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How to set inmate expectations (and why you need to meet them)

Setting clear guidelines on what correctional officers expect inmates to do and following up is an effective way to maintain authority


Expectations can extend to any behavior you can predict.

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One of my partners in the jail’s housing units was a clean freak. Joe brushed his teeth at least twice during a 12-hour overnight shift. He washed his hands before and after he used the restroom. He double gloved on many occasions, and passionately encouraged others to do the same. Joe also focused on a clean jail.

Joe started every shift on the floor assigning cleaning projects. These projects were not a reaction to bad inmate behavior. He wasn’t mean spirited when he delegated work to the inmates. When it came to these projects, Joe only raised his voice once a shift, to make the general announcement.

“OK, listen up!” Joe would pace the housing unit with his clipboard in one hand and a pen in the other. “Before you guys come off lockdown, this place needs to clean.” Joe would tell each inmate their specific cleaning assignments, and write each job on a list.

Once in a while, an inmate who hadn’t been exposed to Joe would pipe up with a protest or remark. Generally, the inmate’s cellmates would hush him for the sake of the group, but from time to time Joe would address the comment. I was present for one such address.

Joe strolled over to the inmate, stopping along the way to delegate cleaning projects. He didn’t want the protester to think he was top of Joe’s list.

“You don’t want to clean?” Joe asked the question with a look of surprise on his face. “You don’t like a clean cell?”

The inmate didn’t have anything to say. As we all know, any prisoner worth his salt likes to keep a clean cell.

Joe continued, “I’m going to be here for the next 12 hours. This is my work place. I need it to be clean for you and I need it to be clean for me, so I can do my job in a clean place and you can live in a clean place. Does that make sense to you?”

A couple hours later, and before the sergeant walked through for her inspection, Joe followed up with his list. Some inmates called him and ask if their cleaning project was good enough. The protester cleaned his cell. No one wants to be the odd man out.

Joe made no threats of discipline. He didn’t push his authority around. The discipline and authority were implied the moment he walked in a housing unit. There’s no need to lean on either until you’ve exhausted your well-honed verbal judo skills.


What Joe did was set a clear expectation of cleanliness early on in his shift. There was no question from the inmates as to Joe’s intentions. Joe would further hold specific inmates responsible for their part in cleaning the housing unit. Finally, he would inspect for results and revisit any items on his list that were not addressed.

Joe didn’t spend too much time on these projects. There was plenty more to do, but he followed up and moved on.

It’s easy to waltz into a housing unit, announce the place looks dirty and walk out. This drive-by method allows inmates to opt out without any personal skin in the game. Such a general announcement with no specifics to back it up leaves your communication up to interpretation.

An inmate will most likely take the path of least resistance, maybe saying, “Oh, the floor cop says this place is dirty. He must mean we need to wipe that one table over there in the corner. Done, I’m a hero!” Without specifics, the inmates will create their own interpretations and they generally won’t match yours.

The drive-by method of setting expectations is also easier for the floor officer. There is no follow-up necessary. You can tell yourself you’ve addressed an issue of cleanliness. You can even follow up with, “Yep, place looks better.” But you haven’t really addressed anything. You are forcing your supervisor to address the issues, or the next shift.

Inmates notice which staff members prefer the drive-by approach to running a housing unit. They take notice because staff members who phone it in on the simple stuff may also phone it in on contraband and jail rules.


When Joe spoke to the protester, every ear within hearing range and some outside the range were perked, hoping to hear what Joe had to say. Joe was careful with his words. He knew any time he addressed an inmate in the presence of other inmates that he was essentially addressing everyone who could hear him.

This form of very informal public response to any public negative inmate behavior can be tricky, but it is useful if you control your emotions. It’s an opportunity to broadcast that you are unbending when an inmate protests your orders, but reasonable in your response to the protest.

If you feel this interaction will escalate to a challenge in any way, you’re better off taking the conversation outside of the housing unit. Know the difference between a minor attempt to derail you from your mission and a direct challenge to your authority. Address challenges in a safe environment that is fully controlled by staff.


Expectations can extend to any behavior you can predict. For example, when escorting a group of inmates to court, you should expect some of their family members to be in court. You should also expect that, even when they know they shouldn’t, the inmates may attempt to communicate with family members.

Set behavior expectations during the few moments before entering court. Tell the inmates they are not allowed to talk to their families. They know that you know the rules, but when you specify your expectation, you’re putting the inmates on notice that it is an important rule to you and you’ll be paying attention.

Because the reminder of the rule and expectation has been made so recently, you’ll find it much simper to address anyone who breaks the rules. You’ve already created the unwritten contract to follow a specific rule.


Inmates try to get away with more at the end of your shift than at the beginning. You have very little time to follow up within the last hour of your shift, and there’s less time to write reports. If you don’t address expectations early on, you won’t give yourself enough time to revisit your expectations.

It’s Friday morning and you have an hour left in your shift. The jail commander is about to walk through for his weekly inspection. This is not the time to gather up a cleaning crew to get your housing unit scrubbed, swept and mopped. You’re too late. Plan ahead and set your expectations early.

Zohar Zaied is a background investigator assigned to the Corrections Division at the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California. He served 16 years as a deputy and supervisor at the Mendocino County Jail, including a post in the Gangs and Classification unit and the Home Detention and Work Release programs. His book, “The Corrections Toolbox,” is now available on

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