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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.



  1. January 27th, 2011 at 20:27 | #1

    Excellent article, Gary.

    I agree with you that these many informal roles should be at least touched upon in training. In addition, each corrections professional should examine the roles in which they excel as well as those that need work.

    It is also good to know colleagues’ fortes. In that way, the right tool can be used for the job. Figuratively speaking, a sprinter should not be utilized when a distance runner is necessary to defuse a situation. Know yourself, know your colleagues. Thanks for The Many Informal Roles.

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