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Archive for January, 2011

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.


Clipboard or Sounding Board?

January 19th, 2011

Jail officers carry an array of equipment-personal alarm devices, radios, pepper spray, etc.  One piece of equipment is the good old fashioned clipboard.  Why discuss a clipboard?  Well… you can put your post log on it to write, you can use it to complete forms, etc.  It’s handy.  It’s convenient.  And-it can be symbolic. More later on that.

As I look back over a career in the jail, I recall that when I transferred to work release from confinement, my thinking had to change.  I was going from a strict, punishment environment to community corrections.  In other words, my thinking had to shift from keeping inmates locked up in a more secure setting (punishment) to affording them opportunities to get ready for release (treatment and prevention).  The jail proper, while affording inmates program opportunities, realistically just kept them secured.  Community corrections, such as work release, is concerned with providing treatment for the inmate and subsequently preventing future crime.  In jail, inmates are securely confined.  In community corrections, inmates are carefully selected and screened and released into the community to work, obtain treatment (such as a community education, substance abuse or vocational training program) and they are to get ready to return to the community.

Now-let’s take a look at one of the primary duties of a jail officer is to enforce the rules.  In the jail many officers say “write em up!”  I am not naïve; most jail inmates who violate the rules should be disciplined through the system starting with a report.  However-in community corrections, an inmate has a lot to lose for a violation such as income, progress made towards release and a chance to straighten out.  The consequences are more severe.  Still, some work release inmates violate the rules and should be dealt with.

I can recall receiving a call from substance abuse counselor about a young inmate who was not keeping his appointments.  Investigation revealed that the inmate was showing up for work, his urine and breath tests were clean, and he was not a management problem.  The on duty shift supervisor, a good officer and a recent transfer from the jail, grabbed a clipboard and a report form and was ready to “stroke” this inmate.  I, as programs director, said to wait and hear out the inmate.  When the inmate returned from work, I confronted him in private.  He acknowledged his substance abuse (alcohol) problem, but was reluctant to talk about it and some other problems.  I convinced him that cooperating with the counselor was better than returning to the jail.  He started making his appointments and we had no further problems with him.  To this day I hope that he started down a road to living crime free.  I deflected the clipboard-and was a sounding board.

In another example, a work release inmate returned to the pre release center after quitting his job at a local auto service center.  I again deflected the clipboard (and the write-up) and asked him why.  He said –and it was true-that he was a certified master auto mechanic and the work performed by others at his job was sloppy, the customers were getting cheated, and as a matter of pride he did not want to work there any longer.  I advised him of the correct way to quit a job such as discussing his concerns with the staff and not just walking off the job. 

Like I said-I am not naïve.  Some inmates deserve the write-up, the hearing and all of the consequences that result.  But-in some correctional environments, it may be advisable to set down the clipboard and be a sounding board.

By being a sounding board, we can correct behavior whenever we can…..isn’t that what corrections is about?