The Top 5 Tips New Correctional Officers Need to Know

Have you wondered what it’s like being a correctional officer? Are you curious about the mental challenges the job faces? Have you thought about the physical demands it requires? Do you think YOU can handle the job? Let’s find out. Here are the top five tips to know as a correctional officer.
Kenzie Koch
Kenzie Koch
Contibutors:
Chris Riedmueller | Product Trainer
Jeff Kovar | Strategic Account Executive

A simple Wikipedia search of “corrections officer” will tell you it’s a “uniformed law enforcement official responsible for maintaining the order and daily operations of the facility and the care, custody, and control of inmates.” OK, that sounds accurate. But what does it exactly mean to “maintain the order” of a jail or prison? Hmmm. Well, as a first guess, it’s fair to assume from the movies we've seen and the books we’ve read that it means supervising inmates, monitoring their movements, enforcing rules and regulations, searching for contraband, blah blah blah. Wait a second, what’s so difficult about that?! “Maintaining order” sounds kind of easy! 

SAID NO ONE EVER.

First off, if you trust Wikipedia as a reliable source, you have bigger problems. Second, working in the corrections industry isn’t how it looks in the movies. Films like Shawshank Redemption, Cool Hand Luke, and Escape from Alcatraz are great flicks to watch, but they don’t accurately depict the day-to-day life of a correctional officer. If you’ve ever thought about what it’s like working in corrections, this is the blog for you. For the sake of the knowledge, let’s imagine tomorrow is your first day as a correctional officer (CO). You’re excited, but also a little tense as you’re not sure what to expect. We will walk you through the top five things that all correctional officers should know, especially as new boots. Let’s dive in.

1 Your Moral Compass Will Be Tested

You have two choices as a CO: you either bend your principles to conform to your actions OR you bend your actions to conform to your principles. See the difference? Let’s break it down. If you bend your principles to conform to your actions, you allow yourself to knowingly fail with little remorse. On the other hand, if you bend your actions to conform to your principles, you are forcing your efforts to fit the mold of the example you want to live by. Do you see which option lacks integrity and which option possesses integrity? Having integrity means you're aware of your moral compass. Are you aware of your own ethics, values, and beliefs? If not, it’s time to figure them out because your moral compass will be tested on a daily basis at this job. This isn’t supposed to scare you, but it is supposed to be a reality check. This job is hard and will keep you on your toes at all times. At the end of the day, you are given power over other human beings, and you are trusted with that power. Let that soak in for a moment. No pressure. 

During your career you will be given the opportunity to take shortcuts to benefit you personally. If you can already see this happening, this isn’t the profession for you. This isn’t a sales position where you get a personal benefit here and there. Working in corrections takes an extremely selfless person. It means you’ll never shift your priorities to fit whatever is best for you; you do what’s best for the well-being of the inmates and agency. Again, you are trusted with the power you are given when you receive your badge. To maintain the trust and confidence that people have in you, you need to be a person of integrity. How? Simply prove you have good values by being confident and making the right decisions. Sounds complicated? It shouldn’t be. It isn’t difficult to prove your worth when you stick to your core beliefs. If all your decisions are honest, reliable, and confidential, then you’ll prove yourself to be trustworthy in no time. Although it may sound simple to be a “good guy,” it’s a very intentional act. Having integrity means to make sure you’re doing the right thing every day, no matter what. Think you can handle it?

2 Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

Day one can be extremely overwhelming. You’re placed in a new environment with new people, new rules, new smells, new sights, new everything. You will also, over time, encounter new emotions that you likely haven’t experienced before. It’s no secret that this job challenges mental health and can affect your well-being if the signs are ignored. When you’re a CO, you will inevitably experience emotional distress. The duties of this job are sometimes some of the most traumatic events that officers will ever experience. And unfortunately, CO’s have a sense of bravado, and that comes with a stigma that doesn’t allow them to show emotion or accept support from others. Officers have to portray an image to the inmates, their fellow officers, and the public that they are strong, tough, and resilient without fail. If they let down their guard and admit needing help, they would likely be perceived as “weak” and unfit for the job. However, that “hardness” can often bubble up and boil over if emotions aren’t handled properly. Unaddressed issues will inevitably damage social lives including marriages, parent-child relationships, and entire families. Without taking proactive measures of protecting yourself, you will likely harm the one thing you try to protect the most - your family. Luckily, it’s becoming increasingly more of a norm nowadays to accept the fact that this profession faces extreme trauma and emotional hardship. Of course, having muscle and grit is great, but so is being capable of fighting off internal demons. Before figuring out how to heal, the first step is realizing that there is pain that needs healing.  

Dissociation involves staff disconnecting themselves from their true emotions and thoughts about a disturbing event - blocking them out of their awareness. I’ve heard numerous staff talk about how well they cope by shutting events out of their awareness, ‘compartmentalizing’ them. This activity of putting memories of unpleasant events (and the associated emotions) in ‘compartments’ amounts to engaging in dissociation. It’s like we have a crawl space under our house where we toss anything unpleasant or unwanted, and then leave, locking the door behind us. After a while we don’t even know or remember what we’ve stuffed in that crawl space.
Caterina Spinaris, Ph.D., LPC
Founding Director of Desert Waters Correctional Outreach

Working in this profession, you will hear “awareness is key” over and over again, but typically it only refers to being aware of your physical surroundings. Instead, this phrase should correlate with being aware of your mental state. At least knowing that you have emotions that are being suppressed allows you to recognize that you do still indeed have emotions. Tackling the problem and figuring out how to address the trauma is a whole other story, but at least knowing that it exists is better than pretending you’re a stone cold, heartless person. The next time you experience an incident that makes you force yourself to not look away, take time to debrief and register the feelings you’re having. Checking yourself while experiencing trauma will help you avoid completely wrecking yourself to a numb pulp.

3 Fall Seven Times Stand Up Eight

The saying, “Fall seven times stand up eight,” originated from a Japanese saying about resilience. Of course, it sounds easier said than done, but it's an important quote to live by when you work in a field that faces hurdles every single day. It’s not a question of If but When you will encounter complicated situations throughout your day as a CO. How you manage these obstacles will determine how you will grow further in your position. In order to grow, you need to have a mindset that allows you to view each obstacle as an opportunity to take initiative. As a CO, you will thrive when you are capable of stepping up to the plate and making decisions on the fly. Of course, some decisions will be wrong. However, you can’t obsess over failures to the point where you lose confidence in your work and become hesitant in your decisions. After falling down, pick yourself up. Even if you fall down seven times, pick yourself up eight. If you don’t, you will destroy your ability to grow in this profession.

Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.
C.S. Lewis

If you choose to live by this Japanese proverb, you will also appreciate an artwork style invented by Japanese culture, Kintsugi. This is a practice of repairing broken pottery by building the pieces back together with gold. The artwork serves as a deeper metaphor for embracing flaws by highlighting the cracks and scars. Just like how correctional officers have to pick themselves up after breaking apart from a failure, fixing something broken with a stronger foundation creates a more resilient and more beautiful piece of pottery (or person). 

4 Know Your Policy Like the Back of Your Hand

One of the first things officers are given during their orientation period is the agency policy manual. They’re told to read the manual and are given an acknowledgement form to sign stating that they have read and understand it. This can be overwhelming for new officers as it’s a lot of information to absorb in their first week on the job. The manual is filled with new words and terms that officers haven’t ever heard of before or know little about, such as: segregated housing, keep-separate, vicarious liability, PREA, classification, and so on. However, officers often accept their policy manual and sign the acknowledgement form without ever fully reading their agency’s policies. This is a big no-no as this practice exposes both the officer and the agency to increased liability. Agencies have the responsibility to ensure their officers are trained and knowledgeable of their agency policy. So, if you are a new officer and are put in this situation, make sure you read and understand your agency policy like the back of your hand. If you do not understand something, ask questions! Your Field Training Officer (FTO) and/or your shift supervisor should go over this information with you. If they don’t, stop and ask them to go over it with you because you will definitely have questions, especially as a newbie. For example, one of the most puzzling pieces about policy is understanding which are facility standards and which are state standards. That’s right, they’re different. Not only does your individual facility have its own standards, but it may possibly be required to follow state standards as well. If you are located in a state that requires its facilities to follow state standards, then every facility within that state has to follow that specific state’s guidelines. It’s important to know and understand these standards on top of your own facility’s policies so you don’t accidentally violate a policy or violate an inmate’s rights. Most agencies have policies that mirror and/or meet their state’s standard. However, states and agencies constantly update their standards and sometimes these documents conflict with each other. If you notice a conflict between the two, notify your supervisor.   

I wish someone would’ve told me when I first started that I needed to read the policy and procedure manual like you eat an elephant - one piece at a time. Every promotion I received came with a stack of new responsibilities. I learned to understand each one separately, rather than all together.
Chris Riedmueller
Product Trainer with GUARDIAN RFID

Fast forward a couple years and now you’re done with training and on your own. Everything is going swimmingly! You know your agency policy and state jail standards like the back of your hand. But, while checking your email, you see a directive from your supervisor that conflicts with your current agency policy (this is bound to happen). What do you do? Do you follow your agency policy, or do you follow your supervisor’s directive? When this happens, you need to bring this up with your supervisor immediately so they can update the agency policy. Having conflicting policies and/or directives is confusing to staff and exposes the agency to liability. Thus, it is imperative to have a policy that specifically reflects current practice. If your actions follow agency policy, you will be in a much more defensible position to lawsuits.

5 Don’t Take Shortcuts

Imagine you’re at Point A and need to get to Point B. You are confronted with two roads to take in order to get to Point B. Both options will get you there, but they have different terrain. The first road is short, smooth, and you can even see Point B from Point A. The second road starts off smooth, but then grows into a steep mountain, blocking the view of Point A. Which road do you take? If you guessed the first option, you’re wrong. If you guessed the second option, you’re also wrong. There is only one correct answer to this question and it’s, “which one is stated as the policy?” 

This job will present many opportunities for you to take shortcuts, some of which will be out of convenience while others could benefit you personally. Sometimes taking shortcuts is more efficient and allows you to complete a larger amount of work in a shorter amount of time. Shortcuts are not always necessarily a “bad” thing. However, if it violates your facilities policy and procedure handbook, that’s where things get messy. At the end of the day, policies and procedures were put in place for a reason. Taking shortcuts when you know you won’t get caught is not only dishonorable, but it’s a very dangerous habit. Even the tiniest shortcut can wind you up in trouble because no matter how well you do your job, there’s always somebody looking for an error. If you are caught taking even the tiniest shortcut, you will not be seen as credible or reliable. Why? Because if you can’t accomplish the smallest of things, then your supervisor won’t trust you to accomplish anything. Once you lose your credibility, your reputation is tarnished. Don’t think it’s that big of a deal? Imagine you’re working in your housing unit during the assigned night shift. It’s time to conduct your next security check, but you’ve had a long day and you’re exhausted. You realize that you did a security check only an hour ago and verified all inmates were sound asleep in their bunks. Nothing has changed since then, right? You decide to mark your security check as complete when you actually didn’t physically get up to check. Nobody is watching. Who is going to know, right? It’s not a big deal. Hours later during your shift change, the oncoming officer finds an inmate hanging in their cell. Investigators show up and your paper logs are requested as part of the investigation. Cameras within the housing unit prove you falsified your jail checks. Oops, it was a big deal after all. Not only will you lose your job with this agency, but your career as a correctional officer is over. On top of that, there is a good chance you will be charged criminally and civilly.

In conclusion, when you Google the job description of “corrections officer” and it says, “maintaining order,” it doesn’t necessarily explain that it comes with an entire lifestyle of always staying on your toes. The beginning of the Correctional Officer’s Prayer states, “Lord, as I report to work each day, in this place of block and steel, I ask that you would have my back, the dangers here are real.” (Where does it say that in the job description?!) That’s why it’s absolutely critical to connect yourself with like-minded team members who have the same values, beliefs, and respect for the work as you do. These are the people who will help you grow in your position and throughout your career. Hopefully these five tips protect you, your team, and the other 480,000+ correctional officers across the country who are defending America’s Thin Gray Line from the obstacles that come with the job.