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How manipulative inmates fatigue staff

Mental fatigue can have dangerous consequences not just for the target, but for all in the facility


In this photo taken June 20, 2018, inmates pass a Correctional Officer as they leave an exercise yard at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

Like many things in corrections, vocational truths are obvious to someone in the field, but an odd curiosity to those outside. Early in my corrections career, I learned that metal is a highly sought commodity for contrabandists. To the corrections professional, it goes without saying that prisoners will make weapons and metal is a useful material. Yet the non-corrections person might not consider the importance of keeping metal out of circulation for the sake of safety for all.

I remember that a mentor spoke of how offenders harvest metal for weapon making or trading needs. “If it moves, it will dislodge,” he said.

Inmate manipulation erodes staff confidence

You can draw comparisons between metal fatigue and mental fatigue. Here mental fatigue can be defined as the negative impacts of manipulative offenders testing the resolve of staff.

Like moving seemingly intractable metal, offenders who endeavor to manipulate staff work on debilitating the structural integrity of staff confidence. This can be done by moving staff’s mind in different directions, using confrontation and compliments alternately. If the comportment of staff can move, it could dislodge. The goal of this is to leave the target off balance and malleable. For the manipulative offender, such malleability can yield favorable enforcement of rules and favors from mentally fatigued staff.

Does it matter that an offender is testing the structural integrity of your resolve? It is a vocational certainty that corrections staff will face many of these instances. Is this just a bored prisoner messing with staff? Or is it something more sinister like the inception of a set up? Either way, you must be on your guard. Quite simply, some prisoners are manipulative.

Manipulative overtures can result in anxiety, loss of sleep and a change of prisoner management tactics. Mental fatigue can impact job performance and cause staff to lack focus, impacting overall security. Mental fatigue can have dangerous consequences not just for the target, but for all in the facility.

It is best to address the behavior of the manipulative prisoner in order to gain control of the situation and stave off the living chess game you have been drawn into. Otherwise, the game goes on and the prisoner remains in control. Some ways to do this are to disengage, directly inform the prisoner you are aware of his or her tactics, or to issue fair and appropriate discipline. Naturally, the counter-tactic you employ will depend on the circumstances.

Even before one tries to counter manipulation, mental fatigue is already at hand. It is built into the system. Skilled manipulators add stress to the job by relentless scrutiny of staff for mistakes. In addition, no matter how much a staff person adheres to policy and how honorably they execute their duties, chances are an offender will accuse the corrections professional of dishonesty or corruption.

Staff who recognize they have been manipulated are saddled with additional stress. There is a level of both anger and embarrassment when someone realizes they have been handled. And there is anxiety that comes with concerns about how fellow staff members will regard trustworthiness and future performance. Sterling reputations in corrections are hard to resurrect once they have been tarnished.

How to alleviate mental fatigue

Even if the agent of fatigue has subsided, there could be some lingering impacts of the confrontations. How do you alleviate the impacts of mental fatigue? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Get a hobby. The only rule is to choose something you truly enjoy. Some people prefer physical hobbies such as hiking, exercise and biking. Others find that mental exercises such as Sudoku, writing, or solitaire are helpful in melting away stress.

Whatever your avocation, it should be something not related directly to corrections. The idea is to step away from corrections when you leave the facility. Of course, if you enjoy a hobby that is related in some way to corrections, pursue it if it is fulfilling. Just be aware that when the stress of the job intensifies, the corrections-related hobby may become less enjoyable.

2. Talk to others who know about your vocation’s challenges. While talking to anyone can be helpful, conversing with someone who can relate to your struggles in a more immediate manner can be more cathartic. The colleague may have dealt previously with a similar problem and could offer solutions.

3. Tailor your stress relief tactics to your individual needs. Modify your program as needed. Circumstances are fluid and so should the strategies be to cope with them.

Stress is universal. It reaches every single person, no matter their experience on the job or coping techniques. Stress management decreases the ill effects of mental fatigue. How you manage your stress may extend and enrich your vocational and personal life.

Joe Bouchard worked in a maximum correctional facility for 25 years and is now retired. He continues to write and present on many corrections topics. He is the former editor of The Correctional Trainer. Bouchard has been an instructor of corrections and criminal justice since 1999. He currently teaches at Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College. Bouchard also has online writing clips at He is also the author of three corrections books for LRP publications and 10 books for IACTP’s series of training exercises books. Order now.