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20 dos and don’ts for new COs

COs must balance helping inmates with maintaining a secure correctional facility – follow these top tips to improve your safety


“Thank you,” “you’re welcome” and “excuse me” are all beneficial behaviors that can become infectious (even in a correctional setting).

AP Photo/Sean Rayford, File

By Ken Niemisto, C1 Contributor

During a recent chat with a retired colleague, we discussed some tips that could help improve safety for new correctional officers.

While I am sure most of us agree it is our mission to help inmates improve their chance for success once released from prison – since most will be released – there are those inmates who do their best to manipulate correctional staff. It only takes one highly manipulative or violent inmate to cause an unwanted incident in your career. COs must balance helping inmates with maintaining a safe and secure facility.

The following is a list of “dos” and “don’ts” every corrections employee should know. Keep in mind that many of these tips are directed toward high security facilities that house violent offenders.

The “Dos”

1. Do be a professional.

You are expected to be a mentor for inmates and demonstrate what is considered appropriate behavior. Some will learn valuable life lessons from your example, while others may not. Those who make positive changes in their behavior will be clear evidence you influenced them by displaying good character.

2. Do display good manners at work.

“Thank you,” “you’re welcome” and “excuse me” are all beneficial behaviors that can become infectious (even in a correctional setting).

3. Do dress professionally.

While inmates may not do the same, my observation has always been that inmates recognize this as a sign of strength.

4. Do avoid taking shortcuts in your duties.

Becoming complacent and taking shortcuts in prison duties can have detrimental consequences, no matter how small the task may seem. If you have difficulty performing your duties, talk with your supervisor about finding a solution that does not jeopardize security.

5. Do enforce the rules consistently.

Do not use rule enforcement for retaliation or as a way to flaunt your authority. Be personable, yet business-like, when enforcing rules. I was taught in the corrections academy I attended to treat the inmates “firm, but fair.”

6. Do take your time when conducting any kind of search.

Whether searching an inmate, his area of control and property, or other areas, never allow the inmate to pressure you into conducting a quick and sloppy search.

7. Do familiarize yourself with your department’s policies.

Read all policy and procedure documents and post orders, especially those that directly affect or direct the job you are assigned.

8. Do consider the source.

Inmates who wish to share information regarding other inmates often have ulterior motives.

9. Do respect and utilize the expertise of your fellow team members.

Correctional staff are experts in many areas such as tactical response, security threat analysis and intelligence gathering. Look, listen, learn and grow.

10. Do report any changes in inmate behavior or concerning information.

Do not withhold information or delay it being provided to a supervisor, especially when it affects staff or inmate safety.

The “Don’ts”

11. Don’t say yes if you cannot follow through.

Don’t say you will do something if you cannot guarantee you will do it. “Maybe” means “yes” to an inmate. If you need to gather more information before deciding, tell him/her so, but make sure you get an answer back to the inmate.

12. Don’t take an inmate’s word.

Always verify what an inmate tells you before you take any action.

13. Don’t take things personally.

Whatever an inmate says, don’t take it personally. Just do your job.

14. Don’t share personal information with inmates.

Never divulge personal information about yourself, another staff member or another inmate. Also avoid discussing personal information or activities within earshot of an inmate (some have superior hearing).

15. Don’t be a critic.

Do not speak negatively about another staff member or inmate within earshot of other inmates.

16. Don’t show favoritism.

You can praise an inmate on his behavior but avoid comparing him to another inmate. Don’t allow one inmate to supervise another. And do not give an inmate something you would not want your supervisor or the warden see you give the inmate. If the inmate is allowed to have it by policy, then provide it.

17. Don’t allow an inmate to walk behind you.

If this is unavoidable, make sure other staff members are present to watch your back.

18. Don’t allow an inmate to close/lock his own cell door.

Staff and other inmates have been seriously assaulted as a result of the inmate leaving their cell door in the unlocked position. The next staff person to walk by could easily become the inmate’s next victim. Also, don’t leave doors to offices, closets or other rooms in the open position without direct supervision or the door lock placed in the “unlocked” position.

19. Don’t enter a room without an exit plan.

Don’t enter an inmate’s cell while inmates are out and about without another staff person knowing your whereabouts. Always be conscious of your escape routes. Also, don’t enter a cell for an apparent medical emergency without another staff person present.

20. Don’t allow inmates to manipulate cell/room assignments.

Investigate their true intentions before authorizing a move.

I invite you to share your top tips in the comments section below. Stay safe, God bless and thank you for the service you provide to the public. The field of corrections is an honorable profession and a vital part of the criminal justice system.

About the author
Ken Niemisto has worked as a corrections officer, prison counselor and resident unit manager with the Michigan Department of Corrections. In 2015, he was promoted to security inspector for the Marquette Branch Prison. He has served in many acting capacities throughout his career including prisoner grievance coordinator, recreation director, assistant deputy warden and deputy warden. He retired on May 1, 2018, with 28 years’ service.