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4 communication strategies to prevent inmate manipulation

Inmates pay close attention to how correctional officers communicate; here are four ways to stay in control


I personally believe a sprinkling of humor also goes a long way.

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By Daniel Veith, C1 Contributor

One thing you learn about corrections is that inmates have a lot of time to study officers – and believe me, they do. I’ve observed them listening with rapt attention as officers talk in person or on the phone, absorbing every bit of information they can. They try not to betray their interest, but if you’re paying attention, it’s obvious. This is especially true in a direct supervision podular set-up as opposed to linear, as they are physically closer to the officer.

When it comes to newer officers, this attention is amplified. In addition to their natural curiosity, inmates pay special attention to “newbies” to try to figure them out. They will use this to determine what they can and can’t get away with. As an unknown quantity, you will be tested; it happens to all of us.

However, there are behavior strategies you can use to avoid inmate manipulation. Here are 4 “characters” to choose from:

1. The Referee

I’ve started with this one as it is unique due to its confrontational nature.

Here – similar to a sports referee – if you observe an infraction, you call it out. So if you notice inmates paying too much attention to your business, tell them to “bugger off.” (I’m sort of partial to British slang; you may want to find a variation that works for you.) The point is, you are making them aware that you know what they are up to.

Obviously, you can’t blindfold them or make them wear earplugs, but if they’re moving too close or looking where they shouldn’t, tell them to stop.

This can be a subjective call due to many factors, but if your agency is like mine unless you are violating civil rights or agency policy, the officer is the final arbiter regarding inmate behavior.

2. The Card Shark

A card shark leaves all his “stuff” outside and does not bring personal baggage (good or bad) to work.

You wear your poker face when you don’t want inmates to know what you’re thinking. You can’t be read if there is nothing to read.

Regardless of what you are actually feeling, you do not reflect it in outward emotion. Otherwise, it’s simple for inmates to know whether you are having a “good” or “bad” day and use this knowledge to push your buttons.

Officers may be more susceptible to inmate manipulation when they are in emotional peaks or valleys. Let’s not give them any openings.

3. The Chameleon

You may have to channel your inner thespian for this character.

We all know about changing patterns and not being predictable for security reasons, but this goes further, involving varying your responses to inmate requests and actions to mitigate predictability.

If you react the same way in similar situations, inmates will know what you’ll do before you do it, which is not good. Where you have latitude, use it.

A little intentional inconsistency goes a long way to keeping inmates off balance. Notice, I said intentional. Unintentional inconsistency is just a fancy term for wishy-washy. You don’t have to “drop the hammer” all the time, but you have to drop it some of the time to keep your advantage. This way they won’t know your every move, but they do know it may be strong.

4. The Minimalist

This technique is more about the amount of interaction rather than the type. In a nutshell, you interact as little as possible without neglecting your duties.

I have to be careful that supervisors don’t think I’m promoting laziness – I’m not. The officer is always looking, listening, remembering, but without needless chatter. You may come off as less than the friendliest of officers, but that’s okay. None of us should be looking for new pals who aren’t in uniform.

A benefit of this strategy is the air of mystery it may produce. For example, I retired from one agency before starting with my current one. Without any prompting from myself, my history includes ex-military special ops, road deputy and ex-sheriff (I wish), just because the jail “grapevine” picked it up. None of this is true, but if it keeps them guessing, let the criminals believe what they want.

In closing, I must stress the importance of applying these behaviors, as with all inmate interactions, with a professional demeanor. I personally believe a sprinkling of humor also goes a long way. I’ve applied these methods over the years, both as a line officer and a supervisor. My hope is they are helpful as you strive to stay one step ahead of the inmates.

About the author
Daniel Veith is a Corrections Deputy with the Genesee County Sheriff’s Office in Flint, Michigan. He retired from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office in 2014 after almost 15 years of service; 12 of those years as a sergeant. He was included on the sheriff’s strategic planning board one year and was number one on the lieutenant’s promotional list at the time he and his family decided to move back to their home state. Holding a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Michigan State University, he has been involved in every facet of county corrections in two different facilities in Florida and Michigan.