How to Remind Disrespectful Inmates of Your Authority
We know that corrections officers have all experienced an inmate act out of pocket. Screaming. Kicking. Cursing. Self-harming. They’ve seen it all. Sometimes these inmate outbursts come out of nowhere, but most times they are a result of something that didn’t sit well with the inmate. Whether the behavior rooted from not receiving an extra meal or being woken up while they were sleeping, it’s not uncommon for an inmate to have a meltdown over something seemingly small and blow it way out of proportion. When outbursts like this arise, you, as an officer, can expect to be disrespected. Most, if not all, correctional officers can give testimony about how they were disrespected by an unhappy inmate at one point or another. Note that the term “disrespected” is used loosely as the spectrum of disrespect varies widely in regard to being disrespected by an inmate. One day it can mean getting cussed out and one day it can mean getting peed on, hence why it’s a wide spectrum. Regardless of the offense, once an officer is disrespected by an inmate, the officer is responsible for reminding the inmate of their authority and promoting mutual safety.
Refreshing an inmate’s memory of who is “in charge” can look different based on the officer. We can all recollect ideas from movies where discipline was used as an effective measure of sending a reminder, such as Shawshank Redemption when Andy Dufresne was sent to the hole for locking the COs out of the office where he was playing music over the facility’s loudspeakers. Although using disciplinary measures can work as a reminder of authority in some cases, most forms of this measure can end up quickly violating a code or two and lead to grievance cases, which are never fun. That leaves us with another way to enforce authority, and that is to control the situation with as much composure as possible.
Keep it Cool
We get it - the answer, “maintain your composure” probably isn’t the answer you were expecting. However, composure is the most effective tool officers can use in situations that test their level of power. HOW an officer reminds an inmate that they are the one in charge is key as it sets the tone for what level of respect inmates will use towards that officer from that point forward. Think about it - if an officer approaches a situation by barking orders and shouting at everyone in a dictatorial manner, the inmates will likely grow resentment towards that officer. The same goes for an officer who approaches a situation acting like they have no idea what to do - the inmate will likely realize that the officer doesn’t have the environment under control and can use that to their advantage. Now, if an officer approaches either a disrespectful inmate or a chaotic situation with composure, inmates will likely notice that the officer is confident in playing the rules by the book and won’t miss a beat, meaning the situation won’t lean in the inmate’s favor.
Now, maintaining composure during a high-stress situation is undeniably easier said than done. Being kept “under control” isn’t necessarily an easy task after being verbally or physically assaulted. However, that’s part of the job of being a correctional officer. Having strong mental awareness falls under the part of the job description named “other duties as assigned.” Working in corrections, officers need to know how to approach, manage, and de-escalate high-stress situations. During the moments of what feels like a pressure-cooking environment, it’s up to the officer to take a brief step back and assess the situation (remember, how an officer approaches a crisis can make all the difference in the outcome). Recognizing heightened adrenaline while evaluating the environment is a two-fold opportunity to check in on emotions and be aware of surroundings, which ultimately, is the best way to maintain composure.
Once an officer has evaluated the environment where an inmate is acting out, the officer can then secure the inmate and do their best to de-escalate the situation. To effectively de-escalate a stressful setting, isolating the inmate away from the rest of the population is the first priority. Talking to an inmate about their behavior includes asking why they acted out and why the situation escalated so quickly. Of course, these questions should be asked from a safe distance. Typically once the inmate feels heard, they tend to calm down and have a whole new attitude adjustment. For example, think of a time when an inmate was particularly verbally aggressive. Was the inmate alone or in front of a crowd of other inmates? The answer usually involves an inmate putting on a show for attention in front of a crowd of their peers. The other inmates tend to fire up a situation and electrify the chaos to a whole other level. That is why, during these high-stress scenarios, it is important for officers to check in on themselves because every action they take will have eyes glued to it and will most likely generate a reaction. If you’re emotionally charged up, you can’t effectively control any environment (especially one that can be dangerous). Don’t attempt to match the emotions of the inmate. Instead, stay level-headed and engaged without caving in to their attempt to draw you in. If you can control yourself and the environment, inmates will see that you have a firm grip on your role and are in charge of what happens, where it happens, and when it happens. This will give inmates a glimpse of your level of authority and a reminder not to test you. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t try. After all, this is still a correctional setting.
A correctional officer’s authority (and mental sanity) will be tested every single shift. Getting inmates to fully comply with officer directives is a tale as old as time. Some days are easy while other days are nearly impossible. On the days you contemplated walking out, you probably asked yourself how you could possibly reinforce rules and have them stick without losing your temper. But as we all know, long-term compliance doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that is built on trust and respect over time. The clearer the communication an officer can direct toward inmates, the stronger the foundation of respect is to build on. Remember, as much as officers want inmates to be respectful, inmates expect officers to be respectful. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that respect alone leads to compliance. Officer authority will undoubtedly be tested and that’s why it’s paramount that officers know how to maintain their composure on an individual level as well as a team level. Consistency in handling disrespectful inmates is just as important as consistency in any other routine jail operation. If there is a solid mutual agreement of consistent practices between you and your team members, then there shouldn’t be any unexpected changes or surprises during shifts. We know that inmates have a lot of time on their hands and some of them will use it to study patterns in officer behavior and practices. They notice when there is an inconsistency that could potentially be exploited. Therefore, officers need to have a clear, universal agreement with each other on how to stay consistent in their duties as well as how to handle disrespectful inmates. In other words, if one officer says “no” to an inmate, that inmate should expect a “no” from every other officer, too.
On the contrary, even the strongest consistency doesn't exactly mean that inmates won’t at least try to manipulate situations to go in their favor. Those who work in corrections sometimes need to look at what seems to be “common sense” through a special type of lens. Why? Because correctional officers can’t assume that inmates have the same intentions as themselves. The average person would typically agree that faking a medical emergency isn’t common sense, right? Unfortunately, this isn’t uncommon inside jails. Time after time, inmates have faked medical emergencies to create a chaotic environment and manipulate staff to let their guard town. Although officers are trained for situations like this, high-stress conditions can naturally cause a minor state of panic. And if you start to panic, you let your guard down and open up a door for risk to enter. The reason why inmates often fake injuries or medical emergencies (such as heart attacks) is to form a gateway to manipulate officers. Whether it’s as a distraction tactic to get other inmates to gang up against the officer or it’s merely a cry for attention, the overarching goal is to control the environment and sidetrack the officers away from their assigned duties. It’s a dangerous game, and that’s why it’s important for staff to remember their training on the signs of a true medical emergency, how to control a potentially dangerous environment, and ensure the safety and well-being of every inmate.
Empathy Goes a Long Way
As important as it is to be aware of the signs that point to a fake emergency, it’s also important to remember that this job requires officers to understand how to be empathetic. Note that being empathic does not mean letting your guard down. Instead, it means viewing something from another perspective and perhaps giving it some grace. We’ve all thought about what it would be like to be on the other side of the cell door. Imagine swapping placements with an inmate who is locked away from his or her family and friends. It’s only human nature to feel empathetic for the inmates that don’t spend holidays with their families or watch their children grow up. You don’t necessarily feel bad for them, but you just feel for them. Now, to “give grace” doesn’t mean to cut them slack. It just means that you can maybe understand what it’s like to be in their shoes. Being empathetic in this profession can be a challenge for some, but it’s imperative as it can help prevent inmate outbursts. Let’s face it - if any inmate doesn’t feel heard enough, they are more likely to thrash out and be disrespectful. So, the more we listen and try to be empathetic, the less likely the inmates are to spiral out of control. Showing empathy doesn’t decrease the level of authority. If anything, it shows that officers can hold a professional grip on an environment while simultaneously being respectful to those in their care.
All officers know that their time and energy are precious and shouldn’t be wasted on preventable situations. That’s why de-escalation tools are important when chaos arises. As much as the media portrays corrections officers lacking empathy, the media also tends to forget that those in uniform are also facing tough circumstances. Officers have to keep themselves under control in stressful (or dangerous) situations while also keeping a strong mental awareness of their emotions and adrenaline. They need to be able to recognize heightened senses and keep them in check during pure mayhem. In all reality, correctional officers may be more aware of how to maintain composure than most people in society. It’s not easy to work in a profession where you can be disrespected on a daily basis, nor is it easy to try to remain cool, calm, and collected during complete disorder. However, this job isn’t meant for everyone. To work in corrections means to be strong enough to maintain composure in the most stressful situations, and to move on with their head still held high. That’s why those who work in corrections are Warriors.