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It’s OK to Listen

March 22nd, 2012

Hello to all and Happy Spring! I am back after a break. I was scanning some articles for use in my college class on jails. I came across an article from the Los Angeles Times. Last fall, Sheriff Lee Baca, head of the LA County jail system held a “town hall” type of meeting with male inmates. The jail is under scrutiny due to allegations of abusive behavior and a federal law enforcement investigation.

Sheriff Baca had jail commanders make notes of the inmate complaints, which ranged from lack of medical care, problems with programs, length of visiting sessions and infrequency of showers. The session was open to the media.

I admire Sheriff Baca in his efforts to improve the operations of the jail.

Just a few observations if I may:

First: Inmate complaints should be listened to by officers. If they are frivolous, the inmates need to be told this. Jail officers should realize that nothing runs one hundred percent smoothly, especially a county jail. I worked in one. There were always operations, conditions and services that could be improved-including staff behavior at times. Inmates are not perfect-and neither are we. They are in our custody, and a responsibility for maintaining a well run jail comes with the job. Improving jail conditions requires teamwork from all staff sections and management. Don’t wait until grievances are flooding in, lawyers are calling the jail, the media is out in the jail lobby and families are complaining to the sheriff.

Second: I have heard this from the public and some staff: “They are in jail-too bad”. I believe that jails should be secure, strict and also humane. We pride ourselves on being a humane nation. Our nation’s jails do not have to be substandard.

Third: Watch the inmate “grandstander”. There are inmates who love the spotlight. If you want an idea what is going on in terms of improvement of conditions, seek out the quiet, low key, mature “just let me do my time” inmate. These inmates want to do their time, be left alone and either get released or be transferred to the prison system. If you do seriously listen to their complaints and take action and inform your supervisors, you gain credibility and improve your interpersonal relations with them.

Fourth: Some inmates are constant complainers and may gripe about frivolous matters. They are manipulative and think that their plight is horrible. You know that their record of conduct may not be a good one-behavior has consequences. They want to have a comfortable existence in the jail-on their terms. Let them know in a matter of fact way that their grievances and complaints are frivolous.

It is OK to listen to inmates: just use common sense.


“Sheriff Lee Baca listens to inmate complaints at town hall meeting”, by Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times, at, October 1, 2011.


Civilians Naive? Not Hardly!

November 18th, 2011

Last month I had the privilege of attending the 10th annual National Prisoner Reentry Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, sponsored by the Christian Association for Prison Aftercare (CAPA). As a jail officer veteran I was asked to present a seminar titled “Maintaining Boundaries as a Reentry Professional”. I prepared a seminar focusing on offender behavior, the characteristics of sworn and non sworn staff and tools they can use to guard against offender manipulation. I, being sworn staff, expected to “enlighten them” somewhat. I was pleasantly surprised that my material was well received and appreciated.

My point is this: Those of us who wear the unform in the jail may be led to believe-through our expereinces of dealing with offenders-that civilians-some and certainly not all-are naive and need to be bluntly informed about offenders. After all, many and certainly not all of us wearing the badge, say the good old adage-“Inmates only get religion when they come to jail”. Yes-many do and not for positive reasons such as to try to reform their criminal behavior. I have heard and have been disgusted by comments from jail officers describing volunteers and civilians “do-gooders” and “Bible Thumpers”. In my career-the most rewarding job that I had was programs dorector. I worked with many good, decent, kind, caring volunteers and civilians. Like the ones that I encountered in my jail career, many of the folks attending the CAPA Conference were not naive and uninformed about offenders. I presented the seminar twice, and in both sessions had good discussions with reentry full time staff and volunteers. In meeting these folks, I was glad to discover that many are very much aware aboiut criminal behavior and manipulation. CAPA is commended for hosting a worthwhile conference where good people receive training to help offenders reform. I also met several ex offenders who were involved in offender reenty and rehabilitation

So-with that in mind, I would like to address a few issues:

Concering the comment: “Inmates only get religion when they come into the jail”, some do. I am not naive. But-some offenders try to do the right thing by attending religious programs and activties as well as working one on one with chaplains’ staffs and volunteers. My view is that while many offenders sign up for religious activities, reforming behavior is hard work. The manipulative ones will usually be exposed and “weeded out”. Some offenders will not ever change. These types of offenders will always be coming into jails and prsions. The ones who stay with it most likely behave towards staff and other offenders in positive ways. More simply: Being involved in poisitive programs such as relkigious activiies and mentoring cancels out negative behavior.

The second issue is the comment from sworn staff: “Civilians do not understand security”. Why not? How are they trained? Is the training very cursory or is enough time spent training civilians in security, communicating with staff, what to do in emergencies, criminal thninking, manipualtion and the responsibilities of sworn staff? My staff and I trained many civilians, and in retirement, I still enjoy that. It is crucial that all civilians-staff receive good training in operartions, dealing with offenders and security. Also-does the sworn staff receive training on what the civilians do? Sworn staff should relaize that civilians conducting counseling and programs can have a positive effect on the facility climate. Inmates can talk to people who care-and by doing so much anger and anxiety can be reduced.

The final issue concerns comments such as “Volunteers and civilians make the security job harder”. To that I say this: Civilians and volunteers, when prioperly trained, serve as extra eyes and ears among the offender populations. Offenders can talk to them-sometimes letting them know about problems in the husing areas or in their personal lives. In my programs director careerr, concerned civilians let me and my staff know about offender behavioralk issues- and in doing so, two potential suicides were thwatrted because the mental health staff was informed. I always thought that anyone-wearing a badge or not-who was observant and communicated with staff about what was going on inside the facilirty was worthy of respect.


Rescuing Fellow Officers

September 16th, 2011

Recently I wrote a blog that explored the idea that jail officers act as lifeguards when dealing with suicidal inmates.  Recently, I came across an article by a law enforcement veteran that discusses rescuing our fellow officers.

In the article “Keep cool:  How to stay professional despite provocation”, retired police lieutenant Dan Marcou discusses how offenders and inmates conquer officers by angering them.  It’s true-those of us who work in jails develop over time a “thick skin” that deflects verbal insults, insulting remarks or the sort of hate-filled speech that some-and not all-inmates spew at us.  To them, using “trigger words”, which may get under our skin and push our buttons, is great entertainment.  Also, an officer can slip down the slope into the pit of liability if he or she loses control and acts out resulting in excessive force, harassment or other degrading behavior towards an inmate.  An officer on the witness stand in an inmate lawsuit saying “he called me an SOB and threatened to go to my kid’s school” is not a justification for violating an inmate’s constitutional rights-no matter what his views of inmates’ rights are.  Correctional officers are paid to let a lot of harassment roll off their shoulders.  We avoid using trigger words to anger inmates but as we know-they often do not extend the same courtesy to us.

We professional jail officers who believe in doing our jobs in the most effective and ethical ways possible can both keep off the slippery slope and rescue fellow officers who allow their buttons to be pushed.

Lt. Marcou has several suggestions:

Identify your trigger words:  Know what your own trigger words are and do everything that you can to avoid using them when dealing with inmates.  For example, if you frequently use the phrase “Have a nice day”, it may have a negative effect on an inmate.  They may think-“Oh yeah-I’m in jail and you tell me to have a nice day?” One of the phrases that I was very cautious about using was “I don’t care”.  True-there are days when you do not want to hear one more inmate complaint or problem….but we are in the people business and you have to listen to them. To a jail inmate, staff using that phrase a lot shows uncaring attitudes when trying to bring staff attention to a problem.   

Also, know what subjects are sensitive to you.  For example, we all love our spouses and children.  If an inmate says “when I get out, I am going to your kids’ school,” or “I know where your wife works,” remember that is a trap-it is bait to make you respond unprofessionally.  Think proactively, prepare professional responses and implement them.  One of the best ones that I practiced in my jail career was to just walk away.  I would tell the inmate that he or she was acting inappropriately and I would return when they were acting more maturely. The satisfaction that I always thought of was that I am going home at the end of the shift-and they are not.

Enjoy the show:  Lt. Marcou suggests that you observe carefully how inmates choose their trigger words-it is entertaining!  To the overweight jail officer, an inmate may say “Take off that badge so I stomp your fat a__”.   While conducting a pat down or strip search on an inmate, the inmate may sarcastically say to the officer “Getting your jollies?  Are you gay?”  To an officer who is black they may throw around the N___ word; to female officers they may say “you C___ or B___.  Inappropriate racial epithets are not off limits to the inmate.  Officers should anticipate them and act professionally.

Be ready to rescue an officer:   Known as “officer override”, this technique can save a fellow officer from playing into the inmates’ hands.  When a veteran jail officer observes another officer-veteran or rookie-losing self control and responding inappropriately to inmate trigger words, he should step in.  Use ready techniques such as “Hey-the sarge is calling you on the radio”; “there is a phone call for you at post 4”, or “I need some help here-got a minute?”  You are removing the officer from the scene and getting him away from the inmate.  Once removed from the scene, you can talk to the officer, telling him or her what you observed and how it could have escalated.  Or-you can take over dealing with the inmate while the other officer takes a few deep breaths and calms down, all part of a refocusing process. 

Why do inmates act in such a way?  To get you to act unprofessionally, lose your cool, and cross the line.  Verbal shouting matches could lead to the inmate filing grievances.  No matter what happens, the officer looks bad if the inmate gets under his skin.  Angry officers lose control.  The inmate wins by the officer acting unprofessionally, either verbally or physically.  In a stressful occupation, who needs the additional stress of an internal affairs investigation or discipline from the agency supervisors?  Remember-the officer has to talk to his supervisor about inappropriate behavior, and the inmate just goes back into the block and has a good laugh.

There are other serious ramifications.  If a jail officer responds negatively to trigger words, out of control anger can lead to force, which may lead to violations of the inmate’s civil rights.  The officer’s career is over if found liable.  Also, other officers will have to defuse the situation, resulting in “hands on” the inmate, use of force and possible injury both to inmates and fellow officers.  

Concerning use of force, the jail officer is trained to control inmates, protect others and defend himself.  Marcou says-and correctly-that officers may win the fight, but will most likely lose legally and professionally a fight that is motivated by rage.  Defensible uses of force to control an inmate, protect inmates and staff and defend oneself will stand up to legal scrutiny.  These include kicks, body blows, restraint holds, punches, pepper spray, stun guns and batons.  In many circumstances these are understandable.  But-calling an inmate an a__hole, an SOB or other slur is difficult to defend.   

Finally-if an officer stands by and does not intervene when observing a situation involving excessive use of force on an inmate, he or she can be found just as liable as the officer who is losing control.  Remember-inmates will name in lawsuits not just the officers losing control but any other officers present. 

In closing-inmates use trigger words to trigger unprofessional conduct.  If they are successful, they have won the battle.

Don’t be on the losing end.


Lt. Dan Marcou, (retired).  (2010, February 10).  Keep cool:  how to stay professional despite provocation:  Beware of trigger words in an inmate’s verbal onslaught because the man who angers you conquers you!  CorrectionsOne News, retrieved from, April 19, 2011.



July 19th, 2011

If you have been following the antics occurring in Washington, DC this summer, then you, as am me are tired of the numbers….if politicians do this, we save X billions; if they do not do this, we lose X billions.  It is enough to give you a headache.

However, numbers can assist those of us who work inside a jail.  I teach a college class, and I tell students that statistics look very impressive in a research paper and sound very knowledgeable, but there are some numbers that have a critical bottom line.   I also take this approach in conducting in service training.  It is not important that a jail staff member knows numbers; it is more important to realize in a practical sense what the numbers actually imply.  It is more important to have this practical view than to walk around impressing folks with statistical data.

So, I looked around my office at my ever growing “stack of stuff” and picked out some publications containing correctional statistics.  I picked out a few numbers and will discuss what they mean for the folks working inside our nation’s jails.  Don’t get me wrong-numbers get us research, funding and insight.  But-they can paint a picture, too.

Mental Health of Jail Inmates*

Information on the mental health of jail inmates is available from many sources, including the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).  In the report Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates, released in September of 2006 (data revised in December 2006),   the most quoted statistics are that 64 per cent of local jail inmates were estimated to have a mental health problem; 21 percent reported a recent mental health problem history and 60 percent had symptoms.   To the jail officer, that is not very surprising.  Jail staffs encounter many mentally disordered inmates.  But-let’s look at specifics:

Behaviorally, the top five major depressive or mania symptoms can be important to the jail staff.  As reported in the above referenced report, the top five reported such symptoms (in past 12 months or since admission)  in jail inmates were:

  • Persistent anger and irritability                            (49.4%)
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia                                       (49.2%)
  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation               (46.2%)
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt    (43.0%)
  • Increased or decreased appetite                           (42.8%)

What do these numbers mean for the jail staff?  Simply this- mentally, inmates in jails experience difficulties that pose risks for themselves, to the inmates around them and to the staff that they encounter.  Look at the anger/irritability statistic-almost one half of inmates are persistently angry or irritable.  You may want to keep that in mind the next time you have to deal with them and they are not in a good mood….or you see a staff member getting enjoyment from “pushing their buttons”.  Yes-you must assert authority and cannot “shy away” from inmates.  But just remember-watch out for the anger factor-it can be easily channeled towards you or another inmate.  Or-43 per cent of inmates feel worthlessness or guilt.  While only 12.9 per cent of inmates reported ever having attempted suicide, almost half report feeling worthless.  The key is to not escalate the situation to where overt acts of suicidal behavior occur.

Also reported in this BJS report was indications of psychotic behavior.   Approximately 24 per cent or about one in four jail inmates reported at least one symptom of psychotic disorder- a serious concern.  Delusions (believing that the brain or thoughts was being controlled by others, the mind could be read or one was being spied on by others) were reported in 17.5 percent of local jail inmates.  The bottom line?  Almost 1 in 5 inmates.  Hallucinations (seeing things or hearing things not seen or heard by others) were reported at a rate of 13.7-almost 14 percent.   Finally, almost one half (49 percent) of local jail inmates were reported to have problems in two critical areas:  mental health and substance abuse or dependence.  For jail staff, it is agreed that mental illness among inmate populations is bad enough, but the situation worsens when substance abuse complications are thrown into the mix.

Profile of Jail Inmates**

The Bureau of Justice Statistics published in 2004 a benchmark look at the jail population, the Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002.   Let’s take a look at a “snapshot” of some of the information that the profile provides plus some practical applications for jail officers and staff.

* Forty six per cent (46%) of jail inmates had a family member who had been incarcerated.  Practical application?  Many inmates are well versed in the criminal justice system, having been around family members who have been locked up.  Did Uncle Joe give his niece or nephew advice on how to scheme, manipulate or otherwise survive incarceration?  It may be that the jail education starts in the home.

* When all statistical data is considered, 77 per cent (77%) of convicted jail inmates were involved with alcohol and/or drugs at the time of the offense.  This means that almost 8 in 10 convicted inmates in jail have trouble with drugs and alcohol.  There are two things to consider:  on the positive side, inmate participation in substance abuse programs should be encouraged.  On the negative side, the “pull” of drugs and alcohol is strong, resulting in homemade “booze” being manufactured or drug smuggling flourishing as an illegal enterprise in the jail.  At times, as we sadly know, some jail staff members are enlisted in these endeavors.

* Considering marital status, in 2002 60.1 per cent of jail inmates have never been married.   Ask yourself-what does it take for an individual to be successfully married?  Consideration for others, respect for others, commitment, etc.-in other words-putting someone ahead of yourself.   Sociopathic offenders are narcissistic-they are number one.  Many use romantic and affectionate feelings as tools to “scam” staff.  They put no one ahead of themselves.

* It also takes commitment to obtain a good education.  In 2002, 25.9 per cent or almost 26 per cent of inmates had a high school diploma.  Almost one third (31.6%) had “some high school”.  Regarding college 10.1 per cent of local jail inmates reported some college and only 2.9 per cent had a college degree or post college education.  You know and I know that education involves respect for authority, following instructions and doing the schoolwork.  These are positive traits to have.  If one does not; chances are that he or she will not complete high school.  The practical application is that if an offender does not follow instructions and respect authority in school, there is a good chance that he also will not respect the authority of jail staff.

The bottom line?  Statistics have a bottom line.    They can tell you a lot of practical information about inmates.  Think how statistics can be used by you on the job-and keep your guard up!


* James, Doris J. and Lauren E. Glaze.  2006.  Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates.  Washington, DC:  Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Government Printing Office.

** James, Doris J.  2004.  Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002.  Washington, DC:  Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Government Printing Office.


The Jail Correctional Officer: The Lifeguard

June 10th, 2011

An odd title, no doubt.  When one thinks of a lifeguard, the image that comes to mind is of a young, tanned man or woman sitting in a tower chair overlooking a beach or a swimming pool.  When swimmers engage in risky behavior or go out too far from the beach, the lifeguard blows the whistle and heads off a potentially dangerous situation.  In many cases they rescue people from drowning.

            Public safety personnel (police, fire and corrections) are in a sense, lifeguards.  All strive to head off dangerous behavior and at times rescue people from dangerous situations.  People are pulled from auto accidents, burning buildings and dangerous situations such as being stranded in the wild-just to name a few.  Correctional officers also strive to save lives, especially when encountering the suicidal inmate.

            In suicide prevention training, suicidal behavior is described as a “cry for help”.  The person, in this case the inmate, often doesn’t really want to die, and in many cases intervention by concerned staff have prevented many, but unfortunately not all suicides.  Any officer that works inside a prison or jail can knows this.

            The recent suicide in San Francisco Bay serves as an image of how a suicidal person is adrift in a sea of despair.  As reported by Reuters, a 53 year old man waded into neck deep water of San Francisco Bay off Alameda, California.   He had tried to kill himself previously by drowning.  As police and fire personnel watched from the shore, the man succumbed to the 54 degree water and drowned.  Efforts to convince him to return to shore proved fruitless, and a civilian onlooker finally swam out and pulled his body to shore.  Resuscitation efforts were in vain.  The Coast Guard could not get a boat into the shallow area where the man was; a Coast Guard helicopter arrived too late.       The local police and fire agencies are being severely criticized for their inaction.   Both the police and fire departments stated that investigations would be conducted and policies revised.  One police official said that the victim’s actions were no different than “a person going out to the ledge of a building or [on] the tracks of a train….. [he was] using the hypothermic qualities of the water to commit suicide” (Saveri, June 1, 2011).

            This article is not being written with the intention of pointing blame at the police and fire departments involved in this incident.  Public opinion will be formed and most likely the victim’s family will file lawsuits.  This article will make a point:  that suicidal people are frequently calling for help, drowning in a sea of despair, depression and despondency.  The public safety professionals-including jail corrections officers (COs)-are not to judge them, but must try to prevent them from taking one of our most precious gifts-life.

            In the profession of corrections, jail suicide prevention training has come a long way.  Training academies offer seminars in the subject, and it is required in order to meet accreditation from the American Correctional Association (American Correctional Association, 2010, p. 37).  More is known now about inmate suicide than probably at any other time in the history of corrections.  Also, courts have recognized that negligence by jail staff and/or inept practices have resulted in heartbreak for the victim’s families as well as expensive monetary damages against the correctional agencies.  There are a lot of studies and a lot of data, both readily available to jail training staffs.

            Besides these observations, there must be an examination on the human aspect of jail suicide.  In your mind, move the image of the man drowning in the bay to inside a jail.  You know that you cannot just stand there and let someone end his or her life.

            Jail officers must realize that no matter if they are in the lifeboat or on the shore, they must attempt to save the drowning inmate.  They must try to throw a lifeline or rope to try to keep the inmate from going under, no matter what they think of the inmate.  In jail work, it is easy to become jaded and calloused towards the thousands of inmates that are encountered in a career.  When a depressed inmate says something like “the world will be better off without me”, it is human to think:  “Sure will”.  But-we cannot let him take his own life.

            There are several steps in the process of correctional officers developing a mindset of guarded compassion regarding the suicidal inmate.  Guarded compassion means what it says….it is all right to be compassionate, but due to the manipulative behavior of some apparently suicidal inmates in trying to enlist staff sympathy for purposes of escape or trust, officers must always be on their guard.  A jail CO must think all the time about safety. These development steps are:

Realizing that you are in a people profession:   You are responsible for the people in your custody.  Yes-they are criminal offenders.  One of the hardest parts of being a jail correctional officer is to hold your emotions in check.  Some offenders are management problems; some are assaultive and will not “go along” with the rules.  But they are people:  they must not, as much as possible, be subjected to harm from others or themselves.  The courts will judge them; the jail CO’s job and professional mission is to keep inmates safe and securely confined until lawfully released or transferred to another correctional facility or program.

Realizing that inmates have problems:   Incarceration is painful.  A CO may think-“so what?  They put themselves in their predicaments.”  Once again-the CO’s job is not to judge.  The key is for the CO to have empathy for the inmate’s problems-understanding how their lives are “screwed up” without getting emotionally involved and losing objectivity, especially about manipulation and safety.

Jail correctional officers should be aware of that imprisonment is a “disheartening and threatening experience” for men and women.  People-when they find themselves locked up- discover that their careers [jobs] are disrupted, their relationships with people, such as with significant others, families and friends are disrupted and their hopes, aspirations and dreams “have gone sour”.  Due to immature coping with life’s many problems, they have not developed effective coping mechanisms which results in aggravated levels of stress.  (Johnson, 2002, pp. 82-83).

Realizing that “lifelines” can take many forms:  They are drowning and may decide to go under.  You can throw them a lifeline.  Lifelines can be non verbal, such as showing through body language concern, empathy and guarded compassion.  For example, you pass by an inmate’s cell.  She is crying.  You stop and look in.  You don’t do things like look skeptical, roll your eyes or look at your watch.  You show concern-and that inmate may think that you do care, and that at that moment, she is your top priority.  Also, throwing lifelines is not an individual effort-it is a team effort involving all staff that has daily contact with the inmates:  confinement, medical, classification, chaplains’ and mental health staffs.  All must collaborate and share information about potentially suicidal inmates.

Verbal lifelines can be simple:  “Are you all right”?  “What’s wrong”?  “Do you need to talk to someone?”  The best lifeline is showing concern, letting the inmate talk and being a good listener.

Verbal lifelines can be thrown to counteract what the inmate may be saying.   These lifelines give the inmate something to hold onto.  Some examples could be (Ellis and Newman, 1996, pp. 48-49):

The inmate says that his death “will show them”:  A counteractive statement from the CO-the lifeline-could be “Show them what-sorrow, grief?  Friends and family still care about you.  And you want revenge.  How can you feel revenge if you are dead?”

The inmate says that “her family will be better off”:  A lifeline statement could use the children factor.  A CO can ask if the inmate has children. If so, the inmate could be asked to imagine the children going to school and having to face questions and teasing about her mother’s death in the jail.

The inmate says:  “I’ll be happier in the hereafter”:  The CO can use the “religious card”:  “God’s greatest gift to us is life.  If you defy God and take your life, the hereafter for you may not be pleasant.  Do you want to take that chance and run the risk that you may be mistaken about your version of the hereafter?”

The inmate says “my life is over”:  The CO can say “Death is final.  You do not know what is coming down the road.  You do not know what will happen in court, or what sentence you may receive.  There are appeals, etc.  But if you are dead-you will never know”.

The inmate says:  “By doing this, I will be in control.”  The CO can pointedly remind the inmate that death is final and is also the ultimate loss of control.

The inmate says:  “At last they will see how much I loved them; they will love me in return”:  The CO counteracts with:  “You will be dead-so how will you know?”

Lifelines such as these can be blunt and abrasive…but saving a life is sometimes a tough job.  You won’t prevent all suicides, but acting as a lifeguard can prevent many.  Also, if the inmate appears to change their suicidal ideation, this does not mean that the danger is over.  They can relapse, and the staff has to monitor them and frequently talk to them no matter where they are housed in the jail.  By throwing lifelines, you are keeping the innate afloat until qualified mental health staff can see the inmate.

One more thought:  In the movies, the water rescuers are given a blanket and a cup of hot coffee.  Why?  They are tired.  Keep in mind that when you throw inmates lifelines and head off suicides, it is a draining experience.  But-if you exercise guarded compassion, empathy and you do care about the inmates in your custody………..saving a life can be a worthwhile experience.  After all-the greatest gift is…


American Correctional Association. (2010). Core Jail Standards.  Alexandria:  American Correctional Association.

Ellis, Thomas E., PSY.D. and Cory F. Newman, Ph.D. (1996).  Choosing to Live:  How to Defeat Suicide Through Cognitive Therapy.  Oakland:  New Harbinger Publications.

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

Saveri, Gabrielle. (June 1, 2011).  Man kills self in San Francisco Bay as police watch.  Retrieved June 7, 2011, from


Predator, Chameleon and Model Inmate: The Same?

May 11th, 2011

We have all heard of the term “model inmate”.  A counselor in the facility may say that a well behaved inmate is a “model inmate”.  After nearly three decades having worked inside a jail, I am still looking for the perfect example of a “model inmate”, and so are many correctional officers in the field. 

 One of the classes that I present is a “Maintaining Boundaries” session, where I put a new spin on the traditional “Con Games Inmates Play” class.  Officers who attend the class are veterans and know how cunning inmates are.  Much of  the material is not surprising to them.

 Recently, one of my clients gave me an idea……and I want to share it with you.  We were discussing how to more effectively get the attention of the attendees.  He asked if I had ever thought how predators are like chameleons-changing their demeanor, mood and behavior to get their prey.  In other words inmates change appearances. I answered sure….that is a given subject when discussing inmate manipulation.

 He suggested an exercise:  ask the class to describe a predator and write the answers on the board.  Descriptions include:  sly, sneaky, deceitful, cunning, waits for a weakness, etc. Then ask them to discuss chameleons, the lizards that can change their appearances to suit their needs, such as hiding from dangerous animals.

 Finally, put this question out:  are inmate predators like chameleons?  [The answer will be yes].  Then ask why inmate predators are similar to chameleons-and discuss how that behavior can also be found in the proverbial “model inmate”.

 One of the best descriptions of the model inmate is from Inside the Criminal Mind, by Stanton E. Samenhow, PhD (Times Books, Alexandria, VA 1984).  He wrote:

 An inmate may conclude that direct confrontations with staff or fellow prisoners is futile, that there is wisdom in restraint.  The model inmate is the consummate actor.  Contemptuous of everyone from the warden to the guards, he still plays up to them.

 This is a profound statement.  In training, this should be posted for the class to see and discuss.  The resulting discussion should follow the components of the statement.

 Direct confrontation with staff or fellow prisoners is futile:  Why?  Simply more is accomplished by deception.  Confrontation, while resulting in short term bravado and improving one’s reputation among inmates, is a lose–win situation.   The inmate loses, the staff wins.  Disciplinary segregation or loss of privileges may result.

 The model inmate is the consummate actor:   The inmate uses manipulative schemes and ploys, using deception-being a “good” inmate, being helpful, obeying the rules, etc.  Staff-both sworn and non sworn may start to believe that the inmate “isn’t so bad”.

Contemptuous of everyone from the warden to the guards, he [or she] plays up to them:  All staff should keep in mind at all times that the number one priority of the inmate is-the inmate.  He or she wants access to the items and comforts from the outside through fooling staff.  They want to do time on their terms, not per the rules and regulations of the agency and facility.

 When discussing inmate behavior in training, I go around the class asking for “war stories” about manipulative inmates.  Even staff members who are new to corrections can relate incidents where they were fooled by inmates.  I discuss factual accounts that I have researched about offenders who have faked being intellectually challenged, pretended to be mentally ill, pretended to have cancer, stole identities and professional credentials, and seduced staff of the opposite gender.  Discussion point-what is to stop such manipulative behavior on the street from flourishing in the institution resulting in contraband smuggling, sexual misconduct and escape, just to name a few?

 There are two aspects of training that must be mentioned.  First, as we all know, war stories can make a class interesting.  The trainer should be careful and use war stories only to support and illustrate key points and objectives of the class.  A class that is in effective is one of “who tells the best war story”.  Secondly, in training non sworn staff, war stories can illustrate how inmates operate, and can also give a jolt to some civilians’ naivete.  As I told the civilians I train:  “Ten inmates that you think are ‘all right’ could be lined up in front of you, and unless you are psychic, you do not know which of them have good intentions and which ones do not.  That is the reason for policy, procedures and being careful.” 

 All staff-sworn and non sworn should be made aware of the facade of the “model inmate”.  To be fair, there are inmates who take advantage of every opportunity afforded to them in order to change their lives.  Many get off of drugs, many get sober, some get their GEDs, some learn a job skill and some repair strained family relations.  And yes-some never come back.  There are success stories.

 But-for each inmate who does the right thing, there are many who act-the “model inmate”.  Just think-should there be an Oscar for inmate acting?

 Just some of my thoughts.  What are yours?

 Reference:  Inside the Criminal Mind, by Stanton E. Samenhow, PhD (Times Books, Alexandria, VA 1984), p. 144.


The ‘Spark of Learning’: Some Advice for the Training Instructor

April 6th, 2011

Recently I had the pleasure of substituting for an instructor in a basic jail officer recruit class in a Virginia criminal justice academy.  I thought-what advice can I give them?  What can they take away from the training?  Although the curriculum is  prepared with the recruits filling in information, I enjoyed explaining the information and giving them the benefit of my experience.

 We all have been through the “rookie training” and were glad when we finally graduated from the academy.  But the “spark” that a conscientious jail officer develops in training should not be extinguished.  I have met many jail officers that want to continue learning throughout their careers.  The fire that is lit in the recruit academy never goes out.  The trick is to employ training methods and techniques that keep that flame lit.

The jail officer who attends an in service “just to get the [required] hours” in is not doing himself or herself as well as the agency any service.  I am not saying that jail officers attending in service training should “jump up and down” in class in enthusiasm or answer every question.  What I am saying are that many instructors, both civilian and sworn carefully research material to be presented and take teaching a class seriously.  In service classes can enhance our job performances.  Attendees should at the minimum have open minds about the class.

 I have seen corrections change significantly since I entered the field in 1978.   Now, as a retired deputy sheriff, now an instructor, I am still learning.  Many instructors are retired and the experience and insight that they have garnered can make training both interesting and helpful.  More information is now available about correctional security, staff training, avoiding liability, and offenders-to name just a few-than at any other point in the history of the profession.  Also, I learn something in every class-both in service and recruit-that I teach.  Many attendees come from professions related to corrections or work in facilities that have effective operations in place.

 In service training can now be presented on line, by webinar, video conferencing or by the traditional method of personal, stand up instruction.  No matter what the method, staff in attendance hopefully will be interested in learning.

 There are some challenges for the in service instructor.  They are:

 Including all staff:  Sworn staff members should realize that many types of workers make up the correctional team and not one group knows it all.  Civilians such as counselors, mental health personnel and medical staff can present some good, useful information.  Also, in service classes may contain court security personnel.  Collateral personnel must be included in the goals of the presentation.  No one should feel left out.

Class activities:  I like quizzes.  When presenting some classes I arrive bearing doughnuts…..yum.  I tell the class that if they can pass my quiz, they can have the doughnuts.  However, no one passes-the questions are factually based, fun and thought provoking.  They get the doughnuts anyway. We all know that when it comes to in class participation, some attendees are willing to learn and some are quiet.  Unfortunately, you have some that you know by their demeanor and facial expressions that they are there for the hours only.  I use role play when possible in an effort to “spark” their interest.    However, there will always be some that when dismissal time comes-they bolt for the door.

 Fighting the after lunch “I want to nap” attitudes:  After a heavy lunch, many in the class would take a nap if cots were provided.  Videos, humor and some “attention getters” are best saved for the afternoon.   Hourly breaks of 10 minutes duration are highly recommended, not only in the morning, but throughout the day.

 Keeping the interest focused:  Besides quizzes and similar activities, role plays, videos, Power Point photos can all help keep the class focused.  I do not pass out copies of Power Point slides.  I pass out a note taking guide consisting of a class outline with spaces for note taking.  I want the class to focus its attention on me instead of looking at a copy of what is on the screen.  I encourage discussion, often calling on class members for their opinions and thoughts.  I also use handouts.  Two great tools are Joe Bouchard’s books Icebreaker 101 (2007) and Icebreakers and More (2009), which contain many useful activities for the instructor.  (For these and more, please see Joe Bouchard’s Foundations page.)

Being a training instructor is a challenging task.  But-when you receive good evaluations (and take them seriously in order to improve the class) and realize that you have made a difference, enhanced their jobs and have learned something in return, it is a great feeling.

 Anyone have any instructional methods that they use?   Let’s share!


When No Doesn’t Mean No…..Teamwork Determines the Truth

March 7th, 2011

Author’s note:  The following blog is by Timothy P. Manley, MSW, LCSW, Forensic Social Worker in the Mental Health Unit of the Fairfax  County (VA) Adult Detention Center. 

Teamwork is important in any correctional facility…it saves lives and keeps everyone safe.  Tim addresses this important topic in the following article, and I extend to him my sincere thanks for this great contribution.  GFC

We have all heard it.  No means no.  We heard it as children when we asked our parents a second or third time for permission for something we hoped to have or do.  A prized toy found at the check out counter, a more favorable extension to a curfew, the use of the family car. We now likely use the statement ourselves with anyone who does not want to accept our negative response.  It is our final answer. No means no!

There is, however, a very dangerous occasion when no does not necessarily mean no.  I was reminded of that recently when interviewing an inmate who had been referred to our jail mental health section by a concerned family member’s telephone call.  The caller had spoken with her brother, an inmate, who, having been found guilty, was likely to receive a long sentence.  The family had become concerned about his level of self-risk. He had not made any direct statements that evening, but they recalled a comment made long before his arrest that if he was to serve a prison sentence he would rather kill himself.  They asked us to assess him for suicide risk.

While I was interviewing the inmate, his general demeanor and responses to all my questions did not suggest risk.  When he was directly asked, he said no to any thoughts of suicide or self-harm. He minimized the statement recalled by his family, and frankly presented himself as one who considered suicide the furthest thing from his mind. While his nonchalant attitude did cause me suspicion, the inmate gave me no overt indication that he was suicidal.

That is when the value of staff communication and teamwork worked together in preventing a tragedy.  When I called for the inmate to meet with me, I had informed the post sergeant of the family’s concern. While I was completing my interview, the sergeant, who, after sending the inmate, had instigated a complete cell search and had her deputies look through the inmate’s property.  Within his property, the deputies found a suicide letter written in the inmate’s hand and directed to his family.  The same family, the inmate had assured me, was the very reason he would never harm himself.  Had it not been for teamwork and the thorough search by the confinement staff, our attempt to keep this young man safe would have been in vain. 

This incident reminded me of some things worth noting.

First and foremost is that there is no room for the lone expert in the field of corrections.  We all come into this line of work with various levels of expertise and corrections works best when all professions are involved and respected. 

All too often, I have heard the statement, “I’m no mental health expert, but…” Many of the skills used by those in corrections and law enforcement are very similar to the work of the mental health staff.  Observe, listen, and respond.  Relatively, the mental health staff spends a brief amount of time with the inmate while a correctional officer is observing hours of the inmate’s life.  These observations include his or her interactions with other inmates, the demeanor before and after court and his or her behavior before and after phone calls to the outside world.  That information when communicated is gold to the mental health professional.

Another is the importance of professional follow through. While the inmate was referred to the “mental health expert”, that did not stop the confinement staff from using their professional expertise, investigating the situation fully. Custody staff has the ability to search cells and actually enter into that part of the inmate’s world that can easily be hidden during a mental health interview.  A person bent on self-destruction will often deny even the suicidal thought, all the while preparing to act in the quiet of their cell.  It never hurts to ask ourselves: “did I use every resource available in gathering the information that I will use to make my decision?”

That said, the inmate’s simple denial of suicide is not a surety that the person is safe. When there is a concern for safety, a negative response to the question of self-harm should always be challenged.  

Finally, there is never enough good communication. Just when we are getting tired of passing on the information someone is just getting the message.

What is most important to remember, no matter your professional training, is that we are a team inside the jail.  None of the professionals can be independently successful and one should not sell short others, or abdicate their own skills.  It is only in teamwork that we can get the truth and be successful.  Plautus, a Roman writer living before the Common Era, said it concisely, “No man is wise enough by himself.”


Down the Hallway………

February 4th, 2011

In life, we all walk down hallways.  Some of us walk down hallways for a job interview, some to the principal’s office (in our younger days) and unfortunately down hospital hallways to see a loved one or friend who is sick.  It is human nature to glance into rooms as we walk by.

Working inside a jail-it is no different.   In my jail career I walked down hallways in the inmate housing areas thousands of times.  I never lost the habit-even as I was promoted and transferred-of glancing into the inmate areas that I was walking by, especially in the special housing areas where inmates are segregated for various reasons.  In law enforcement, we are trained to be observers.

This subject has two critical aspects that need to be discussed. 

Extra eyes and ears:  All jail staff are supposed to have the welfare of the inmates and staff in mind.  This is not wishful thinking.  If sworn and non sworn staff learn to appreciate each other’s roles and respect their jobs, it is possible to attain a level of teamwork.  So-if a civilian is walking down the hallway in the jail receiving area and sees an inmate in a cell pacing and crying, hopefully that civilian will mention it to the officer on post.  The officer on post should go down that hallway and spend a few minutes talking to the inmate.  It may be a case where officers thought that the inmate was stable, but circumstances have changed.  The inmate may now be suicidal.

Now-I do know that jail posts are busy.  Movement of many people inside  a jail is common; many are thinking of their own tasks or jobs.  But-if a person, whether it be a volunteer, programs staff person, a chaplain, a commissary employee, or a mental health counselor-observes unusual situations or behaviors, that information should be mentioned to the custody staff.  In a jail, where the inmates outnumber the officers, these extra “eyes and ears” can be very helpful.

There are some correctional officers that “look down” on staff that are not in uniform.  An officer may say:  “It’s my job, not theirs!” 

I would answer with this: 

” If I worked in a building where the people that I watch don’t want to be here, do not like me, are potentially harmful, are unpredictable and  try to undermine me at every turn, I would welcome any input from any conscientious person to make my job easier.” 

Think about it.

Pass-on:  The second critical aspect is the accuracy of pass-on information.  Many jails have roll calls.  Some do not.  As for me, I think that all jails should have roll calls, not just for staff assignments and relieving each other.  Maybe I am old fashioned, but I like the roll call session approach where a supervisor goes over incident reports filed since the squad was on duty last.  Critical information on inmates can be discussed, especially concerning those in segregation and in need of close observation.  It is like the old TV series “Hill Street Blues” where the veteran sergeant goes over incidents and gives advice, always ending with something like “Let’s be careful out there”.

 The written word is the best way to pass on information, not general verbal messages like “A couple of inmates got into it upstairs-they are in lock down-see you later”.  Sloppy pass on can result in inmate/staff  injury, death, criminal activity or escape.  I would hate to be on the witness stand and have to relate the little or no pass on information that I received about an inmate.  Also, if an officer is in a hurry to go home (I know the feeling), he or she should take the extra time to let the oncoming staff know what is going on in detail.   Better to do that or get a phone call at home on your day off, right?

So-if someone walking down the hallway gives you good observations or information-write it down.   Write it down for all staff to share, and pass it on accurately and responsibly.

One last thought:  Working a jail post is like working the floor in a hospital-but the patients are significantly different.  The next time you are in a hospital-look at the nurses’ station.  They are communicating with a lot of people-the welfare of the patients is their top priority.  In the jail, the safety and welfare of the inmates and staff are priority.  That helps us in jails earn the public trust.

Just some food for thought.


The Many Informal Roles of the CO

January 27th, 2011

Remember when you graduated from the academy?  You were now a correctional officer- a CO.   Spit and polish….the brass….the patch, and most of all… the badge on your chest.   You were proud and rightfully so.  You were ready to work inside one of the toughest buildings known to man-the correctional facility.  Some of you work inside a prison,  inside a local jail, and let’s not forget-some of you work inside a juvenile facility.  The job for staff inside juvenile facilities can be just as stressful and dangerous as in adult facilities.

Offhand I cannot recite chapter and verse all of the training topics that correctional officers undergo in our nation’s correctional training academies.  I do know that the formal duties that are discussed include  searching inmates, taking counts,  maintaining order and enforcing facility rules, regulations, and the laws of the jurisdiction where the facility is located.   The abilities to perform these duties are tested, practiced and evaluated.

However, while interpersonal communications and formal duties are taught in many academies, the informal roles of the correctional officer must be examined.  Although the impact of these roles will not really be felt until a CO is on the job for a while, a new CO should know about them at the very beginning of his or her career.

There are six informal roles.  They are:

  • psychologist:  recognizing the symptoms of mental illness and referring inmates to the mental health staff.  This does not mean that the CO diagnoses the disorder, but it is important that he or she recognizes unusual behavior and reports the inmate and observations, while taking appropriate safety precautions.
  • legal advisor:  this does not mean that a CO plays “lawyer”.  Incarceration is traumatic-even to the “frequent flier”-you know-the inmate that frequently drops into the jail to say hello.  You must answer questions about bond, court dates, getting an attorney, etc.  Be careful-do not give advice on how to plead, etc.  That is up to the offender and his or her attorney.  They may try to get that advice out of you.  Your standard answer should be:  “Talk to your attorney”.   You may also have to explain “going down the road” (transfer from the jail after conviction to prison) or how the facility disciplinary system works.
  • parent:  Yes, it is unfortunate that you must advise grown adults on proper behavior, even including maintaining proper hygiene.   Inmates argue over things such as television and board games; mature people would not.  At times, it seems that the COs must be  strict parents, telling inmates if they misbehave,  they will be punished.
  • information agent:  COs conduct inmate orientations and answer inmates’ questions about facility policies, routines, and services.  One might think that inmates would read the Inmate Handbook.  Regrettably, many do not  and would rather have the information explained to them.  COs do not have the time to read verbatim the handbook, but can explain it and advise the inmates that they should read it.  If inmates are illiterate or do not speak English, the COs have to devise ways to get the message across, sometimes using trusties (be careful who you choose) or interpreters.
  •  counselor:  COs give advice to inmates on options for handling problems, such as substance abuse, getting into programs, etc.  In more serious cases, COs have to talk to inmates who are depressed and possibly suicidal;  you must talk to them to keep them alive.  It is all right to advise inmates on what they can do to help themselves.  However-be careful in giving advice.  Many inmates want staff to do the hard work for them and take ownership of the problem.  For example-an inmate who abuses alcohol can be advised to enroll in substance abuse programs or Alcoholics Anonymous.   This does not mean that the CO should do all of the legwork about finding out options for the inmate.  You can steer him in the right direction-the rest is up to him.  As I have told my college classes-“rehabilitation includes making the inmate realize what he or she must do to help themselves”.  You must keep in mind that offenders have gone through life getting people to do things for them.
  • diplomat:   COs take steps to stop trouble in inmate housing areas before it starts.  That does not mean that all arguments and disputes between inmates can be defused or settled.  Many times inmates must be separated and moved due to safety concerns.  But-there are situations where good interpersonal communication skills, maturity and concern for inmate welfare can be exhibited by the CO to prevent verbal altercations from escalating into physical altercations.

These informal roles are important and must be mentioned in staff training.  Working inside a jail can assist the CO in how to handle a variety of people, especially those who are resistant to authority, while maintaining a calm demeanor.

One question:  Are trainers discussing them?

Source:  Cornelius, Gary F.  (2010).  The Correctional Officer:  A Practical Guide Second Edition.  Durham:  Carolina Academic Press.