How to be Aware of Inmate Manipulation

Do you realize when you’re being manipulated? How obvious are the warning signs of inmate manipulation? And most crucially, what prevention steps can be taken before it even starts?
Kenzie Koch
Kenzie Koch
Greg Piper | Director of Jail Operations at Guardian RFID

At the end of the day, jail and prison officers have the same goal of ensuring their inmates’ needs are met. Of course, this can only be accomplished when both parties have a clear understanding of the boundaries correlated with their roles in the facility. However, far too often, there are cases where inmates exploit officers and use sneaky tactics to take advantage of them. In this reading, we will be discussing how to pinpoint manipulation strategies and prevent the process of deception before it even takes root.

Common Inmate Manipulation Tactics

In a perfect world, every correctional facility is safe and peaceful. However, there are structured imbalances between officers and inmates that are controlled by strict policies and procedures. Similar to the relationship between a doctor and patient, there is an obvious authoritative difference and a significant amount of vulnerability. Same goes for inmates and officers. There are inmates that recognize this lack of power and act out in ways to manipulate officers with a variety of tactics (Cooke et al., 2019).

Officer Targeting

Conning habits don’t necessarily stop once inmates are admitted into a jail or prison facility. Inmates are professionals at conning and will use the same deceitful techniques inside the facility as they did outside. They begin by gathering information on officer behaviors to determine who is the weakest link and narrow down their target. Inmates observe officer movement and body language, listen in on their conversations, learn about their interests, anything that they can use as leverage. They will even specifically carve out time to talk to officers and try to connect on a personal level to build a relationship.

This behavior most commonly takes place in prisons as the inmates have a longer time to perform their research and groom (Cooke et al., 2019). Once they narrow down their most vulnerable target and have the necessary pieces that they need to take action, they pounce on their prey.

Finding Mutuality

Author of No Place Like Home, Keith Hellwig, explains how inmates are master intellectual manipulators. They will try to form an intellectual bond by learning about the sports or hobbies an officer likes and claim to enjoy those activities as well to form a personal connection. Having this mutual interest can easily turn into making friendly bets on a sporting game, which can easily transgress into a minor friendship. However, it’s important for the officer to remember that the inmates are not their friends and to be cautious of becoming ensnared in any traps.

Retired Sergeant of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Russ Hamilton, knows that it can be difficult to identify manipulation, so it’s easier to steer clear of finding common ground altogether. Officers cannot shape a social bond with their inmates as falling into that trap could be detrimental to them, the facility, and the oath they took on their badge (Gangi, 2019).


Inmates crave the taste of the outside world. Even if it is as small as a piece of gum, if it doesn’t belong inside the walls of a jail or prison facility, inmates want it. Once a small connection is planted between an officer and inmate, the inmate will start poking for small favors such as a piece of gum. Those demands start to grow - what was once a piece of gum is now a cigarette, or now a snack, and so on and so forth. These favors start to escalate and the relationships are about control rather than about caring about the connection (Cooke et al., 2019).

Guilt Trips

Anthony Gangi, a leading expert in inmate manipulation with over 20 years experience in corrections, knows inmates will utilize leverage to get officers to do what they desire. In Anthony’s YouTube video Inmate Manipulation, he gives an excellent example of an inmate trying to guilt trip an officer: As an officer, you are responsible for writing up an inmate for bad behavior. If you believe an inmate deserves to be written up, the inmate may try to guilt trip you by telling you they won’t be able to see their children with a penalty on their record.

Anthony reminds the readers to never let an inmate make you feel responsible for the negative choices that they made - and to continue to hold them responsible. When you find yourself defending an inmate, stop. No inmate should ever take an officer out of their prescribed role (Gangi, 2019).

Preventing Inmate Manipulation

Inmate manipulation is a game that is carefully crafted and designed. It’s slow, subtle, and unforgiving. It’s a relationship between two parties that is centered on a gain for one party and a loss for the other. For prison and jail staffers, awareness is key. Staff need to have control over all decisions they make and can never be swayed by tactics that have the potential to pull them out of their prescribed roles (Gangi, 2020, p. 2&3). 

Define Your Sense of Self

In order for staff to understand the complexities of manipulation, they must first have a full understanding of their sense of self - who they are deep down. Knowing the triggers of what can push and pull them into different directions allows them to be aware of their vulnerabilities, which is key to their survival in the correctional field. Inmates will challenge officers every day so it’s crucial to understand how much control they have over their own actions, or reactions (Gangi, 2020, p. 12).

Keep Emotions in Check

Being successful across inmate interactions leads back to keeping a healthy mindset. You control your attitude, which in turn affects your motivation, performance, and ultimate success in your role. Every time you walk through the facility, you need to check your mental state and prepare yourself for the work day ahead. Program your attitude to reflect your professionalism as the quality of your actions. Remember, it’s important to not confuse positivity with kindness. An officer’s goal is to be respected, not liked. This mindset allows an officer to remain alert and take control of any situation (Thelen, 2019).

Inmates are experts in finding mutuality with an officer they want to manipulate. One of their greatest tools to connect with staff is collecting personal information. At first, it may seem like an inmate is only trying to make friendly conversation. However, the manipulation process has to start from somewhere and that starts with gathering small pieces of personal information. Anthony Gangi explains that the manipulation process is very slow and subtle:

If a manipulative inmate knows staff’s personal information, they can find similarities that will bring about sympathy, trust, and a possible friendship. ‘Friendship’ is a scary word that should never exist between an inmate and staff. Friendships can bond staff into making decisions that are emotionally based. Blinded by emotions, staff will start making choices that may only benefit the manipulative inmate.
Anthony Gangi
(Gangi, 2020, p. 71).