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Mid-level Supervisors: The Foundation of Jail Supervision

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius (Ret.)
Lt. Gary F. Cornelius (Ret.)


         As is the case in many professions, people want to move up the ladder.  Some want an increase in pay, some want a change in workplace duties and with some, it is a combination of the two.  The choice to apply for promotion is not an easy one.  Many correctional officers are content with working steadily throughout their careers in one assignment.  Many are satisfied with just working inmate housing areas, booking or classification.  In addition, they develop ‘tricks of the trade’ to make working easier and safer. 

         If you want to move up, you prepare for the promotion board, the written exam, the oral interview and you make sure that you receive as much training as you can.  You want a good personnel file.  Moreover, once you achieve rank, you most likely want to advance further.  To achieve this goal, you want to show the ‘brass’ that you are the best supervisor that you can be, and are ready to be handed more responsibilities and assignments.  This is true if you make corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, and higher.  The main goal of this article is to give you advice about being a good supervisor, a leader, and an example for your subordinates to follow.  Most correctional agencies have a mission statement and a motto.  Many of you have been schooled in what they are.  No one is perfect; we all make mistakes.  However, as a supervisor, you want to avoid mistakes as much as possible and you want to assist your staff in preventing mistakes.  There are myths about corrections; misconceptions that the public believes.  Through your leadership, you can dispel many of those myths.

Myths About Corrections

         Corrections is a vital part of our nation’s criminal justice system.  The police officers arrest criminal offenders, and corrections officers (COs) keep them locked up.  Both strive to keep the public safe.  However, many citizens have a limited view of what correctional officers-in jails, prisons, and juvenile facilities actually do.  People watch movies, television, or see negative media reports about correctional facilities.  You as a corrections supervisor must dispel these myths.  These myths include beliefs that COs are baby-sitters, just counting the inmates, passing out meal trays, and making sure that they are in their bunks at night.  Others believe that COs are untrained, treat inmates badly, and have a lot of sex with inmates.  Other myths are COs use segregation for torture, are corrupt, uneducated, and too ‘dumb to be cops’ (Gangi, 2016, Cornelius, 2020).

         These myths are reinforced by news reports of things that go wrong in correctional facilities.  Incidents such as escapes, excessive force, inmate suicides, staff sexual misconduct, and contraband smuggling all make the news.  The truth is that although there are bad COs, the majority of men and women who work in corrections are professional and ethical.  If they are well trained and well supervised, these myths can be proven wrong.  Supervisors must keep in mind that when their facility staff is accused of not properly performing their duties, the sheriff, superintendent, internal affairs, and agency attorneys will want to know how well officers were supervised. 

Your Life Changes

         When you become a supervisor, things change.   The first change is time.  Line officers generally go home on time at the conclusion of their shifts.  Supervisors generally stay longer.  They have to work on the next shift’s schedule, approve shift reports and logs, and coordinate pass-on information with the on-coming shifts.  In addition, they get to work early to prepare for the shift.  The second change involves friendships.   The people that you worked alongside of, through good times and bad-are now your subordinates.  Most will respect you, if you had positive relationships with them.  Others will try to use friendship as a way of getting favoritism from you.  As a supervisor, you must strive to be fair and firm-just like with the inmates.  Also there is the stress of being a supervisor.  You must find ways to handle your stress; staff looks to you for guidance.  That is difficult if you let the stress get to you (Cornelius, 2019). 

         In addition, as a supervisor, how you deal with your correctional ideologies is important.  There are three general ideologies in corrections, and supervisors move through each one.   Your agency and section ideologies are set by the higher ‘brass’. The first is the punishment ideology.  Control of the inmates is important, as well as preventing disorder and escape.  Confinement personnel-the squads-do not punish inmates-but realize that the courts have sentenced inmates or detained them for law breaking.  There must be strict protocols, disciplinary rules and safety measures in place.  Well-trained officers realize that the courts punish criminals by taking away their freedom.  Corrections makes sure that the criminals are legally denied their freedom, and through long sentences, are deterred from committing future offenses. The worst are incapacitated-removed from society or isolated.  The second ideology is treatment.  Correctional facilities offer inmates many opportunities to change their lives through programs, counseling, mentoring, vocational programs, educational programs, religious programs and so on.  Offenders, if successful in treatment, can reintegrate back into society as productive citizens.  The third ideology is prevention.  Working with treatment programs, prevention programs such as work release, community service and diversion programs serve to hopefully prevent the criminal from committing further crimes.  Some programs are based on restorative justice-where the offenders repair the damages they caused on the victims and the community in a meaningful way such as community service, fines and restitution (Cornelius, 2017, 2019).  Rehabilitation is possible, and many offenders have actually succeeded in getting out and staying out.    

         What do these ideologies have to do with being a supervisor?  Plenty.  When you are promoted, the agency is ‘banking’ on you to succeed in a variety of assignments and responsibilities.  If you have a narrow view of corrections, you will not be a successful supervisor.   For example, you have worked in the confinement section of your facility for 10 years.  Security, not programs has been your mantra.  Being from the line, you may have not given a lot of credence to programs, volunteers, and civilian counselors.  However, the superintendent promotes you to lieutenant.  You hope that you are assigned to a squad-but you are transferred to programs.  Moreover-you have to make the programs section work.  Good correctional supervisors must be able to adjust their views and do the job in accordance with the direction of the agency.


         Responsibility is a key word in being a corrections supervisor.  You have the responsibility to make sure agency policies and procedures are followed. You are responsible for the job performances-both good and bad-of your staff.  You also have a responsibility to the inmates-to ensure their safe and secure custody, in accordance with their rights under the U.S. Constitution, professional correctional standards, agency policy, case law and by statutes.  As a supervisor, you do not have to shoulder all responsibilities yourself.  Your staff should be aware of their standard responsibilities, including (Marchese, 1997):

  • Reporting to supervisor prior to shift any incapacity or problem.

  • Remaining on post and working it professionally until relieved.

  • Not engaging in any activity that distracts them from their duties.

  • Asking a supervisor for guidance and direction if unsure about a course of action.

  • Addressing all inmates professionally, and not making sexual references or using nicknames or street names.

  • Not entering into personal relationships with inmates or discussing personal information with them.

  • Never accepting from or giving anything to an inmate.

  • Addressing all officers professionally and by rank when appropriate.

  • Refraining from using street jargon or profanity.

  • Using agency communications and computer systems professionally and only for official purposes.

  • Being responsible with social media; not posting content that embarrasses the agency, or is detrimental to its mission of public service.  Some COs may state that this is free speech.  No-it is not.  If a CO posts something on line that is racist, promotes mistreatment and violence against inmates, is critical of the agency or a photo of them engaging in bad practices, such as drinking, etc., this can reflect badly on the public image and mission of the agency.  By doing so-they can be disciplined, including termination.

Aspire and Lead

         When you are promoted, you must aspire to lead.  This view is not just a simple cliché.  Examining each one can help you become a better supervisor, and prepare you for the next rung in the ladder.  The ASPIRE method looks at (Reynolds, 2016):

Attitude:  Supervisors who display a good, positive attitude make the best leaders-the workplace is more positive.  Supervisors who ‘gripe’ constantly tear down staff morale.  COs will get quiet when they approach-and avoid them.

Skills:  People skills are important, as are also time management skills.  Supervisor skills also include listening and having the diplomatic skills to deal with different personalities and resolve difficult situations.

Passion:  Passion means energy.  If you are passionate about the job-you are focused, have vision, and strive to bring out the best potential in your staff.

Initiative:  Leaders create and pursue opportunities to improve the workplace-and always give credit to the people who deserve it.  No one likes a supervisor that does minimal work-and then tries to take all of the credit for those who do the maximum amount of work.

Resilience:  Leaders focus on things that they can change, and not focus on things they cannot control.   In addition, they have to have the energy to push on when many staff are tired.

Experience:  You know a lot-and have handled a lot.  Apply that to situations that your staff encounter in the workplace.  They can learn from you.

To lead means not just giving out orders.  It means (Hutton, 1998):

Listening:  Show concern and interest.  When that subordinate knocks on your door, put down the phone, stop the e-mail and treat him or her as if they are the most important person in the facility.

Encourage and praise:  Say thank you.  Acknowledge their hard work.  Be sincere, and never demean their integrity, knowledge and skills.

Ask for the employee’s help:  This empowers them; ask what they think. 

Decide:  Be action oriented-make decisions, and learn from them no matter if they are good or bad.

Transformational Leadership

         Transformational leadership is a new approach in corrections supervision.  It builds a positive relationship between the supervisor and the staff, with four main components (Pittaro, 2016):

Idealized influence:  The supervisor is a positive role model, and staff want to follow him.   The supervisor is admired, and he has never forgotten his roots-he connects with subordinates.

Inspiration and motivation:  By having a respectful relationship with staff, a supervisor can motivate.  If he motivates, the staff is inspired to perform well.

Individualized considerations:  Be concerned about the needs of your staff, and what stresses them out.  Be there to listen and offer good advice.

Intellectual stimulation:  Get staff to think-and challenge them to come up with new ways to do a better job. 

         As with any profession, corrections has its problems.  ‘Rogue staff’ violate inmates’ rights, mistreat them, engage in racist behavior and use excessive force.  There have been deaths in custody due to ignoring inmate calls for medical help, officers ignoring warnings about predatory inmates, officers engaging in sex with inmates, helping inmates escape and officers smuggling in contraband.  As a supervisor, you will be asked to investigate such allegations, and take disciplinary action, including termination.  Some COs can be turned around; some have to be terminated, and charged criminally.  The best approach is catching these problems in the early stages-and evaluations must be clear, with ratings based on documentation. Present the problem employee with written ways to improve job performance.   Be somewhat ‘blunt’.  Let your staff know what you expect from them, and what practices are not permissible.  Let them know that use of force guidelines will be followed; inmates are not to be harassed, and so on.  If COs cannot handle this, they should find another line of work.  Finally, never criticize officers in public-no matter what their mistakes are or their attitudes are.  Be respectful and hold counseling sessions and evaluations in private.

         The most effective ways to prevent problems are observation and mentoring.  Be observant for signs and reports of bad CO behavior-and remember that not all inmates are liars.  If an inmate tells you that an officer is harassing inmates, insulting them, or is heavy handed, check it out.  Be proactive, before a serious incident caused by a rogue staff member occurs.  You may have to sit that CO down and make your and the agency’s expectations very clear-plus the consequences of non-compliance.  Other COs may inform you of things going on-and the worst thing that you can do is to do nothing-or brush them off. 

         Mentoring is important (Pittaro, 2016).  Good senior staff can act as mentors for new COs and those that need remedial training or advice.   Mentors act as coaches.  The agency has an investment in the CO.  Mentors can work with problem officers to teach them more effective ways to do the job, correct mistakes, reduce their stress and increase their morale.  The better mentors you have, the higher the professionalism of your staff.



         In closing, being a successful corrections supervisor can be rewarding and positive.  Good supervision can dispel the negative myths about corrections.  Supervisors have to move through differing ideologies about corrections, and have a firm understanding of staff responsibilities.  Good supervisors can aspire to lead, being responsive to their subordinates and having the resilience and passion to carry on.  Transformational leadership can motivate staff, recognize good work, and through firm discipline and mentoring, deal with problem staff.



Cornelius, Gary F.  In-Service Training Presentation:  Corporals, Sergeants and Lieutenants:  The Foundation of Jail Supervision, 2020.

Cornelius, Gary F. (May 14, 2019).  4 things that change once you become a correctional supervisor.   CorrectionsOne, Retrieved from

Cornelius, Gary F.  (2017). The Correctional Officer:  A Practical Guide, Third Edition.  Durham:  Carolina Academic Press.

Gangi, Anthony.  (June 17, 2016).  5 myths about corrections the public believe are true.  CorrectionsOne  Retrieved from

Hutton, Scott D., Ph.D.  (1998). Staff Supervision Made Easy.  Lanham, MD:  American Correctional Association.

Marchese, Joseph, (1997). in Don Bales, (ed.) Standard Responsibilities of All Officers, in Correctional Officer’s Resource Guide, 3rd Edition, American Correctional Association.

Pittaro, Michael, Ph.D.  Transformational Leadership:  Improving the Culture of Corrections.  Presentation:  New Jersey Chapter:  American Correctional Association, April, 2016.

Reynolds, Barry. (May 19, 2016). Searching for your next leader? Look for those that ASPIRE.CorrectionsOne, Retrieved from

About the Author:

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center.  His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division.   His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.


He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University since 1986, where he has taught four corrections courses:  punishment and corrections, community corrections, jails and preparation for internship.   He also teaches corrections in service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. He has also presented webinars and Skype presentations on correctional issues. His latest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition was published in April 2017 by Carolina Academic Press.  He has authored several other books in corrections, including The Art of the Con:  Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition, (2009) from the American Correctional Association, and The American Jail:  Cornerstone of Modern Corrections, (2008) from Pearson Prentice Hall.   Gary has received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in Social Science from his alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an Instructor Appreciation Award from George Mason University.     In January 2011, Gary started a blog “Tales from the Local Jail” on The Corrections Connection ( followed in December 2012 by his second blog, “Talks About Training” on Corrections One (     Gary has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP) representing local adult corrections.  He has corrections projects in development, including, a new second edition of The Twenty Minute Trainer, from the Civic Research Institute, and a new third edition of Stressed Out:  Strategies For Living and Working in Corrections from Carolina Academic Press.    Gary has appeared on CNN, MSNBC and Tier Talk, discussing corrections security, training and staff issues.   He presents training for InTime Solutions and Lexipol.  He resides in Williamsburg, Virginia.