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).

Walk the Talk

Officer onboarding classes include education and training that help identify boundary violations between inmates and officers. Officers are taught to be mindful of their own personal vulnerabilities, especially those who are in the midst of grief and distress as they have a heightened exposure to being manipulated. All officers should be aware that inmates are sizing them up and waiting for an opportunity to attack, but officers who show a lack of self-confidence are the easier targets to jump.

The jail and prison staff are taught to have each other’s backs for situations like this. If they see any concerning behavior by their colleagues, the witnesses are responsible for addressing the situation before it escalates any further and creating additional harm (Cooke et al., 2019).

Officers are prompted to be aware of their body language as inmates inspect how their targets walk, talk, and walk the talk. Inmates study how body language, such as nodding your head or avoiding eye contact, affects the message being sent by the officer. The tone and word selection an officer uses needs to align with their non-verbal actions. Being alert and aware of verbal and non-verbal communication adds to their credibility and enhances their professional identity (Thelen, 2019).

Set Firm Boundaries

One of the most crucial onboarding items an officer is taught is how to separate work life from personal life by setting appropriate boundaries. Anthony Gangi, a leading expert in inmate manipulation, believes the moment you think about an inmate when you’re not at the facility is when the relationship is too personal and you need to pull yourself back immediately (Gangi, 2019).

CEO of Civilian Training Academy, Connie Alleyne, knows first-hand the blurred line of friendliness and inmate manipulation. When she had an inmate approach her with compliments, she went straight to her superior and asked how to handle the situation. She was instructed to put the inmate in place by not being confrontational, but to set boundaries (Gangi, 2019). Knowing about the methods used by inmates to manipulate officers can be difficult to recognize. Therefore, all staff members need to feel comfortable seeking supervision from trusted and capable supervisors when these concerns arise (Cooke et al., 2019).

Seek Consistency

Manipulative inmates look for inconsistencies in the management system that can be exploited at any level. Whether it’s a personal inconsistency with an officer’s work pattern or an agency inconsistency with policy and procedure, inmates will take advantage of any opportunity to sway that inconsistency in their favor. It’s essential for staff to be consistent with their communication and ensure that all communication is embraced across the entire board. For example, if a “no” is given from one single officer, it’s a universal “no.” Having consistency helps staff maintain a level of expectation and reliance on each other while showing inmates that what they expect from one staff member, they can expect from all (Gangi, 2020, p. 50, 51, & 52).

Author of Corruption Behind Bars, Gary York, believes the best way to avoid getting manipulated is being firm, fair, and consistent. Gary believes that officers should have each other’s backs as inmates tend to look for officers with low self-esteem and start boosting them up with compliments. As it can be difficult to tell the difference between kindness and manipulation, always be aware of your fellow officers’ surroundings. If you believe an officer is starting to fall into a trap, talk to them and let them know of your thoughts. Help them set boundaries and put an end to the game. If your worries continue, you are then responsible for bringing your concerns to the facility manager(s). 

One of the easiest ways that inmates attempt to infiltrate your personal life and get you out of character is to find relatable items in your current situation. They are opportunistic and will find commonalities in which to engage with you and gain your confidence.
Professor Luis Soto
Retired Major (Gangi, 2020, p. 62).

Advice from a Jail Operations Director

Greg Piper, Director of Jail Operations at Guardian RFID, has worked in and around jails and prisons for nearly two decades, and has seen how easily conversations between officers and inmates can evolve into arguments if they don’t see eye to eye. To maintain order on the floor and more importantly, communicate effectively with the population, officers must maintain professionalism at all times. 

Several times in my career, I was presented with a difficult choice during shift: how to respond to a question from one of my offenders that I felt was going to tick them off. Remaining professional is easier said than done, but can’t be overlooked. We start by ensuring we have the correct answer; do not lie as lying only compounds the problem. Second, deliver any information that may be perceived negatively with empathy. We don’t need them to become upset, but understand that sometimes the answers are your call. If they disagree with your answer, that’s on them. Officers are allowed to make unpopular decisions. The reaction they have is THEIR reaction. Remember to stay calm and not allow their anger or frustration to get inside your head. In the end, your decision might be wrong, their argument might be better than yours. Is it acceptable to change your decision? The short answer is yes, but get some counsel. Talk to your supervisor and if you do change your mind, be able to explain it and learn from it. Being a professional sometimes means admitting when you are wrong and learning from it. We wear a uniform, we are the authority in the facility. Understand the difference between authoritarian and authoritative. Choose to be the one that people, staff, and inmates alike want to talk to, because you will give them consistent respectful answers and decisions.
Greg Piper
Director of Jail Operations at Guardian RFID

The Power Imbalance

Of course, there is a very slippery slope once limits are being tested: the best way to avoid this from happening is to make sure those boundary lines are never close to being crossed. No matter how superficial the personal connection between an officer and inmate may be, it becomes a gateway to blur the professional lines and build an unfamiliar relationship (Gangi, 2020, p. 64). Every officer swears on their oath to be firm, fair, and consistent. It’s crucial for them to remember that their relationship with inmates may be extremely power-imbalanced, but it’s their job to maintain that power.


Cooke, Brian K., Hall, Ryan C.W., Hatters Friedman, Susan, Jain, Abhishek and Wagoner, Ryan (2019). Professional Boundaries in Corrections 

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Thelen, Rory (2019). How to be successful in dealing with inmates

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Gangi, Anthony (2019). Inmate Manipulation: THIS IS WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW!

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Gangi, Anthony (2020). Inmate Manipulation Decoded

Greg Piper | Director of Jail Operations at Guardian RFID