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Avoiding inmate manipulation


To meet the needs of activity, privacy, emotional feedback and safety, inmates may lie, scheme, cheat; steal or play “head games” with COs. (AP photo)

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from “The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide,” a textbook by Gary F. Cornelius. Lt. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Administration of Justice Department at George Mason University, where he taught corrections courses. Visit the publisher’s website for more details on purchasing the book.

By Gary F. Cornelius
The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide

From Chapter 11 – Avoiding Manipulation

How Inmates Do Time
Underlying the aspect of having needs met and the development of a niche is the idea of comfort, inmates want to do their time as comfortable and “hassle free” as possible and avoid the pains of imprisonment.

Correctional institutions are regimented places with schedules, the lack of comforts that offenders enjoy on the street, a lack of privacy, and people that an inmate may not want to have to deal with, including staff. Inmates want the environment to be more to their liking and to do time on their terms.

To meet the needs of activity, privacy, emotional feedback and safety, inmates may lie, scheme, cheat, steal or play “head games” with COs. Lies and concocted stories may get them a transfer to protective custody, for example. To obtain a sense of emotional feedback, inmates may “warm up” to staff, trying to portray themselves as “regular people” and not criminals.

The Process of Manipulation
According to Robert Johnson of American University, inmates have lived a lifestyle of lying, and using people and manipulating others is a way of life. In fact, manipulation has been described as the “name of the game” in prison as well as on the street. In these environments, people are expected to be “cagey” and only naive persons tell the truth.

The criminal victimizes weak people in and out of prison; they are “fair game.” While the law-abiding citizen is honest, truthful and solves life’s problems using legitimate means, the criminal/inmate will deceive and use lying and violence to cope. The result of living like this is that inmates who survive prison life become tougher and less able to feel for themselves and others (Johnson, 2002, pp. 90–92).

Using people, finding niches, and wanting things their way all exhibit a need for control. To understand inmate manipulation, staff must understand the definition of the word.

Manipulation defined has three components:

1. to control or play upon
2. by artful or unfair means
3. especially to one’s own advantage
(Cornelius, 2001, pp. 4–5)

For correctional staff, manipulation follows these components, but with the attempts to control comes attempts to change staff by subtle means that can be very artistic. The result is to get something that is wanted, needed or achieved.

To properly guard against manipulation, correctional staff must ask themselves, “What do the inmates want to control? What might they really want? Are they telling the truth?”

Inmates’ Views of Manipulation
Some inmates’ views of the staff are that they are gullible; some are “do gooders” and are inferior. Some inmates think that they are more intelligent than the staff, and staff members and COs are there to do the inmates’ bidding.

Probably the best summary of this view is from writings in 1967 by H. Schwendinger and J. Schwendinger appearing in Robert Johnson’s work Hard Time: Understanding and Reforming the Prison (2002):

“Whether on slum streets or in prison, the world is populated by victimizers who exploit others and a host of prospective victims variously known as ‘punks, chumps, pigeons or fags’. . . . Even one’s friends are presumed to be less than fully trustworthy and thus are potential candidates for exploitation” (Johnson, 2002, p. 91).

What does this mean to the CO? Simply it means that inmates (not all) view manipulation as a valuable tool in living life. Not only are staff and COs to be marked and manipulated, but also fellow inmates. Veteran COs will tell you that often they break up arguments and fights among inmates concerning stealing property such as canteen, magazines, radios, etc. and lying. Savvy, street smart inmates will manipulate and take advantage of anyone if they can see some profit or gain by it.

Verbal Deception and Situational Deception
Inmates often practice verbal deception or simply lying or making statements that are not true. A competent officer can check things out and uncover the lie. If the inmate lies to cover up a lie, a good CO can confront him or her with questions and challenges to details (Knowles, 1992, p. 2). For example—an inmate tells his tier CO that his father is sick and he needs to make a long distance call to his family. The officer’s questions should include: “What is the illness?” or “what hospital is he in?” Be careful—some inmate manipulators can add a lot of details, talk a lot and make the story appear very plausible.

Also, inmates engage in situational deception—misleading someone by actions without lying. For example, an inmate going by a cellblock wants to pass in contraband. Two inmate friends distract the officer by getting his attention by asking questions, etc. They did not actually lie—but the ruse worked—the CO was distracted and the contraband got passed (Knowles, 1992, p. 2).

Short Term v. Long Term Schemes
The manipulation schemes may be either small scale, one-time requests by inmates to staff or larger, more elaborate schemes. Short term or small schemes require very little planning and is one on one. Also, the inmate will see how “easy” the officer is (Knowles, 1992, p. 2).

Smaller versions may be pictured like an inmate asks an officer on post if he can go to a certain block to pay a friend back some cigarettes. The officer says yes, thinking “what’s the harm?” A larger scale version could be several inmates each asking an officer for favors that involve bending or breaking the rules over a long period, such as a few months. At the appropriate moment, the officer is threatened with exposure to supervisors if he/she does not do a big favor for the inmates such as bringing in drugs. Over time, the manipulative demands on the COs get more serious (Knowles, 1992, p. 2).