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Communication: How to effectively deploy your first line of defense

In order to make sound correctional decisions, it is imperative you actively listen to the offender population


In this photo taken June 20, 2018, inmates walk the exercise yard at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Individuals who choose to work in correctional facilities take on a difficult, yet rewarding career. Myriad employment opportunities are available within corrections, but regardless of the position held, all individuals must receive certain levels of training. This training typically includes ethics, key and tool control, supervising the mentally ill, use of force, behavior management, housing and offender accountability, suicide prevention and first aid.

An important training that is often overlooked is interpersonal communication skills. Simply put, we need more emphasis in corrections training on effective communication skills. Knowing how to talk and listen to others can prevent use of force incidents with offenders; it can also help coworkers work more effectively and efficiently as a unit. In order for staff to provide a safe, secure and humane environment for the offender population, all staff must have effective communication skills.

Interpersonal communication skills are not just about what is said, it is also about how it is said. This incorporates the actual words an individual is using and their nonverbal cues (i.e., body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures). Effective communication also includes active listening. Asking questions, asking for clarification, making eye contact and using open body language are vital components for active listening. In order to make sound correctional decisions, it is imperative to actively listen to the offender population; your staff’s safety depends on it.

As a correctional staff member, regardless of your position, it is your job to keep those around you safe. Effective communication can positively change the trajectory of an outcome. Communication is your first line of defense and it is the most overlooked tool in your arsenal. It needs to be used more often and with more confidence, which is why correctional staff require continuous training in interpersonal communication skills.

Many situations can be diffused with effective communication skills. Here are five things to remember:

1. How we respond to each other matters.

Never let the offender population witness a discrepancy between your staff; all disagreements need to be handled behind doors and not in front of the offenders. We need to always present a unified front regardless of our differences.

2. How we respond to the offender population matters.

Keep your promises and your commitments; if an offender asks you a question, give them an answer. If you do not know the answer, do not lie; tell them you do not know, but you can find out or direct them to the person who would have the answer. Your credibility with the offender population does matter.

3. Active listening is a top ingredient in effective communication.

In order to understand the inmate population, you need to ask follow-up questions because gathering intelligence is how you learn about the population you are responsible for supervising. Actively listen when an offender expresses his/her concerns. You also need to actively listen to your staff when they express their concerns. Remember, at the end of the day you are responsible for you and your partner going home.

4. Actions can speak louder than words.

Your body language, facial expressions and gestures can contradict what you are verbally saying, so remember to match your non-verbal cues with your words.

5. Communication is your first line of defense.

Be confident in your communication and active listening skills. Be confident in what you have learned from your training and on-the-job experiences.

Jenna Curren, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in criminal justice studies. As chair of a CJ advisory board, Jenna actively partners with members of the community to integrate current students into internships and prospective law enforcement careers. Prior to working in academics, Jenna held various custody and treatment positions and was a lieutenant for the Connecticut Department of Correction. Throughout her tenure, she supervised men, women, youth and mental health offenders. A C.E.R.T and honor guard member, as well as a training officer, Jenna has 10 years of experience in the criminal justice and human services fields.

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