What I learned from a 27-year jail career

Regardless of the advancements in jail technology, working in corrections means you have to deal with people — which is the most fulfilling part of the job

This past December, I was asked to address a graduating class of jail officers at the Crater Criminal Justice Training Academy in Disputanta, Virginia. As I was preparing my address, I thought back on what I learned from my jail career. We “old-timers” can give the “new boots” the benefits of our experience and how we learned to handle problems and inmates inside a jail.

The Crater Criminal Justice Training Academy, located near Petersburg, Virginia, is representative of a modern criminal justice training academy with a dedicated, professional staff. The 98th Basic Jailor Graduating Class represented jail officers from Sussex County Sheriff’s Office, Meherrin River Regional Jail, Southside Regional Jail, Southampton County Sheriff’s Office and Riverside Regional Jail.  

As I looked at their faces, I thought back to my academy graduation, and with some additional thought, gave the following address:

A career in corrections provides the opportunity to serve the community, and make a difference in many lives, both officers and inmates.
A career in corrections provides the opportunity to serve the community, and make a difference in many lives, both officers and inmates. (Photo/Corrections1)

Thank you, Director Jon Cliborne, Assistant Director Dawn Marshall, In-Service Coordinator Jody Atkins and staff for the opportunity to speak today, and the opportunities to present jail training for the last several years.

A jail career has been good to me. It has been an opportunity to serve the community, and make a difference in many lives, both officers and inmates.

I have always been interested in jails and took a roundabout way to get there from starting as a police dispatcher in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. After my graduation from the Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 1974, my career service included the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division and the Herndon (Virginia) Police Department.

In 1978, I started at the Fairfax County Office of the Sheriff, and never looked back. Until my retirement in 2005, I worked in a career and for a department that was very good to my family and me. I had 10 different assignments in three divisions. Each one was a stepping stone, not necessarily for promotion, but to learn new things about jails, corrections and people. Moreover, I worked with some outstanding people.

I still feel a kinship with my brothers and sisters in uniform who are working inside the jails. I saw and learned a lot, and I firmly believe that many of the things we “old-timers” have experienced can be valuable to the new generation. Regardless of the advancements in jail technology, working in corrections means you have to deal with people, and inmates are people.

You signed up for a difficult job. There is no other job in the world that requires you to enter a building where the residents do not want to be there, and many work against you at every opportunity. Nevertheless, you suit up, grab your gear and do it day after day. Your training prepares you.  

You will encounter many types of people – the mentally ill, gang members, first-timers, pregnant females, alcoholics, drug abusers, career criminals and inmates who will lie to you and manipulate you. One of the things that I am asked is what I took away from a 27-year jail career.

First, nothing surprises me. You will meet people who live by a moral code you would never abide by and may shock you.

Second, inmates are people. You will also meet inmates who have made mistakes, and want to change, get out of jail and stay out of jail. I have met inmates in the community; they have done their time, and are working to change. I treated them like people, and they treated me the same. When you see some who do the right thing, you also will have a sense of accomplishment because you may have been the “spark” that pointed them in the right direction. You may be the role model or the positive person in their lives they never had. Part of your job is being a counselor and advising them on what steps they can take to improve themselves. They can learn to help themselves.

I had a good career, and want to pass what I learned, my experiences and insight: 

The profession has progressed. The training is much improved, the equipment is better and thanks to research, we know more about inmates than we ever did before. The Crater Criminal Justice Academy is a great example of a modern, progressive criminal justice academy. Never forget the staff, the instructors and what you learned here.

Never stop learning as this field is changing constantly. Take advantage of all the training available. Expand your skills set. If you attend an in-service class on your day off, take advantage of the knowledge you are receiving. Walk away from every training class with a new tool for your professional toolbox.

Always treat inmates with dignity and respect, even when they do not treat you the same. You must be a mature person. Many officers have got into trouble because they did not do this. Some let their emotions get a hold of them and lost control of themselves. Some have mistreated inmates and ended their careers. Some have gone to prison.  Keep your anger under control. Give the inmates respect and you will receive it, most of the time. Your tours of duty will be smooth. You may run into them in the community and if you were decent to them inside, most likely they will be decent to you on the outside. In fact, I ran into a former inmate, who was the person working on the telephone pole in my front yard. We had a nice chat. He was doing well and had turned his life around.

Inmates have limited constitutional rights. Give inmates what they are due: medical care, mental healthcare and decent conditions of confinement and do all that is necessary to keep them safe from other inmates and themselves. You may disagree with a court decision, but that is part of the job. Accept it, do what is right and move on.

Be aware of the inmate manipulator. Keep your personal life private. Two words that may keep you from being compromised are “Shut up!” Policies and procedures are there to protect you. Inmates will take what they learn about you and use it to persuade you to lose your objectivity. They want you to bend the rules – do not. Watch out for other officers and civilians who may appear too friendly with inmates. Let your supervisors know; talk to these staff members about going down the “slippery slope.” Doing so keeps everyone safe. Have good relationships with your supervisors. They are there to watch out for you and your colleagues.

Be careful of social media. Think before you click. Look carefully at what you want to post. Never embarrass yourself or your department. It is not free speech. Officers have been fired for embarrassing themselves and their agencies by social media postings that can only be described as lacking common sense.

Work positively with civilian program staff and volunteers. They perform much-needed services for the jail. We need them and they are a good influence on the inmates.

Watch your stress level. Have a life outside the jail. Practice good stress management. Strive to be physically and mentally healthy. Be involved with your family, friends and significant others. Learn how to relax and recharge yourself. Do things outside of law enforcement. Have friends who are not in corrections.

Never be "numb" to inmates, their problems and their concerns. The day you become numb and complacent is the day you may make a serious mistake. Inmates look to you for help. You are the positive role model that many have lacked in their lives.

Be alert. Practice safety and awareness of your surroundings every minute of every workday.

Appreciate the skills you will develop:

  • Multitasking. You will juggle headcounts, searches, escorts, writing reports, calls from booking and calls for backup and you will become quite good at it.
  • Flexibility in thinking. You will learn different ways to deal with situations. No two workdays are alike.
  • Decision-making. You are a supervisor. You supervise the inmates in your area. The appearance and operations of your unit reflect on you.
  • Resiliency. Learn from your mistakes, and always take constructive criticism in a positive way. We all have been "chewed out" for mistakes. I recall a high-ranking jail supervisor who called me into his office to reprimand me for a mistake I had made. I expected a severe "dressing down." Imagine my surprise when he asked me to come in, sat beside me at a table (not across a desk) and talked to me like an adult. Years later, I ran into him at a conference and we recalled the incident. I told him that I learned from the reprimand, but it did not seem like one. He told me that his philosophy was to treat people, including subordinates, with respect and dignity. I never forgot that, and I am passing that on to you.
  • Flexible to change. Be open-minded as it advances your career. A personnel record showing good work in many assignments helps you to move up and boosts your self-confidence.
  • Self-control. Learn how to manage your anger. I advise you to use the "turn-around method." After you have had a bad day in the jail, and you feel like exploding at these inmates, do this: When you walk out to your car in the parking lot, stop, turn around and look back at the jail. You are going home to enjoy your family and loved ones, your significant other, drink an adult beverage, eat what you want, watch the television show you want, and so on. The bottom line is that you win! Moreover, the inmates lose. They are still there. Always keep this in mind.

You are part of a noble profession. Never think otherwise. The police lock up the bad people. Jail officers keep them locked up. You help to keep the public safe.

God bless, be safe and the best of luck to you. If I can ever give you advice or guidance, do not hesitate to contact me.

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