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You Can Bend the Rules This One Time, Right CO?

Inmates often push limits with correctional officers to test what they can get away with, and sometimes it involves inmate manipulation and exploitation. What signs should officers watch for, and how should they respond?
Kenzie Koch
Kenzie Koch
Alyssa Pfaff | Content Marketing Specialist

“I promise I won’t snitch.”

“Everyone stretches the truth a bit.” 

“Can’t you cut me some slack?”

“One favor won’t hurt anybody.”

“You can bend the rules this one time.”

Do any of these statements (or variations of such) sound familiar? If so, you were likely a target of inmate manipulation. However, even if these comments aren’t something you’ve heard before, that doesn’t mean you haven’t been a target. There are various types of manipulation that inmates commonly use on staff members. 

Although it’s easy to recognize and call out manipulation tactics when you hear stories of other officers being targeted, identifying them when it’s happening to you first-hand is more difficult than most realize. This blog walks through how to detect when an inmate is trying to manipulate or exploit you or another officer, and how to stop it.

Recognizing Inmate Manipulation 101

As all corrections professionals are aware, inmates can be experts at poking holes in the system (or at least trying) to get what they want. Whether it be inmates who try to get something a little extra or, conversely, get away with something completely, inmate manipulation can be sneaky and involve various methods. 

First, we need to understand the difference between an inmate being friendly versus trying to “get on your good side.” There are plenty of inmates who are genuinely polite and aren’t trying to benefit anything from being friendly to an officer.

For instance, let’s say that inmate Smith talks to Officer Jones more politely than they talk to the other officers. It could be because Officer Jones shared the score of a football game with them once or they believe Officer Jones holds himself higher than the other officers do. While the reason why the inmate is more friendly with Officer Jones may remain a mystery, it’s important to recognize politeness versus something more sinister. 

Most inmates, in fact, will be polite to officers to earn mutual respect. Other inmates will be polite because they are trying to get on an officer’s “good side,” thinking they will get something in return for good behavior. Any inmate who actively tries to excessively charm an officer usually has a motive.

Manipulation vs. Exploitation

How is manipulation different from exploitation, you ask? The lines between these two often get blurry. While they are similar concepts, they involve different intentions. Both manipulation and exploitation can happen to a correctional officer and it can be tricky to differentiate.

  • Manipulation involves influencing or controlling someone or something to achieve a particular outcome that benefits the manipulator. Through either coercion or deceit, the manipulator’s goal is to take advantage or gain control of someone else. For example, an inmate may attempt to build relationships with officers to manipulate them into ignoring dangerous or illegal activities.

  • Exploitation, on the other hand, means to take advantage of someone or something for personal gain, usually by targeting vulnerabilities or soft spots and without fair compensation in return. For example, an inmate may try to convince an officer to provide them with a second meal by threatening to report untrue statements about the officer to the warden. 

Out of both manipulation and exploitation tactics, exploitation is typically the more unethical approach to using someone else to their advantage. To successfully exploit an officer, inmates will use whatever they can as leverage against an officer, even if it’s a bold-faced lie.

For example, let’s say there’s an inmate who is aware of an officer who isn’t very accurate or consistent with her meal documentation. After this particular inmate received and ate their lunch, they wanted to test their limits by asking the said officer if they could have a second tray. Following the “no” response the inmate was given, the inmate now threatens to tell the warden that the officer never even offered them a tray to begin with.

In this scenario, the inmate is trying to exploit the officer by taking advantage of the officer’s vulnerabilities. The inmate knows this officer isn’t consistent with meal documentation, so the inmate can pose a threat to the officer if they don’t get what they are asking for.

Types of Inmate Manipulation

Inmate manipulation doesn’t only speak one language! There are several signs that indicate an inmate can be trying to win favor with an officer by performing one, or more, of the following:


  • An inmate who consistently dramatizes their compliments towards an officer could be an attempt to flirt or charm an officer and get on their “good side” in order to gain favors or special treatment. A compliment from an inmate here or there may be innocent, but it’s the magnified compliments that seem too consistent or exaggerated that need to be watched out for. 

Pulling the Heartstrings

  • Some inmates will try to evoke an emotional response out of an officer to get something they want. By sharing personal sob stories and hardships, inmates may try to play the victim card to get sympathy in hopes of influencing the officer’s decision-making. This is especially true after an inmate makes it known that they want something in particular to comfort them “during these hard times.”

Testing Boundaries

  • Deceitful individuals often test boundaries to evaluate what they’re able to get away with. For example, if an inmate regularly pushes limits without violating a rule, it can be a sign of them assessing if rules can be bent for them specifically without getting slapped on the wrist. However, once this behavior starts, they will continue to push this boundary until it likely violates a rule. If you give them an inch, they will take a mile. 

Negotiation & Bribery

  • “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine.” Although inmates don’t have much to offer when it comes to negotiation, they find loopholes by bribing with things that officers could find interest in, whether that be something valuable to the officer’s career or for the officer personally. A bribe that could be valuable to an officer personally, for example, could be an inmate offering money or other incentives from a relative outside of the facility in exchange for favors or preferential treatment inside the facility. On the other hand, a bribe that could benefit the officer’s career could be an inmate sharing insider information that the officer isn't aware of, but should be. For example, an inmate could try to negotiate by saying: “I’ll tell you who smuggled in a cell phone if you give me Cheetos for the next month.” 

Blackmail & Intimidation

  • We all know that sometimes inmates can act out when they don’t get their way. They may throw fits and blurt out everything in their vocabulary to express their frustration. However, most inmates know that temper tantrums won’t get them what they want. But sometimes using intimidation or blackmail tactics will. Inmates can use intimidation tactics as leverage to pressure an officer into complying with their demands or turning a blind eye to rule violations. In some cases, this can go as far as threatening an officer or their loved ones to coerce the officer into performing certain actions or providing prohibited items.

How to Stop It at the Root

Officers don’t have control over inmates experimenting with their limits and using any of the manipulation tactics mentioned above, but officers do have control over putting an end to it as soon as they identify an attempt. Once an officer recognizes a comment or action from an inmate that carries an underlying manipulative effort, it’s the officer’s responsibility to be assertive and remind the inmate that the officers are the ones in control. This can be done by:

  • Establishing and maintaining clear boundaries: Inmates will inevitably challenge officers, which is why officers need to know how to stand their ground and remind inmates of their authority. Officers need to clearly communicate behavioral expectations to inmates. It’s also important for officers to firmly believe in the directives they are carrying out and believe in the level of authority they have. As soon as an officer starts to doubt themself, inmates will sniff it out and try to exploit it. 

  • Increasing communication between staff members: If one officer allows special treatment or bends the rules for an inmate, the trust and respect that inmates have for ALL correctional officers disappears. So, don’t be “that” guy. Instead, officers are responsible for informing their team members of an inmate who tests their limits, asks for favors, or cries wolf for attention. If all team members are aligned and closely monitoring particular inmates, there’s less room for confusion and manipulation. 

  • Enforcing the rules and policies: Facilities operate under strict security protocols to ensure the safety of both staff and inmates. Bending the rules for even one inmate undermines these protocols and compromises the security of the facility, putting everyone else in the facility at risk. 

  • Reporting any suspicious behaviors: It is the duty of corrections professionals to uphold the law and act ethically at all times. It is their responsibility to report anything that could potentially threaten the safety and security of their facility as soon as possible. In the case of reporting consistent inmate manipulation methods, an investigation could be pursued.

Effectively navigating the landscape of inmate manipulation requires consistent vigilance, explicit boundaries, and a steadfast commitment to upholding the principles of correctional professionalism.

Taking proactive measures to educate yourself and other team members on the slippery slope of manipulation and exploitation can help with addressing it head-on when it arises, as well as preventing it from happening in the first place. With a collective effort and firm dedication from all officers, staff are empowered to uphold the standards of their profession and maintain a safe and secure environment for all.