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The Ten Commandments for Correctional Staff: Good Guidelines for All

January 16th, 2019

When I present a jail safety class, the audience is usually sworn staff. And that is good! It is beneficial to have a refresher in safety-no matter how many years you have on the job. Correctional officers (COs) are a close-knit group. We watch out for each other. Often on post, we ask where our colleagues are, if they need assistance, can you watch my post for a few minutes, etc.

In view of the several CO deaths in recent years, CO safety-like police officer safety takes on a special meaning. We want to come home safe, hug our loved ones and breathe a sigh of relief that we got through another day.

I thought a review of the Ten Commandments for Correctional Staff would be beneficial, as refreshers sometimes are. There is a lot out there in print and on line about CO safety measures. That is good-these measures keep you safe. However, what I would like to do in this column is to apply these measures to the civilians in our correctional facilities. This group includes administration personnel, medical staff, mental health staff, maintenance, programs staff, chaplains, and volunteers. They need refreshers as well, and they run risks every time that they enter our facilities.

In 2002, correctional authors and experts Bill Elliott, Ph.D. and Vicki Verdeyen, Ed.D. wrote the Ten Commandments for Prison Staff in their book, Game Over: Strategies for Redirecting Inmate Deception (2002, American Correctional Association). These rules are good for anyone-sworn and non-sworn-that work inside a correctional facility.

So let us refresh our view of safety by looking at these rules, and applying them as good advice to the civilian staff:

  1. Go Home Safe and Sound at the End of the Day: Do not take unnecessary risks with inmates, such as being alone with them inside a classroom, or walking in front of them in a corridor. Know and follow the rules. You may be a volunteer, and may not fully understand the rules of the facility. Nevertheless-obey them! The rules are written to keep you safe. For example, a CO appears at your office or classroom doorway. He announces “All inmates are to return to their units immediately; all civilians must leave the facility”. It could be an escape, a disturbance, etc. Do not argue-do what he says. Also, do not bring ANY unauthorized items in for an inmate. Know how to call for help and do not hesitate to do so. Trust your ‘gut’. For example, if an inmate is getting too close and too friendly-try to get away, find a CO and let him know what is going on. If you see inmates congregating and you think that they are up to something or you hear an inmate talking about a missing tool, etc., report this to staff. Remember where you are! Dress appropriately for business, and not for a ‘night out’.
  2. Establish Realistic Expectations: Have a view of being skeptical to a degree. Remember that inmates have lived their lives for a long time in a dysfunctional manner. Many are substance abusers, cannot hold a job, and use people to survive. If they say, they have changed, look at how: have they completed a program or even signed up to participate in one? Have they obeyed the rules? Change takes effort-and not ‘lip service’.
  3. Set Firm and Consistent Limits: What should inmates know about your personal life? NOTHING! You are there to provide a service-that is all. You can treat inmates with guarded civility-but they should know nothing about your marriage, relationships, family, etc. Inmates use this information to get you to lose objectivity and to lower your guard. If something is stressing you out, by you confiding in inmates, they become your “new best friends.”
  4. Avoid Power Struggles: Inmates are very skilled at pitting staff members against each other. They may criticize COs and supervisors, and want you to be on their side. Avoid this-manipulative inmates, especially psychopaths-are very good at playing games and creating dissension for their entertainment.
  5. Manage Interpersonal Boundaries: You can be empathetic, but not sympathetic. Empathy means you can objectively understand the inmates’ problems and predicaments. Sympathy means that objectivity is lost, replaced by an overwhelming desire to help the inmate-even doing favors and tasks for him. For example, you are working with an inmate who is an alcoholic. The inmate relates his tales of woe, lost jobs, divorce, etc. He asks, “Can you get me into a substance program?” What he means is that you do all of the heavy lifting. He should be writing to the programs staff, etc. Interpersonal boundaries means that any sexual or romantic talk is off limits including ‘buttering you up’ and flirting. If an inmate makes a sexual flirtatious remark to you-report it immediately. This how it starts-inmates casually flirting, etc.,-and nothing is done. Be friendly-but formal. Keep it business-like.
  6. Do Not Take Things Personally: Inmate behavior such as lying, deceitfulness, resisting your suggestions should not be taken personally. Resisting the good intentions of positive people is a lifestyle for the criminal offender. They have lived this way.
  7. Strive for an Attitude of Healthy Skepticism: Be a little skeptical. Do not be gullible. Like setting realistic expectations, you do not want to take everything that the inmate does at face value. As I tell volunteers in my resisting manipulation classes, when you enter your classroom and see 15 inmates sitting there, you do not know which ones really want to change (unless you are psychic). A manipulative inmate will often say what you want to hear.
  8. Do Not Fight the Bureaucracy: Work within the rules-even though you may not see their logic right away. Rules, chain of command, etc. keep you grounded-and safe. Inmates love conflict, and if you fight the staff and circumvent the rules, you will be manipulated. Remember that security takes precedent over programs-it is the number one priority of any correctional facility. If inmates behave in as negative fashion, such as breaking rules or committing crimes, they will be removed from programs and activities. Respect the job of the CO.
  9. Ask for Help: It is imperative that COs and civilians have open lines of two-way communications. Every person in the facility must be kept safe and adhere to policies and procedures. Civilians, in training sessions and orientations, must be instructed where to go for assistance and clarification-a CO post, the shift supervisor, a programs director, etc. Civilians should not feel isolated; they should be checked on by COs and supervisors. However, if they are confused, they should feel comfortable in asking for guidance and assistance. This is especially true if inmates are violent, resistant and unruly. Finally-the inmates should see a close cohesiveness between civilians and sworn staffs. Back up to civilians should be fast with plenty of COs.
  10. Do Not Take Your Work Home With You: In your efforts as a civilian in programs, or as a volunteer, you will discover that corrections can be very frustrating. You see inmates who want to change, while many do not. Do not let your life be defined by your role in corrections. Take time off, and have balance in your life. Cultivate family, friends and activities. Get away from the job as much as you can. Do not become so involved in corrections that you alienate the people in your life that are important to you.

In closing-the same advice that trainers and supervisors give to sworn correctional staff should also be afforded to the civilians. We are all on the same team-and want the best for each other. Follow this advice, whether you wear a uniform-or not.


Elliott, Bill, Ph.D. and Vicki Verdeyen, Ed.D. (2002). Game Over! Strategies for Redirecting Inmate Deception. Lanham, MD: American Correctional Association.



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