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Book Excerpt: ‘The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation’

COs, for their own safety and success, need to understand the difference between apathy, sympathy and empathy

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Guarding against manipulation is a critical skill that all corrections staff should have, no matter if one is a sworn correctional officer, a substance abuse counselor or a volunteer inside a jail or prison. Anyone who deals with inmates on a daily basis must understand the difference between apathy, sympathy and empathy. Knowing what each is and how they can impact the job must be discussed.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 3, How Inmates Do Time, from my 2009 book, “The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition,” published here with the permission of the American Correctional Association.

Apathy, Sympathy, and Empathy Offenders like staff and volunteers who feel sympathy rather than empathy or apathy. Sympathy can be a convenient catchword when a probation officer says she feels sympathy for the offender who has several children, or the correctional officer who states that he sympathizes with the inmates on his post because jail is a horrible place. Saying that you empathize with someone about their predicament is safer. However, to get a frame of reference, a correctional professional must know what each term means.

The dictionary defines apathy as a “lack of emotion, a lack of interest, or indifference” (Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary 1996). In other words, a person who is apathetic does not care. An offender may encounter an officer who simply informs him that he really is not interested in the offender’s problems. Apathetic people are emotionally flat.

The dictionary defines sympathy as “mutual affection or understanding, the capacity to share another’s feelings, a feeling of compassion of sorrow for another’s distress or loss” (Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary 1996). The dictionary also defines sympathy as a relationship between an individual in which whatever affects one person affects the other person in a similar way. Sympathetic persons can readily pity others or feel sorry for them.

The dictionary defines empathy as understanding and identifying with the thoughts and feelings of another person (Webster’s II New Riverside Dictionary 1996). Empathy means the person understands and identifies with the thoughts and feelings of another person. Empathy means that we understand the other’s situation or feelings. The difference is that empathy is more objective, like taking a step back and looking at the other’s feelings and thoughts and thinking: “I understand the person.”

Empathy means a shared understanding, experience, or vicarious experience of feelings, thoughts, and attitudes based on an intellectual or objective identification of what the other person is feeling. A smoker identifies with a nonsmoker, a hunter identifies with his or her quarry based on sameness of feeling, not pity nor compassion. Sympathy demonstrates a feeling without having the experience that induced the emotion. More clearly, empathy allows a person to understand another person’s problems without feeling sorry for him or her, while in sympathy one feels pity and sorry for the person without understanding the problem (Michigan Department of Corrections 1987, 188-190).

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To illustrate these differences further, [let’s] visualize an employee in a correctional environment responding to an inmate’s request for a special non collect phone call to his family. An apathetic person would say, “I don’t care how you feel.”

A sympathetic response would be, “I know how you feel.” An empathetic employee would say, “I understand how you feel.” The critical question is, who is apathetic, sympathetic, and empathetic? (Manley 2007). In a correctional context, apathy, sympathy, and empathy can have consequences. By the nature of correctional jobs, from officers to counselors to probation/parole officers, apathy does not fit in.

Correctional workers must care about the offenders in their custody or under their supervision. A lack of caring does not promote good interpersonal communications between staff and offenders. Sympathy can lead to the offender trying to manipulate the staff, using the angles of pity and sorrow. Empathy is the safest method: staff can understand the offender and his or her problems, from losing jobs to strain on the family, but are detached enough emotionally to be on guard.

Put the less objective aspect of sympathy together with a soft employee, and the door to manipulation opens. Consider this example. An inmate contacts his wife. Together they work out a plan to smuggle in drugs. The inmate, using patience and ingenuity, starts working on the soft volunteer who has been tutoring him for several months. The inmate tells the volunteer about the harshness of jail life—the crowded cellblock, fights, noise, odors, bad food, and so on.

After several tutoring sessions, he has the volunteer listening intently and agreeing that life inside is bad. Then, the inmate starts lamenting the food—it is dull, it is the same. At the next session, he asks the volunteer if he could bring in a cookie—just one! No one will know. The volunteer, knowing it is against policy to bring in food for inmates, agrees and brings in a cookie.

A few weeks later, the inmate complains about the awful coffee and juice that are served. Can the volunteer bring in a soda? He does. A few weeks later, the inmate shows the volunteer a letter from his wife — his young daughters miss their daddy. The inmate cries and the volunteer thinks, “This poor guy! I know how I would feel.”

Two weeks later, the inmate, bleary eyed and sad, asks the volunteer to bring in an envelope that his wife will give to the volunteer, containing a “Daddy, I Love You” card made by his daughters. “Do not tell the officers,” the inmate says. “There is no need to go through the mailroom officer. I told no one about the snacks and it is our secret!”

The volunteer does not see an inmate, but a homesick person who misses his wife and children, an object of sympathy. The volunteer brings in the envelope, past the security procedures, and gives it to the inmate. As several inmates later join him in some drug usage, the inmate boasts about how he danced the soft volunteer around like a puppet on a string.

Author’s note: Inmates are very good at “tugging at the heartstrings” to get their way. Be empathetic, not sympathetic!

This article, originally published on June 07, 2016, has been updated.

Lt. Gary F. 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. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs, planning/ policy and classification.