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Archive for August, 2012

The Concerns of Inmates

August 13th, 2012

Correctional officers who have been in the field for some time realize that inmates are in many respects people-just like us. We all have needs and concerns; life is uncertain. We could fall ill, lose our job, have a traffic accident-we never know. It is an unsettling feeling at times and we all have been through it. The difference is that when one is a law abiding citizen, and not locked up, it is easier to cope with life’s concerns, problems and worries than if one were incarcerated. Correctional officers also know that if they work with the inmates and alleviating some of these fears, the inmates will be easier to manage.

Is this concept addressed in training? Hopefully in some correctional agencies it is. Besides the important concept of security and all it includes, it is important for officers to recognize the effects that being incarcerated has on anyone-especially the inmate. This column will attempt to show correctional officers that in many respects, inmates and officers think alike. Even the veteran officer who is a little jaded will realize that they and inmates are just…..human. Being jaded can come from dealing with inmates who are assaultive, are troublemakers and seem to exist in the facility just to give officers and staff “hell”. It becomes easy to stereotype inmates as all being negative when some are not.

I teach an in service class for jail officers called: From Booking to Release: How Inmates Do Time. Recently, I was presenting to a class of jail officers for several large, modern jails. I discussed the seven needs of inmates, first researched by Hans Toch and discussed by Robert Johnson in his book Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison, Third Edition. If correctional officers know these needs and preferences the climate of the facility will be more positive for the keepers and the kept.

First, these are the concerns needs researched and codified by Hans Toch. Each is followed by a concise description (Johnson, 2002):

  • Activity: to be occupied, fill time, a need for distraction, entertained
  • Privacy: being over stimulated (such as in a noisy, crowded environment)
  • Safety: concern about physical attack, well being, harassment, theft of property
  • Emotional feedback: desire to be loved, appreciated, emotional sustenance, empathy
  • Support: concern about reliable and tangible assistance from persons and access to services that promote and support self improvement and advancement
  • Structure: environmental stability, consistent rules, events and routines
  • Freedom: being able to govern one’s own conduct

In summary, inmates are concerned about being occupied and not idle, seeking privacy where possible, being safe, being healthy, being loved and considered to be someone besides a law breaker, having access to ways to improve themselves, being in a facility where the routine is structured, predictable and has no surprises and finally to be able to govern their own behavior and to be treated like an adult. Inmate concerns can also include worry: asking what will happen? What will happen in court? Will I still have a job if and when I get released? How will my family survive while I am in here? When will I be released? Another concern could be remorse: Will I ever be able to make up for what I did? [Generally rare-but some inmates do think that way!]. Some inmates also worry about health: getting sick, being around other inmates who are not hygienic, etc.

Now-let’s take the class of jail officers. I asked them what their concerns and worries would be if they were locked up. What would go through their minds if they walked through a jail door, knowing that they will be incarcerated there for a while? The responses from the class in my view are very similar to Toch’s views of inmates’ concerns. So-let’s revisit the seven concerns and after each, I have listed in italics the views of the officers. I have also added the additional concerns. Keep in mind that some views of the officers can apply to more than one concern.

  • Activity: getting fresh air [outside recreation], visits, phone calls.
  • Privacy: will inmate housing be double or single [one or two inmates to a cell.
  • Safety: who will I be housed with and what other inmates are like, will I get sick.
  • Emotional feedback: visiting, mail, phone [keeping in contact with family].
  • Support: substance abuse programs and help, legal help, mental health programs, religious programs, Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous groups and reintegration programs.
  • Structure: health needs [sick call, medical services], property and money being safeguarded, food service and meals, rules being fairly enforced.
  • Freedom: while class did not think of this, all agreed that inmates like to be treated as adults and be informed of the consequences of good behavior and bad behavior.
  • Worry: what will happen in court, legal worries, money and job worries, when I will be released.
  • Remorse: having emotional distress, guilt and remorse and what can they do about them.
  • Health: maintaining a high level of hygiene, keeping healthy.

This discussion can go further in any class of jail officers. The point that I am making-hopefully clear-is that the concerns of inmates as indicated by research shows the human side of them. True-they are accused or convicted of breaking the law. They do live by a different moral code than correctional officers. The purpose of this exercise is to show to officers that if faced with incarceration, they would be worried and concerned in certain areas-just like inmates. If some considerations are shown by officers in understanding the worries and concerns of inmates, and staff behavior respects what inmates are going through-some of the worries and fears may be abated. For example, if an inmate is concerned about threats from other inmates and officers take quick action to protect him, word may travel through the cellblocks that in this place the officers will listen. Or-if an inmate is concerned about getting clean and sober and an officer assists with placement in a program-that inmate will get along with that officer. Correctional officers and inmates may get along better-and that benefits the institution.

In closing I must remind officers to watch out for the manipulators and keep safety in mind. They are inmates-but they are people, too; people that have concerns-just like us.


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