having sexual relations with his best friend. Anger and frustration would be a normal response from anyone in a similar situation. The prisoner simply needed to vent to anyone who would listen.

We told the prisoner that we understood how he was feeling, but the way he had responded by destroying the phone was not acceptable. We explained to him that he would be charged with destruction of the phone and have to pay for its repair or replacement through restitution. This was far less severe than if he had assaulted one of us, which is a felony offense in Pennsylvania where the prison was located.

In a different situation with a different prisoner, there is always the possibility that this would not have worked. However, the key is to asses each situation and act accordingly. In this instance, we were able to quickly and safely assessed the prisoner’s situation by making an effort to understand the reasons behind his behavior.

Relationship Management

Relationship management is the final component of emotional intelligence. Bradberry and Greaves explain that relationship management relies on your abilities in the first three skills of self-awareness, self-management and social awareness. Closely tied to social awareness, relationship management focuses on clear and concise communication skills and the effective handling of conflict or potential conflict.

In a correctional environment, we constantly interact with the prisoners we supervise so the ability to effectively manage these interactions is paramount. After all, our correctional training motto is “Care, custody and control”. It is ingrained in us within the academy and continuously throughout our training.

Over time, you form bonds with your prisoners simply through your daily interactions. Prisoners are not your friends or acquaintances, but they are still individuals that you get to know on a certain level. The weaker the relationships you have with inmates, the weaker your ability to effectively communicate with them. When you experience difficulty establishing your point with a prisoner, situations are more likely to get out of control.

By strengthening your relationship with the inmates you oversee, you will be better positioned to understand changes in their behaviors. Prisons consist of varied and diverse individuals. Their residents come from different cultural backgrounds as well as different races, religions, socioeconomic classes, genders and sexual orientations. Corrections officers who manage relationships well are able to see the benefits of connecting with so many different people, even those whom they are not fond of or may even despise based solely on their criminal convictions.

If you want prisoners to listen to you, you have to accept that there are benefits from every relationship, even the challenging ones. Making an effort to understand individual prisoners, their backgrounds and where their actions are coming from can make a big difference when handling a situation with them. According to Bradberry and Greaves, the difference between an interaction and a relationship is a matter of frequency as well as the quality, depth and time you spend interacting with others.

Stress and Emotional Intelligence

Applying the four skills required for emotional intelligence becomes exponentially more challenging during times of stress. But as correctional officers know, stressful situations are more the norm than the exception in corrections.

Too often, correctional officers who internalize their negative feelings suffer from excessive drinking, burnout, physical and mental exhaustion and in some cases, suicidal thoughts or actions. Rather than allowing conflicts with our prisoners to continually fester and increase in intensity, we should aim to refine our communication skills by initiating direct, constructive conversations. Otherwise, pent up anger and frustration can eventually explode in the form of yelling or even excessive physical force, both of which must be avoided at all costs.

It is important that correctional officers and administrators embrace emotional intelligence training. The benefits of this training can improve the quality of our lives, both personally and professionally.

About the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro is a 28-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. Pittaro has lectured in tertiary education for the past 14 years while also serving as an author, editor and subject matter expert. To contact the author, please send an email to IPSauthor@apus.edu.

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