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Tales From the Local Jail – Inmates in Isolation: The Need for a Serious Dialogue

January 11th, 2018

In the past several years, corrections has come under criticism for using isolation, with critics and researchers citing the detrimental effects on inmates who are isolated for long periods of time.

I am not going to get in a dialogue about how bad isolation or restrictive housing (RH) is for the inmates. As a former jail deputy and classification director, I dealt with inmates in three groups-those inmates that had to be placed in isolation, and those who, after a taste of it, were given a second chance. These two, with the seriously mentally ill (SMI) in isolation, represent the critical issues in the use of isolation. I’ll explain.

Let’s discuss the first group, in which the reasons for isolation are clear-and are common sense. There inmates who because of their criminal record or behavior in the institution makes placement in segregation a logical choice. If you work inside a large jail, as I did, and an inmate is booked in who is a known gang leader charged with a serious violent crime, you do not want him in the general population, boasting the gang philosophy, recruiting inmates and bragging about his crime. Or-you could have an inmate of notoriety, such as the BTK killer or the DC Snipers. An inmate could be a recaptured escapee, known for his reputation for pulling off daring escapes. You may get in an inmate who is well known to you from prior stays-for starting fights and arguments inside cellblocks. They like to tease and harass other inmates, or assault them or staff. They steal food and commissary items and try to control the television. They repeatedly violate the jail disciplinary code, and after several suspended sanctions held over their heads, a hearing officer decides on a term of disciplinary segregation. And finally-an inmate commits a crime such as an assault on a staff member, drug smuggling or assaulting another inmate which results in a serious injury or death. He or she is criminally charged and isolated. It’s jail-and that is the way of it at times. But sometimes isolation is a necessary precaution, such as in the case of protective custody or to prevent an inmate from being assaulted. Some inmates want segregation and their reasons may be valid.

In the second group-the inmates who have had a taste of isolation and think-really THINK about not going back to it-staff can be somewhat humane- but only if the inmate ‘wises up’. As a classification officer-with two tours in my career-I learned how to drive this point home. I asked the inmate-“Do you want to go back to population?” After the emphatic “yes!” I would patiently explain the reasons for segregation, the staff’s view of his behavior and if the inmate could show he could behave, I would seriously consider a move back. In other words-they have to earn reassignment. Placing an immature, horseplay prone inmate in segregation for a few days can be a valuable learning tool. For example, if a jail has a treatment unit for substance abusers who are court ordered into it. An inmate arrives there and by his actions, thinks that he or she can ‘run’ things or act up. The program counselors, unit deputies or correctional officers (COs)-who I respected and seriously considered their views, writes the inmate up for immaturity, horseplay, etc. They recommend be removal. The inmate can be segregated pending reclassification-and he can be told that he could get one-just one- more chance, or the classification director will hand carry the report and a letter to his sentencing judge. So-the inmate is given a choice. I have seen inmates quickly improve their behavior after several days of segregation, bemoaning the facts of no television, being locked in, etc.

The third group illustrates a problem. It is one that jails, their jurisdictions, law enforcement, the courts and the mental health profession will have to come up with a practical, realistic and humane solution. This group is the seriously mentally ill who are confined in local jails. Some mentally ill offenders can be managed by medication and intervention by qualified mental health professionals and specially trained COs. For example, an arrestee is booked in for petty theft and tells the staff that he is a high ranking official who works inside the White House. In reality, he lives on the street and is apparently mentally ill. With medication and a detailed evaluation by the jail mental health staff it may be possible to house him with other inmates-who also may be mentally ill. But-if an offender is violently psychotic and acting irrationally, he or she must be segregated. How can staff place in population inmates who smear feces on themselves, attack staff, bang their heads on the cell walls or drink water from the toilet? Many of these offenders need treatment and supervision by mental health professionals-not jail.

There is one critical aspect that runs through the issue of placing inmates in a jail on segregation. That is safety: the safety of correctional officers and staff and the safety of inmates. If staff, in their collective wisdom based on experience, and in examining the potential for violence based on the inmate’s record and behavior, thinks segregation is necessary for the good of the many-then segregation it is. The length of time may vary-no one size fits all.

All correctional staff must be aware of the following when supervising inmates in segregation:

  • Inmates vary in their ability to cope with segregation. While prisons have some inmates segregated for longer periods of time than jails, some inmates may suffer detrimental effects of isolation. Without normal human interaction, inmates in segregation reportedly suffer from mental health problems. These include panic, insomnia, anxiety, depression, paranoia, and aggression. An inmate may become suicidal after one day in segregation. Human contact and interaction is key, no matter what the inmate has done or whatever his mental state [1]. Staff must interact with them.

  • According to a U.S. Department of Justice Special Report, the use of restricted housing (RH) is linked to mental health issues. In prisons, 29 percent of inmates with current symptoms of serious mental illness or psychological distress were in RH. In jails, the rate was 22 percent [2].
  • Among inmates who had spent 30 days or more in RH since coming to the facility or in the last 12 months, over half had been in a fight, or had been ‘written up’ for assaulting the staff-54 percent in prisons, and 68 percent in jails [3].
  • Although an inmate can be placed in segregation in an emergency, such as an incident of assault, attempted escape, serious mental health issues pending evaluation, being considered suicidal, to place and keep an inmate in RH requires due process-a hearing where the facts are examined. This also means that the inmate cannot be forgotten about. And-before you think any further on this consider the Slevin case in New Mexico. After mediation by a federal court, inmate Stephen Slevin was awarded $15.5 million. He had been arrested in 2007 for drunken driving, never went to trial and was segregated for 22 months after a staff member noted that he was suicidal. He suffered dental problems, pulled out his own tooth and suffered from his toenails growing into his foot [4]. No doubt this had a negative mental effect on him as well.
  • Length of time and conditions: As a classification director, it was my job to number one-maintain the safety and security of the jail, and number 2-do what I could to humanely confine the inmates. There were inmates in RH that I hoped would turn their behavior around and could be returned to population. But there were many that because of their attitude, actions and criminal histories could not be in population. Conditions in RH should be sanitary and humane. As for the length of time-with some inmates, like the serious ones I have described, it is difficult to put a time limit on RH. Some inmate rights groups advocate a limit of 15 days, banning RH of young, elderly, pregnant and mentally ill inmates. Also advocated is giving isolated jail inmates at least 4 hours per day outside of their cells each day [5]. While I do agree that isolation can be hard on an inmate, and I and other good, professional COs do not want inmates to unduly suffer. But some questions and issues need to be raised:
    1. If jails place a limit on RH, there are some inmates that may not be ready to come off RH. Is it SAFE to bring them out? If one, ONE CO, staff member and/or inmate is hurt or killed, it’s too late. The decision had better be a thoroughly discussed informed one.

    2. As for increased out of cell time, how can this be regularly accomplished in a severely understaffed jail? Has any though been given by advocates on how to deal with the inmate who gets in the face of his post CO, pounding on the door, demanding, DEMANDING his time out of the cell?
    3. Jail is a negative environment, and no one in his or her right mind would want to be incarcerated in one. Does anyone ask this question:

      What did the inmate do, or how did he or she act to warrant the precautionary placement in restrictive housing?

    4. Actions of the inmates determine the responses of staff. Some inmates never get that message-and so isolation is a valuable tool for safety-of inmates, staff and the public.
    5. While emergency placement in segregation is necessary at times, the due process decision to place an inmate in administrative or disciplinary must be a careful, serious one. While the safety and security of the jail is first priority, administrative panels and classification committees must remember at all times that the inmate, a human being, will be housed in an environment that can be negative and depressing. All factors, especially the effect on the inmate, must be considered.

It’s time for a more frank dialogue about segregation, restrictive housing or isolation-with more of the views of corrections officers included. Let’s bring everyone to the table.


[4] Associated Press. “New Mexico inmate left in solitary confinement for 2 years gets $15.5 million”. Fox News, March 7, 2013.
[2&3] Beck, Allen J. Ph.D. “Use of restrictive Housing in U.S. Prisons and Jails”. October 2015, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics:
[5] Correctional Association of New York. “NY sets new rules for solitary confinement in local jails”, October 18, 2017,
[1] Weir, Kirsten. “Alone, in ‘the hole’”. Monitor on Psychology, 43, no. 5 (May 2012):

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.

He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University since 1986, where he has taught four corrections courses. He also teaches corrections in service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. His latest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition was published in April 2017 by Carolina Academic Press. He has authored several other books in corrections. Gary has received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in Social Science from his alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an Instructor Appreciation Award from George Mason University.

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Tales From the Local Jail: Inmate Schemers and ‘Mister Potter’

January 2nd, 2018

At this time of year, many of us settle down in front of the television and watch the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Many of us shed a tear as we watch George Bailey run through a snowy Bedford Falls shouting ‘Merry Christmas’ to the people and institutions that he now realizes that are so important to him.

But there is one scene in the movie that can serve as a valuable lesson about correctional staff and the inmate manipulator. This past year, I was fortunate enough to attend a great seminar on manipulation through Vyne Education presented by licensed psychologist Dr. Alan Godwin. In the seminar, Inside the Manipulator’s Mind: The Insiders Guide to Ending Emotional Exploitation he discusses how manipulators present to us-their marks-the rosy picture of how life would be so much better for us if we do what they want.

There is a great example in the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, according to Dr. Godwin, and I agree. Let’s set this up-in case some of you have not seen the movie.
The film is set in the fictional town of Bedford Falls, where the Baileys-the good guys-run a family business, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan Association. They help people buy housing, they care about their customers and are moral and good. But-the antagonist in the town is mean old Mister Potter-who owns and controls many of the businesses in the town-except the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan. He wants to get control of that as well, and has failed over the years.

According to Dr. Godwin, Mr. Potter is an Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OPCD), and this means that he needs to be in control of his surroundings. In those surroundings are people-and he needs to control George Bailey-the ‘thorn in his side’. He has a relationship-not to his liking- with George Bailey.

So-in the movie there is a key scene. Mr. Potter tries a different approach. He calls George Bailey into his office to offer him a job. At first he compliments George on successfully thwarting him through the years, and offers him a high quality expensive cigar. He praises George for beating him, saying ‘that takes some doing’.

This is not Mr. Potter being self-aware of his failure and recognizing the mettle of George Bailey. He lays it on thick, ‘buttering’ George up with the offer of a high paying job, big salary, trips to Europe, etc. The goal is to get his hands on George Bailey’s business and get George to do what he-Mr. Potter-wants. He tells George that ‘his ship has just come in’.

If George caves, Mr. Potter wins the game. He is trying to manipulate George with promises of how things will be so much better if he says yes, takes the job and goes along. There are strings attached-George becomes beholding to Potter and the family business is gone.

George is mesmerized by Mr. Potter and the offer-and at first takes it, shaking Mr. Potter’s hand. But if you have seen the movie-you see that after shaking Potter’s hand, he realizes that it was just a ploy to control him. As Dr. Godwin observes, George reaches across the desk and shakes Potter’s hand. While doing so-he realizes that it is all a scam. He steps back and wipes his hand off on his jacket, “like a man who’d just fished something valuable out of a toilet”. He then tells Mr. Potter off, saying that “you sit around here and spin your little webs and you think the whole world revolves around you”.

Now-let’s apply this scenario to working in a jail. Mr. Potter represents the manipulative inmates who want to control staff-the line correctional officers (COs), the volunteers, the medical staff, the programs staff, etc. They spin a good yarn-about how they can give staff money for favors, be their friends and if they are lonely, be a sexual or romantic partner. All of these have strings attached. They paint a rosy picture, saying ‘if you do what I want-your ship will come in.’

As we have unfortunately seen, some staff and COs swallow this manipulation hook, line and sinker. They actually are taken in by the inmate.

The bottom line? Most COs and staff are the George Baileys-good people, with good morals, handling personal and professional responsibilities and are making a difference in our nation’s jails. To continue to do so-the next time an inmate promises you something for doing that ‘one little, small favor’ for him or her:

Remember the scene of Mr. Potter and George Bailey.

For more information, please contact Dr. Alan Godwin at


Godwin, Alan, Psy.D. (2017, December 29). In Relationships and Culture. Posted to The Drama Review (Gifts with Strings Attached). E mail, received 12/29/17.

Inside the Manipulator’s Mind: The Insider’s Guide to Ending Emotional Exploitation, seminar presented by Dr. Alan Godwin, Vyne Education, Richmond, VA, 08/24/2017.

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Tales From the Local Jail: Oh Great! Another Ethics Class!!

September 5th, 2017

As sure as the sun comes up every morning, corrections veterans know that when there is a serious case of staff misconduct, such as contraband smuggling, sex with inmates, etc., there will be a push for ethics training. Some corrections officers (COs) think that ethics training is a waste of time-after all, they have never been in trouble. But they cannot brush aside the fact that some veteran corrections officers with many years on the job commit unethical acts. Those are the ones that we read about or see on the local news. And when a CO is fired for bringing a cell phone in to give to an inmate, or is caught taking payoffs to smuggle drugs-it makes all of us look bad. The public-and they do pay our salaries, wonder “Is this that what goes on in the jail that I pay taxes for?”

So-let’s talk about ethics. COs, as part of their subculture, abide by the “CO Code”-those unwritten guidelines handed down from the veteran COs to the ‘rookies’. There are formal ethics-such as the department’s code of conduct policy. And then there are informal ethics-The CO Code. This code, for the most part, keeps a CO safe. But it has to be looked at and applied in a realistic way.

The following excerpt is included with permission from Carolina Academic Press:

Informal Ethics: The Correctional Subculture

Proper ethics are taught in training academies, at roll calls, and at in-service training. The correctional officer is aware of the agency’s general order on the code of conduct. How to properly act is taught, and then the correctional officer enters the institution and has to work with many different correctional officers. An informal correctional officer’s code has developed. Some of the tenets of this code are common sense and emphasize
security. But some, while meaning well, may have a negative impact. M.A. Farkas in 1997 conducted extensive research on this code. The eight main tenets of the informal correctional officer’s code are as follows:

  • Always go to assist a fellow correctional officer, no matter if the danger is real or perceived. This shows the inmate population the solidarity among the correctional officers— that they will always back each other up in situations involving inmates.

  • Don’t become too friendly with inmates. Though good interpersonal relations are important, correctional officers are not inside a facility to be the inmate’s friend or “pal.” Inmates will convince correctional officers to cross professional boundary lines and be manipulated. Correctional officers should maintain a safe distance and not divulge personal information to inmates.
  • Don’t abuse your authority as a correctional officer; keep calm and cool. Inmates will resent correctional officers who “throw their weight” around. Correctional officers will find their jobs easier if they remain calm; then, incidents will not escalate into situations that may be out of control.
  • Support fellow correctional officers’ decisions and actions, do not be a “back stabber.” Correctional officers must appear to be solidly linked to each other, as officers who support each other. Inmates will see weakness if correctional officers disagree with each other in front of inmates. Correctional officers should never embarrass each other. At times, correctional officers can discuss differences away from inmates. However, this does not apply if a correctional officer’s actions are unlawful or unnecessarily put an inmate in harm’s way.

For example, a new correctional officer inside a prison assists officers in placing an unruly inmate in a restraint chair. The inmate is restrained; a “spit mask” is put over his face because he is spitting at officers. The officers then leave the area, but one goes back and punches the inmate several times in the mouth and nose, resulting in a lot of blood.

The new correctional officer is told by the [veteran] correctional officer to forget what he saw. If he does, he is backing the correctional officer’s illegal assault. Unfortunately, if he reports the act to his supervisor, he may be labeled a “back stabber.” It’s a tough call, but it is always advisable to report wrongdoing and not give “tacit” approval to correctional officers
who act wrongly.

  • Admit mistakes. Veteran correctional officers will say that it is better to admit mistakes rather than be caught up in deception to supervisors and internal affairs. One veteran sheriff’s deputy remembered that early in his career, several deputies made some serious mistakes. The sheriff went around the jail and talked to the staff saying no matter what mistakes you make or what you have done, it is always better to tell the truth and not lie.

  • Always carry your own weight. Correctional officers must do their job and not leave things unfinished for the next shift or other correctional officers. Professionalism means doing the job to the best of one’s abilities and asking for help, if necessary, and not dumping work on others.
  • Defer to the wisdom and experience of veteran correctional officers. Good veterans have a lot of experience that they will share. However, this tenet of the code does not mean that all correctional officer veterans are ethical, professional, or good officers. A veteran correctional officer may have bad habits and opinions; he may be a “know it all.” Each correctional officer, when listening to a veteran, will have to decide if this correctional officer is one who is good and from whom “tricks of the trade” can be learned. Or— the way that he does his job is the wrong way.
  • Mind your own business. Rumors and gossip may appear to make the workplace interesting, but if inmates find out information about staff, especially negative information (such as who just got reprimanded, for example), inmates can use it to drive a wedge between staff. There are gossips in every occupation. False information and lies can cause disharmony and trouble. (Silverman, 2001, pp. 312–313)

In closing, the ‘CO Code’ may appear to help keep COs safe. But-following it requires common sense and discretion.


Cornelius, Gary F. (2017). The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, Third Edition. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Farkas, M.A. (1997). The normative code among correctional officers: An explanation of components and functions. Journal of Crime and Delinquency, 20(1), 23-36.

Silverman, I.J. (2001). Corrections: A Comprehensive View, Second Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

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Outreach: Colleges to the Local Jails

May 5th, 2017

In early April I had the privilege of traveling back to my alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Justice Educators (PACJE) conference. At the invitation of Dr. Kevin Courtright of the university’s Department of Criminal Justice, Anthropology and Forensics Studies, I participated in a panel discussion on corrections issues. I talked about several, including counteracting the myths about corrections that the public believes and the media portrayal of corrections, which in my opinion could be more objective. One topic that I discussed was how local colleges and local jails can work together to both enhance the education of college students and improve the image of the local jail. Having been a college adjunct instructor at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia for the past 30 years, I can speak from experience. During my teaching time there, I also worked at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. It pleased me to see that Edinboro University is taking steps in that direction.

Many citizens do not have a clear picture of what the jail staff does, the stresses of the job or what they endure from the inmates. Shift work, violent inmates, contraband, escapes and mentally ill inmates are just some of the aspects of correctional work that are sobering when one considers the dangers of the job. In my seminars and criminal justice academy classes, I emphasize that corrections is an important part of the criminal justice system-the police lock up the criminals and the jails and prisons keep them locked up. Both police and corrections help keep the public safe.

This brings me to the local college. Most jails are located near a local college, either a four year institution or a two year community college. Most offer criminal justice courses. Many students major in criminal justice (CJ) with the goal of entering the law enforcement field-and this field includes corrections. Correctional officers strive for public safety-they enforce the laws and rules inside correctional facilities. They are law enforcement officers. Jails and local colleges can benefit from one another. If you are a college instructor, and plan to teach or are currently teaching corrections classes, here is some advice:

  • Offer courses in local corrections: jails, community corrections, etc.: Corrections covers a wide range of topics. New topics are welcome. This fall at GMU I am excited about teaching a new course I devised-Inmate Management.

  • Take advantage of local jail agencies’ desire for positive publicity: Most jails have a public information officer who will be glad to assist you. Jails want to put their best image out there for all to see.
  • Offer internships: This is probably the best way to introduce CJ students to the real world of corrections. These students can be very helpful in many tasks inside the facility. Usually a paper is required. I have had some great interns working inside the jail. As their faculty sponsor I discovered most were industrious and eager to learn.
  • We need research and data: We are in the ‘The ‘Golden Age of Corrections’: There are many great websites for both instructor and student. The Pew Research Center, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Justice Policy Institute, the Urban Policy Institute and the Council of State Governments all contain helpful data. Many universities have conducted studies about corrections facilities and offenders.
  • Combine research and reality: Require students to conduct some type of field research. Many students tend to fill papers with summaries of studies and statistics-they look impressive. But-explore how statistics translate to practicality in corrections. Field research involves students observing operations inside a corrections facility and interviewing personnel. You can require that a paper include discussions of actual jails/prisons, programs and personnel. Some students interview former inmates. It makes them seek out and experience corrections in practice. In my classes I require five examples of facility programs, operations, etc., to be included in a paper.
  • Include facility tours: Often these are logistically difficult-but try to make them happen. Jails have great guides and you will get your eyes opened.
  • Include correctional facility material: Many inmate handbooks, facility policies and orientation videos are available on line.
  • Discuss-responsibly-news events concerning inmates in local jails, correctional facilities and staff issues. Many news reports can be downloaded. Don’t use biased reports-use well researched, objective broadcasts.
  • Bring in guest speakers: COs, supervisors, counselors, mental health, rehab staff and reformed ex inmates all have experiences and information that adds interest and will keep the students focused.
  • Give extra credit for attending extracurricular events: Many colleges sponsor criminal justice speakers and seminars. Give students extra credit for attending them.

Hopefully these will grow into good partnerships between the jails and the colleges in the community. Corrections needs the data and research that is gathered by academe-and the current and next generations of criminal justice college students need to see corrections in practice. It is a win-win for all. The more educated students are about the corrections field, the better law enforcement officers and criminal justice professionals they will become.

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Tales From the Local Jail: The Inmate’s Best Friend

February 21st, 2017

Just who is the inmate’s best friend? Is it a concerned counselor? No. Is it his or her cellmate? No. Believe it or not-in my view-it is the complacent correctional officer (CO) or civilian staff member. As a jail veteran-I have my reasons for this opinion, and I will discuss this problem.

I recently read an excellent article by former Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary Martin F. Horn titled “It’s Complacency, Stupid!” in the August/September 2016 Corrections Managers’ Report. He states, and correctly, that the most serious breach in the obligation of a correctional facility is failing to maintain the secure custody of the inmates confined within. This applies to prisons, jails, juvenile centers and community corrections facilities. Complacency on the part of the facility staff-all staff, sworn and non-sworn, makes that failure a realty.

Secretary Horn discusses several prisoner escapes from the 1970s to the present, where mistakes were made by staff. This gives validity to the old saying that those who do not learn from the past are bound to repeat it. Due to complacency-the mistaken notion that everything is ‘A-OK’, staff gets laid back and lax, and as a result cracks in the security network are exploited by the inmates. Let’s discuss several of these incidents:

  • In 1979, a convicted murderer escaped from a New York state prison. He smuggled a gun inside because staff would not search him after visits if he soiled himself.

  • In 1994, an inmate seduced the wife of the warden and escaped. Upon his apprehension, he bluntly described the facility’s procedures as simply ‘lax’.
  • In 1997, six inmates, two which were serving life sentences, escaped from the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution in Pittsburgh. The escape was ingenious-the inmates dug a tunnel almost 65 feet long from the prison laundry, which ran under the prison wall to a warehouse outside the perimeter. The digging took almost 4 months. They took advantages of staff weaknesses such as staff not noticing [or caring] if the inmates were not in assigned areas, using tools lying about from construction workers-in violation of institution policy. Finally, they engaged in inappropriate relationships with civilian employees in the prison engineering and industries divisions. After being on the run for two weeks, they were apprehended in Texas.
  • In 2015, in the now notorious prison escape from the Clinton, NY state prison, two convicted murderers exploited the attentiveness and friendliness of a civilian female and lazy and inattentive staff practices. Using tools left behind by workers and also smuggled in, they cut into the steam pipes and escaped through existing tunnels beneath the prison. After being on the run for three weeks, one was fatally shot by law enforcement officers and the other was shot and recaptured. A fascinating read is the official state report of the escape-and trainers could learn a lot from that.

All correctional staff must recognize the dangers of complacency. Anyone-sworn and non-sworn-having daily contact with inmates must be tuned in to the dangers of complacency. A few points to discuss at roll calls, academy classes and staff meetings are these:

  • The most common denominator in escapes from correctional facilities is complacency-often as a result of a mindset that “we haven’t had an escape in a long time”. It is thinking that ‘all is well’. In fact the 2015 escape from the Clinton NY prison maximum security unit was the first since it was originally constructed in 1849. Another area is inmate suicide. Some COs may think-“we haven’t had one in several years” and could relax their guard.

  • The COs-the keepers are always watching inmates-and the inmates (kept) may be watching the COs more closely. But-COs have many duties and are juggling several tasks at once. Inmates, on the other hand, have the time-24 hours per day/7 days a week-to study the staff. It is not a tiresome cliché-it is the truth.
  • What the inmates study: who sleeps on post, who is timid, who seldom gets up and walks around, who skips making rounds, who rushes through headcounts, and who conducts infrequent and sloppy searches. Also, talk about leaving your post for long breaks and supervisors that do not get around the facility and check on how the COs and civilians are doing. These are sensitive topics-but they must be discussed and problems corrected.
  • Fraternizing with staff: if there are staff that think that they must be the inmate’s friend-complacency is just waiting to happen. When a sworn or non-sworn staff member becomes too friendly with inmates, too familiar, and let minor infractions slide-objectivity is lost.
  • Breakdowns in policies and procedures: sloppy headcounts, lax tool control, equipment failures or malfunctions-such as faulty door locks and non-working closed circuit television surveillance, ineffective inmate movement and accountability.
  • No follow ups, reviews and training following a serious incident such as an escape. In other words-no learning from the foul ups. This ‘sweeping under the rug’ approach benefits no one but the inmates. The facility becomes, as Secretary Horn says-“a hollow shell, a tree eaten from within with only its bark showing”.

The job of correctional staff is hard enough. The inmate does not want to be there, they as a rule do not like the staff and would rather be on the outside. They love to see complacent staff-their best friends.

Horn, Martin F. (August/September 2016). It’s Complacency, Stupid! Corrections Managers’ Report, Volume XXII, No. 2, 17-18, 30. author, Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. He conducts corrections in service training sessions and has taught corrections classes at George Mason University since 1986. Gary’s books include The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition (2009) from the American Correctional Association and The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, Second Edition (2010) from Carolina Academic Press.

Visit the Gary Cornelius page

Other articles by Cornelius

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The Twenty Minute Trainer: The Pains of Incarceration

December 15th, 2016

This is posted with permission of IACTP and “The Correctional Trainer”. For more information, please visit

Today’s law enforcement officers-both police and corrections-are faced with several daunting tasks. They are maintaining law and order, arresting criminal offenders and keeping a calm atmosphere in correctional facilities and on the street while being outnumbered. When I teach an in service class for jail staff, I tell class attendees that our jobs are similar to being in The Alamo-we are surrounded and outnumbered by inmates. Police departments and correctional agencies will always be outnumbered by the populations that they serve, maintain control of and observe. So-it is important to remember that we can get a lot further with people by maintaining good interpersonal relations with them. This means treating them with dignity and respect. Empathy plays a role as well. Officers should try to understand life from others’ points of view. Hopefully this mindset may result in an appreciation of the officer, and better interpersonal communications. For example, a police officer listens to a citizen talking about living in a high crime neighborhood and tries to put himself in the other person’s situation. This shows both concern and respect. Also, realistically speaking, this approach does not work all of the time; there are citizens that will always give police a hard time. But-the possible results are worth the effort.

The same can be applied to corrections officers (COs) working among incarcerated inmates. COs work inside a building where there are more inmates than officers. Secondly, the inmates do not want to be there. Third-most of the inmates do not like the staff. And fourth-when combining these factors, many inmates will try to get around our best security efforts.

As for me, I have always thought that if you treat inmates like humans, and respect their basic dignity, you will get along better with them and sometimes they may tell you what is going on in the housing units. You want positive relations with them-and that means not ‘pissing them off’. Ask yourself this: I have to work inside this building, surrounded by people who inwardly may be angry. I want to get along with them….why would I want to ‘piss them off’?

So, let’s take a look at how painful incarceration is, how you can understand it, and by doing so-you will not unduly make the inmates angry. This information comes from a great work that I highly recommend by Robert Johnson of American University: Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison, Third Edition (Wadsworth, 2002). A few points to note:

  • Being imprisoned is disheartening and threatening for most inmates. Inmates know that their relationships with loved ones are soured or suspended, their careers are disrupted and any hopes and dreams are dashed. More simply-their lives are a mess.

  • Pain is psychological. Inmates begin to realize that they are missing out a lot-both mentally and physically. They hear COs talk about how great their new car is or how they attended their children’s’ school play or graduation. Inmates are stuck inside; many have children. They realize that due to their sentence, lack of good decisions and criminal behavior, they won’t be driving a new car and they will be missing out on family life, birthdays, graduations, Christmas, etc. They come to realize that life is passing them by and when they do get out, life for them will be a never ending uphill struggle. Their loved ones and friends may have written them off. Understandably, there may be an undercurrent of anger in the inmate. If another inmate or CO ‘pushes their buttons’, this anger may be released. In other words, a sarcastic CO unnecessarily saying something condescending to an inmate who is already feeling down may get a reaction that is very unpleasant-or dangerous.
  • Incarceration deprives inmates of many things that we enjoy on the outside. First is liberty-or the choices that we enjoy in our daily lives. We can eat and drink what we want, get up when we want, and go where we want. Secondly-inmates are deprived of goods and services. They receive the basics, and although facilities are becoming cleaner, more comfortable, and may offer more in television, commissary, etc., inmates receive the basics in food, medical care, etc. They also are limited in personal choices. Third, inmates are deprived of intimacy and sexual contact. But, as COs know, some may try to have their sexual desires met inside-with corrupt staff or with other inmates. Finally, incarceration deprives of safety and security. While we control our security and who we allow into our lives, into our homes, near our families and near us, inmates must live with people that they probably would not associate with on the street. Combine this with predatory inmates, thieves, gang members and ‘hotheads’, many inmates do not feel safe-despite our best efforts to maintain security and safety for them.

How then do we interact with inmates that are feeling the effects of these deprivations and psychological pain? We want good relations with them as much as possible, not anger and ill feelings. Here are a couple common sense pointers:

  • Understand how they feel-life is passing them by, deprivations, etc., and don’t make fun of their plight or ridicule them. They feel bad enough; why make it worse? You may tap into some angry feelings-which may escalate into a tense situation.

  • Be “respectfully empathetic”. Empathy keeps your objectivity intact-you understand their situation while not feeling overly sorry for them-which is sympathy. Also remember that they will try to manipulate and play the ‘sympathy’ card on you.
  • Whenever you can, talk to inmates about how they can work to correct the course that their lives have taken. While many inmates do not take advantage of programs, there are some that do. Even when serving long prison terms, there are opportunities for inmates to improve themselves-and salvage some aspects of dignity. Encourage inmates to take advantage of facility programs. Do this as much as you can. Inmates who have accomplished something in programs-such as sobriety, being clean from drugs, getting a GED, learning a vocational skill, etc., will feel better about themselves. If they do, they will get along better with you-and that can go a long way in making your job easier.

Let’s be realistic. There are some inmates who are so negative and angry to the point that this approach will never work. But in my experience-most inmates will appreciate this approach. And-it may serve to keep the institutional climate calm. And if the climate is calm-the safer you are.

Reference: Johnson, Robert. (2002). Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning.

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Firm, Fair and Consistent: It’s Not a Cliché

August 17th, 2016

In my travels in retirement conducting jail staff training, I frequently ask jail officers: “What has worked for you when managing inmates both safely and professionally?”

One answer I always hear is a correctional officer (CO) should always be “firm, fair and consistent”. This is not a cliché-this simple phrase holds great meaning for us who enter our nation’s correctional facilities every workday, every year-to manage and keep in custody the inmate population. We deal with many types, personalities and no day is like another. It is unfortunate, also that many citizens and the media does not know what we do or what we experience. But- thanks to organizations such as the American Jail Association, the American Jail Association and the excellent International Association of Correctional Training personnel-corrections is being steadily recognized and appreciated.

Let’s take a look at the phrase and review what it really means. I will have some input, in conjunction with an excellent book by retired New York City corrections officer Larone Koonce. His book Correction Officer’s Guide to Understanding Inmates: The 44 Keys to Power, Control and Respect (2012, Koonce Publishing, Atlanta, Georgia). It is an excellent resource for COs and trainers. We will look at the chapter titled Key 2: Be Firm, Fair and Consistent and is subtitled: this will help to gain the respect of the inmates.

Firm: Koonce says, and I agree, that firmness means that a CO should stand his or her ground. The main goal of a CO is to enforce corrections rules, regulations, criminal statutes and the policies and procedures of the facility. COs are not there to be popular among the inmates or to be their ‘pal’. A CO will be pressured by inmates every shift to bend the rules or ignore policy and procedures. If COs think that it is all right to do this and delude themselves by thinking that inmates ‘are not all that bad’-the pressure will increase. COs must say no-firmly. Inmates may not like it at first, but slowly the CO who says no and adheres to procedures will earn inmates’ respect and be viewed as ‘squared away’. And-the CO who is firm will have the support of his or her squad, supervisors and the high up ‘brass’-the wardens, superintendents and sheriffs. The inmates will come to realize this. Respect will be reluctant from the inmates-but reluctant respect is better than none at all.

Fair: A professional CO applies the rules fairly to every inmate, regardless of crime, behavior, sentence, race, gender, physical size or education. One inmate should not be favored over another. If favoritism occurs, resentment among the inmates grows. They see some having a good ride from the CO while they have to go by the rules. Not only does resentment grow, but inmates may argue and resent each other because some feel that they are not being treated fairly. Also, favoritism, Koonce states, forms a two-tier system where the CO is sharing power with the inmates. Power and authority should remain solely with the CO. I remember that not playing favorites-even in a small way-can make the job easier. For example, early in my career I was working the day shift on the maximum security floor at the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. Lunch for the inmates was a bowl of soup and a sandwich. After the trustees passed out lunches to the cellblocks, I settled down at my desk to eat mine-the same fare as the inmates. (In the old days, sometimes you could not be relieved for a meal due to short staffing.) A trusty came to the main door of the floor and said that he had some extra sandwiches and asked me if I would allow him to pass them out. I asked him if he had enough extras for the whole floor. He said that he did not and I sent him on his way back to the kitchen-without passing out the extras. Why? I did not want any arguments or resentments from the inmates who would not have received another sandwich.

Consistent: Inmates appreciate an institutional routine that is established and reliable. The mail is passed out regularly; the televisions come on at a certain time and programs are on schedule. Visiting and recreation go on without any difficulty. It helps to keep the place calm. Also-inmates appreciate COs who do not run ‘hot and cold’. They learn quickly that if you are behave the same on every shift, treat the inmates fairly in a steady, consistent manner, that they will feel comfortable around you. This shows that you are serious. You can be depended upon to do your job responsibly and treat inmates as people. They know what to expect from you. However, one down side is the CO who is sociable, polite and acts mature on Monday-and is grumpy, sarcastic and condescending towards inmates on Tuesday. We all like consistency when we deal with others and inmates are no different.

Finally the phrase “firm, fair and consistent” is very similar to the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would like to be treated. We would like to be treated with fairness, and in the same way as others. We would like to be treated in a firm manner-per the rules, not being subjected to one set of rules over another. Finally we would like to be treated the same way by people we encounter-not by people who are running hot and cold.
Inmates will appreciate it too. It is not just a cliché: Firm, Fair and Consistent.

Koonce, Larone. (2012). Correction Officer’s Guide to Understanding Inmates: The 44 Keys to Power, Control and Respect. Atlanta: Koonce Publishing.

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Tales From the Local Jail: A New Look at the ‘Snitch’

April 29th, 2016

We have all seen the Hollywood versions of police informants-snitches-you know, those shady characters meeting under a bridge by a river across from the big city at 3 AM. Or- in an empty parking garage, where the ‘snitch’ is on one side of the pillar, out of sight-talking to the plain clothes cop. And then the cop gives the informant some money for the information and they both quietly leave.

In jails, correctional officers (COs) also do have informants. Sometimes an inmate ‘snitches’ for favors from the staff, sometimes a confidential informant (CI) will lie or exaggerate information so he or she can look good to staff, and sometimes the informant just wants to do the time in the jail and either be released, go into the prison system and get on with their sentences. If a jail CO has a good confidential informant that has proven to be reliable in giving critical information, it is common sense not to ever divulge the informant’s name. If that happens-the CI becomes a pariah among the inmates and a target for assault or worse.

We can learn a lot from veterans in the jail field. I highly recommend a book by retired New York City Department of Corrections officer Larone Koonce, Correction Officer’s Guide to Understanding Inmates: The Forty Four Keys to Inmate Management (2012, Koonce Publishing). I use this book in my in service classes and have found it well written and very informative.

Key 16- Always Have an Informant, is particularly interesting. Koonce defines an informant as someone who gives a CO information about potential problems in the facility, and by doing so, keeps staff well informed as to dangers and problems among the inmate population. He also advocates doing so by having a good interpersonal relationship with these inmates, and rewarding them when you can.

Establishing good officer-inmate relationships, he says are the key-and I agree. Let’s take a look at some of officer Koonce’s observations with some commentary:

  • The best time to establish officer-inmate interpersonal relationships is when the inmate is first admitted to the facility, whether from another jail, from court or right after arrest. The inmate, even the most hard core and streetwise, may be unfamiliar with your jail. Over time, the inmate population changes, as does the makeup of the officer corps. This time in, the inmate may not know many of the COs due to retirements and staff turnover. Rules and policies may have changed since the last time he was inside, and new offenders are anxious. New inmates may be vulnerable to harassment and assault, and have to learn quickly who among the inmates may be dangerous to them.

  • Inmates must adjust when they arrive, and they do so through one of three ways: first-some may keep to themselves and try not to offend anyone. Second-some may affiliate themselves with a group or gang. Finally, some may think that their adjustment may go safer and smoother if they stay close to you-the CO. This third type-the one who always seems to ‘hang around’ you a lot of the time-gives you the best opportunity of forging a good relationship.
  • The third type-the inmate ‘hanger on’ will always try to be in your presence and keep you in his line of sight. He knows that he is safer with you around, and that the other inmates will not bother him because you are nearby. This is your chance to become a positive role model, asking this inmate how he is doing, taking an interest in his well-being and watching out for him. Try also to give him advice on how to survive jail and stay out of trouble. Even though this inmate will adjust and get used to the jail and the inmate ways of doing time, he may let you know what is going on. That information could be information about predatory inmates, contraband, gangs, escape plans, and so forth.

Over time, this inmate will hopefully be grateful to you for the advice. As your CO-inmate relationship develops, you may in passing conversation discreetly and quietly ask what is going on in a cellblock or unit. Or-you can just keep in contact simply asking “How are you?” “What is going on?” “Everything all right?”

This inmate, now having adjusted to the jail, may think that he is surviving and is doing time all right, thanks to you. In return-he really may let you know some information about an impending assault on a staff member or inmate, contraband, gang communications inside the jail, and so forth. He may think “I’m doing all right-and nothing around me going on is going to screw that up”.

Finally-handle critical information discreetly and talk to your supervisor about following up. Don’t just jump in with both feet if you find something out. Be cautious. Try as much as possible to keep the informant’s identity a secret. But if the inmate has to be moved or transferred, be loyal to the informant and quietly let the officers in the new unit know that this inmate “has been helpful.” Seasoned veterans will know what you mean and will also watch out for him. Be loyal to inmates who help you out-if the CI is found out, his safety will be compromised.

Remember-the bond that you form with an inmate can go a long way to keep you, staff, fellow officers and inmates safe.

Reference: Koonce, Larone. (2012). Correction Officer’s Guide to Understanding Inmates: The Forty Four Keys to Inmate Management. Koonce Publishing.

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Handling Jail Special Populations: A Thumbnail Training Guide

January 13th, 2016

Jail correctional officers (COs) must be “jacks of all trades”-being able to multi task and handle many different types of inmates at one time. During a shift, a jail officer may handle anything from a suicide to a mentally disordered inmate to one acting up inside a segregation unit. It is no wonder that many veteran jail officers, when talking about their careers, agree that no two days are alike-and one never knows what type of inmate he or she will be dealing with at any given time.

Recently, there has been much more attention paid by trainers, the media, researchers and trainers to special populations inside our nation’s correctional facilities. Special populations include mentally disordered inmates, female inmates, mature/elderly inmates, minorities and foreign inmates, youthful offenders and juveniles, gangs, inmates with sexual identity issues and inmates in segregation or isolation. Times have changed-we have come a long way in the last 50 years.

In jail officer training, more material and information are being included in officer in service training and basic training. Due to lawsuits and the development of corrections standards, corrections personnel recognize the sobering fact that mismanaging special inmate populations can result in injuries, death and litigation. If found liable, the agency may have to pay out money-a lot of money. Officers can find themselves out of a job, facing criminal charges or civil lawsuits. But-there should be no ‘rush to judgment’. Correctional officers have a tough job regarding the safe custody of special population inmates. It is easy to accuse COs of negligence and not properly doing their jobs-but proving it and winning a lawsuit is another matter. COs deserve their day in court with fair hearings-just like the lawbreakers that they keep locked up.

I teach an in service jail correctional officer training class throughout Virginia-from a jail veteran and practitioner standpoint. After going through statistics and incidents about special population inmates, I close at the end of the day with 13 common sense guidelines to effectively manage special population inmates inside a correctional facility. So-without further fanfare-let’s take a look:

  • Proper handling of special management inmates requires a mindset of “expect the unexpected”.

    Just because an inmate is locked away in a segregation unit does not mean you are safe when you open the cell door. There is a reason why that inmate is locked away. Just because things seem calm does not guarantee that events won’t suddenly change in the next 30 seconds. Mentally ill inmates can be unpredictable; a suicidal inmate can tell you that he is fine and try to hang himself. Your gut-and those little hairs standing up on the back of your neck, combined with your experience-are your best safeguards.

  • The problems of these inmates can affect your safety and also their well-being.

    In other words-their problems can give you problems. Inmates who are seriously mentally ill, such as suffering from paranoia may ‘lash out’ at you. Severely mentally ill inmates can resist you when you are trying to perform what you think are routine duties, such as taking them to the showers or transporting them to court or to a mental health facility. Youthful offenders-those in their teens or juveniles confined in adult jails may be so immature that they engage in fights or assaults on staff. In these two examples, COs may be forced to use force, and in some cases injuries to inmates and staff can happen.

  • Proper supervision means that you are in a ‘people profession’. If you cannot accept that-please leave.

    Correctional officers should view all inmates as people, and strive to treat them with basic human dignity. If some COs get amusement out of harassing mentally ill inmates, for example, or ignoring inmates on segregation-they should do the profession a favor and get out of the field.

  • Special management inmates must be afforded due process & protection from cruel & unusual punishment.

    Special needs inmates, especially those who may be vulnerable to attack and harassment from other inmates must be protected. That means making the best classification decisions possible with the most accurate information and staff input and perspectives. For example, you are faced on where to house a frail inmate in his 70’s. He should not be housed with younger, volatile and immature inmates. Inmates in segregation must have their cases reviewed by staff to ascertain if there is a continuing need for segregation, and if there are any problems such as physical and mental deterioration.

  • Special management inmates must be afforded proper medical and mental health care.

    Pregnant female inmates, mentally ill inmates, suicidal inmates and elderly inmates-these are a representation of special needs inmates. They are to receive good medical and mental health care, like all inmates.

  • Handling special management inmates takes time, concern, empathy and teamwork.

    Dealing with mentally ill inmates or suicidal inmates takes time. The same is true of inmates with dementia or ones that have cultural or language barriers. Be patient and empathetic. Impatience and a lack of concern shown by a CO may heighten the inmate’s anxiety. Regarding inmates in segregation or isolation, think about what they may be going through-limited or no social contact, no television, staring at the same walls hour after hour, etc. Asking how they are doing may make it tolerable. But always think safety and guard against being too sympathetic and being manipulated. Teamwork means working with and taking the advice of medical staff and mental health staff as well as passing along of crucial information between squads or shifts.

  • No one expects you to be an expert, but take action when things are ‘not quite right’.

    You have an inmate in tears-saying that he is not suicidal. You just booked in an inmate who is talking strangely to himself. You observe that another inmate in population who has been social with other inmates now sits and stares all day, never talking. You are not a qualified mental health professional-but your ‘gut’ says something is not right. Contact mental health and medical staff as well as your supervisor for further action and housing.

  • Remember that for many of these inmates, jail is traumatic and they many not handle it well.

    It is important that COs do not generalize and not view all offenders as inmates who readily adjust to incarceration. Even repeat offenders experience anxiety or depression, just as ‘first timers’ do. They may think “I’m back again-what will happen to me this time?” Or-a female is worried about her children, a mentally ill offender is deteriorating rapidly and poses a danger. An elderly offender has just been disowned by the family or an inmate faced with being locked up really will kill herself this time in.

  • Remember that the courts are very concerned with the proper care and handling of special management inmates.

    Corrections trainers now have a ‘gold mine’ of information thanks to the media, correctional organizations and the internet. An effective training tool would be to search for court cases dealing with inmate management and discuss them in training sessions, including roll calls. Recent court cases have examined inmate medical care, suicide and placement of inmates in segregation or isolation.

  • When in doubt, err on the side of caution and let qualified staff step in and do their jobs.

    A good rule to follow-if what you observe about an inmate and your experience leads you to think that this inmate may need special attention-get the qualified staff and supervisors involved.

  • Be prepared to answer for your actions; follow policies and procedures.

    Policies and procedures must be followed. They are there for the welfare of the inmate and also to protect you. Always keep in the back of your mind that with special needs inmates, many ‘players’ will ask you to explain your actions, including supervisors, attorneys, the courts-and let’s not forget internal affairs. Following policies and procedures gives you a solid foundation.

  • Document…Document…DOCUMENT!!!!!!

    The saying “If it was not written down, then it did not happen” is not just a cliché. It’s true-take the time, as tired and as busy that you are-to fill out the special housing logs or write reports. A year later-if the jail is sued about the handling of an inmate-you will be glad that your report or log is retrieved from a dusty old file box in storage. Also-it’s good to keep notes-they refresh your memory. Finally-document clearly and legibly.

    And now my personal favorite:

  • Jail is a closed environment. When in doubt…. ASK A SUPERVISOR. (There is always one around).

    In any correctional facility, there is no such thing as a stupid question about the handling of special needs inmates. Supervisors wear the stripes, the bars, the oak leaves and the eagles on their uniforms. They have been promoted because they show good thought, maturity and leadership. Ask them for direction and it is true-there are always supervisors around the facility.

Reference: In Service Jail Seminar: Managing Special Populations, by Gary F. Cornelius, February 2015.

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Tales from the Local Jail: Volunteers, Change and ‘Cupid the Cat’

November 18th, 2015

Recently a local jail near where I reside asked me to speak to its volunteers, who come into the jail and provide a variety of programs services, including tutoring, mentoring, substance abuse and religious instruction. They are a fine group of concerned citizens who want to help offenders stay out of jail. Corrections veterans know that volunteers are a positive influence in the otherwise negative existence of the jail inmate. They can give hope to those offenders who truly want to change.

The key word is change! As a former jail programs director I have heard that word used by counselors, chaplains and volunteers. It is all right and commendable that we have these folks in jails to help offenders change-from law breaking people to productive citizens. We want offenders to change-but what exactly is change?

In my presentation, I discuss that word. I tell the volunteers that you will hear inmates say that they want to change or they have changed. How can you tell, I ask? Are you psychic? Just because they attend programs and recite Bible verses does not necessarily mean change. Offenders have lived dysfunctional lives on lip service: wearing different masks to suit the situation. To a family member, they can be sorrowful, while at the same time ‘conning’ them out of money. Needing a place to stay because instead of paying the rent, they spent the money on drugs-they wear a mask if desperation. Their lives are a mess and if they can ‘con’ a person into believing that they will change-they will. I discuss in the training why people become criminals, explaining for some they learn it from a dysfunctional criminal family, substance abuse, peers, or they think it is ‘cool’ to be a criminal-“sure beats working for a living!” For some it is a thrill to have power-illegal power- over others. Not all offenders want to continue the criminal life. Faced with consequences such as loss of freedom, decline in their health or the disintegration of their families, many do want to sincerely change.

But to the jail corrections staff-what is change? I have been asked this question by my college students. I answer that change is dynamic, is tangible and not just ‘lip service’. Change in someone’s life must be seen and understood. Change means doing things like:

  • Respecting and cooperating with staff and not getting into trouble in the jail.

  • Attending programs and trying, really trying to get something out of them.
  • Working with, and not manipulating officers, volunteers and programs staff.
  • Trying to reestablish positive communications with families and loved ones.
  • When released, working at a job, not getting fired, paying fines and court costs. Bills are paid; money is saved.
  • Not being re-arrested.
  • Cooperating with probation and parole officers.
  • Staying clean, sober and drug free.
  • Participating in community programs, including mental health counseling.
  • Maintaining good health-mental and physical.
  • Raising a family and being in a strong, positive and mature relationship.

I also advise volunteers that the reasons that people break the law and the problems in their dysfunctional lives will take a long time to change, requiring hard work from the offender. Some offenders will do the work; some will manipulate the volunteers to do a lot of the heavy lifting. For example, an alcoholic inmate wants to join Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and get a sponsor-not because he wants to get sober and stay out of trouble, but because it will look good in front of the judge when he goes to court. So-he wants the volunteer to get him into the program, rather than applying himself through the jail programs section and being put on a waiting list for an interview. Or-instead of reading through the AA literature to find an AA group in his neighborhood, he asks the volunteer to find one. He may even ask the volunteer to testify for him in court before he even gets into the jail AA program. This may appear to be a trivial, small example, but some offenders think this way-appearing to ‘change’ and all the while manipulating is all right.

Speaking of trying to change someone, let’s talk about Cupid the Cat. I use this example because it shows an offender’s sneaky behavior about a cute little cat. In Houston in 2013, Cupid, a little cat, five or six months old, was found shot with an arrow, just under her bladder. A local veterinary clinic took her in; the story made the local news and monetary donations for her care came pouring in. The veterinarian was thrilled with the charity and turned over the management of the donations to her part time manager, a young woman who also worked for the City of Houston. Imagine her surprise when the veterinarian went to check on the accounts and discovered that the donated money had been transferred to a Pay Pal account with the part time manager’s name on it. The total amount embezzled from the clinic was reported to be almost $20,000. The part time manager was charged with aggravated theft. She allegedly set up three Pay Pal accounts under different names and e mail addresses. She then transferred the funds into her own personal account.

So I ask jail volunteers: if this woman had no qualms about cheating and lying about the care of a cute little cat, do you think this criminal behavior will just cease-‘poof’ and disappear because she is in trouble with the law? If she says to you “I have changed”- do you just believe it? Or will she have to prove it by never stealing funds again, participating in counseling, paying back the money she took and facing the consequences of her actions, etc.?

Only her actions….and time will tell.

Just some food for thought.

And by the way, even though I am a dog guy, I do think that cats are cute.

KHOU Staff. “Woman accused of stealing $20K donated to help cat shot with bow-and-arrow”. KHOU, January 21, 2014. Accessed November 12, 2015. Retrieved from

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