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Gary F. Cornelius has had a distinguished career as a correctional officer, supervisor, trainer, college instructor and author. This article is excerpted from his new book, “The High-Performance Correctional Facility: Lessons on Correctional Work, Leadership, and Effectiveness,” available January 2023 from Civic Research Institute. Corrections1 readers who order by January 31, 2023, save $36 off the publication list price. To order, go to, click “Add to Cart” and enter Promotion Code Corrections1 for your $36 discount.

Resisting Inmate Manipulation: A Tool for the CO

By Gary F. Cornelius

“I’ve been scammed”!

In the civilian world, TV commercials urge us to protect our identity and be wary of ‘con artists’ who connive to separate us from what’s in our wallets. News media is filled with cautionary tales of bogus schemes and official-looking emails that ask for confidential information, or robocalls threatening legal action because we may owe taxes.

Inside jails, prisons, and juvenile detention centers, the same games are played – by inmates, against officers and civilian staff. Prison bars are no protection against the intelligence and determination of residents skilled in the arts of manipulation – flattery, deception, humor, veiled rage, intimidation, and sheer guts – skills that worked for offenders on the outside, and can be very effective inside, too.

Manipulation by inmates is a serious challenge. It weakens an officer’s supervisory effectiveness, undercuts teamwork, erodes morale, exploits and deepens personal problems employees may already be experiencing at home, and poses a direct threat to the safety of other inmates and staff alike. In extreme cases, it leads to the kind of deeply embarrassing and dangerous events like the escape of two killers, in 2015, from Clinton Correctional Facility. Manipulation is perhaps the most lethal weapon an inmate has at his or her disposal, better in many ways than a homemade ‘shank,’ because its use gives an inmate something he should never possess – power over staff.

Today’s correctional officers have the training and equipment to do the job. However, not all equipment can be hung on a utility belt. For all the high-tech surveillance and para-military materiel prisons and jails have accumulated in recent years, no tool is more useful to a C.O. than the knowledge and techniques to resist inmate manipulation. At the end of the day, the mind is the best tool that a C.O. has. To combat the inmate manipulator, C.O.s have to keep this tool ready at all times. It has four attachments that all work together:

  • Motivation—understanding why offenders act the way they do
  • Data—what research tells us about inmates’ lives and culture
  • Recognition—manipulation happens in steps, not all at once
  • CHUMPS—Six factors for guarding against manipulation


Why do offenders do the things they do? Why, given the possible consequences, including the deprivations of prison, does someone decide to commit a crime? The first step in combatting manipulation is to understand the mind of the manipulator. Sworn and non-sworn correctional staff should realize that it is not enough to just obey the standard directives of “don’t do favors for inmates,” “don’t have sex with inmates” or “don’t bring anything in or take anything out for inmates.” Those rules are ironclad, but they are just rules, and don’t explain why manipulators are so effective and dangerous. To prevent manipulation, staff must understand the thought processes of criminal manipulators. Two benchmarks come from Robert D. Hare, Ph.D., author of the book “Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us,” and Robert Agnew, Ph.D., of Emory University.

According to Dr. Hare, there are five ways people become criminals – experiences and traits they bring with them into custody: [1]

  • They learn it: In families or the social environment, it may be normal to engage in behaviors like lying, cheating, and stealing. In some environments, crime is acceptable.
  • They are products of a ‘cycle of violence’: Some are victims of abuse and assault, and become assaultive themselves. They may dismiss their assaultive behavior with justifications such as “[the victim] deserved it”, or “so what, he didn’t die, did he?” The criminal learns that when cornered, he will try to justify and minimize the reasons for his violent behavior.
  • They have a powerful need: These needs include sex, power, money, drugs and alcohol. Criminals will lie, cheat, steal and get others to do things for them – enabling. Some of their stories border on the unbelievable; they have no conscience in spinning some pretty fantastic ‘yarns’ to get their way.
  • They commit a crime of passion: Some offenders commit criminal acts due to unmanaged anger and exhibiting behavior so negatively passionate that self-control is lost. Later in jail, they may justify their actions as the other person’s [victim’s] fault.
  • They like it! Crime beats working for a living. Making something of yourself, legitimately, takes hard work and perseverance. Crime is easier, it’s thrilling and fun. Why work at a job making $10.00 an hour when you can deal drugs for $1,000 a day?

Throw in the psychopathic personality with no conscience or guilt, adds Hare, and you have a criminal that manipulates others, uses people, lies and commits crimes without a shred of remorse. This behavior will not stop just because the person is locked up. He or she will want to do time their way.

Dr. Robert Agnew of Emory University has identified six interrelated factors cause crime. [2] They are:

  • Irritability/low self-control: Offenders in this category are easily upset, readily blame others for their problems, and are not very empathetic. They act on impulse and like the risky behavior associated with crime.
  • Poor parenting practices: Offenders did not have a strong bond with their parents and as a result, little guidance growing up. The home life is dysfunctional, with abuse, siblings that are also criminals, and discipline ranging from lax to harsh.
  • No or Bad Marriages: Negative bonds exist between the partners. One or both may be criminals. As a result, there is low social support and high levels of conflict.
  • Negative school experiences: School is for ‘chumps’. It’s easier to stake out criminal ‘turf’, run with gangs, sell drugs, etc. than to study and do homework. The offender finds ways to skip school, ‘get around’ teachers and discipline, and cop the attitude that the teachers are ‘too hard’ on them. The result? No goals, and little desire for achievement. Offenders, if they do manage to graduate, have little chance for a good occupation.
  • Peer delinquency: Offenders associate with other criminals or street gangs. Their activities are often unsupervised and unstructured.
  • Bad jobs or unemployable: With bad social skills and little education, offenders cannot possibly get high-paying jobs. Throughout their lives, they chronically work in menial dead-end jobs for low or minimum wages, few if any benefits, and no future.

Let’s pause for a moment and take stock. We have to deal with some offenders who are leading dysfunctional lives, and have no hesitation or remorse when it comes to using people, especially conning the professional, well-meaning correctional officer or civilians working or volunteering in the facility. So, the first lesson for staff working in correctional facilities is that some of the offenders in their charge have lived socially dysfunctional lives, and unless they want to change, that lifestyle will continue behind the prison walls. You cannot change a criminal in a few program sessions. It takes time and great effort to reverse a lifetime of bad thinking. Is every inmate a psychopathic manipulator? No. But unless you have psychic powers, it can be very hard to know which offenders are out to con you and which ones are sincere about change.


Today we know more about criminal thinking, behavior, and resistance than ever before. Abundant research is being generated by academic institutions, think tanks, and government agencies, and has produced a trove of data, which in turn has been subjected to intensive analysis and re-analysis. Much of the data is used to support the funding, staffing and design of rehabilitative programs, but it also tells us something important about the manipulative inmate:

  • High rates of substance abuse: Sixty-eight percent (68%) of jail inmates meet DSM criteria for drug abuse or dependence. Half (50%) of convicted jail inmates were under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs at the time they committed the offense. Inmates meeting substance abuse criteria are very familiar with the criminal justice system-they are twice as likely to have prior sentences of incarceration or probation. [3]
  • Poor education and employment levels: Concerning prison and jail inmates, two out of five do not have a high school diploma or equivalent (GED). Due to physical and mental health problems, low skill levels and limited education, prison and jail inmates have low earning histories and employment rates. Unemployment rates were lower among inmates who had a high school diploma, had obtained their GED or had some post-high school education. [4]
  • Social instability: The landmark 2002 Bureau of Justice profile of jail inmates, released in 2004, painted a bleak picture of the social environment from which most inmates come. Over half (60.1%) of jail inmates had never been married; another 15.7% were divorced. And 46% of jail inmates had a family member who had been locked up. [5]

The lesson: many offenders exist in the alternate reality that is substance abuse, have little or no vocational ambition, and survive devoid of any healthy relationships, such as marriage, where one is called upon to consider the needs of someone other than himself. If incarceration runs in the family, it may well be a “badge of honor” to do time.


Sometimes the best solution to a problem is to break it down into simple pieces. There are three parts to manipulation. If corrections staff members know the importance of each one, they will be well-armed against the inmate manipulator. First, a simple definition of manipulation: To control or change another, by artful and unfair means, to one’s own advantage.

  • To control or change: The manipulative inmate seeks, first and foremost, to change the way he does time, by controlling his environment, especially by wresting power from corrections officers who otherwise control that environment. In the Baltimore City Detention Center scandal of a few years ago, the gang running the jail operated a network of criminal enterprises, which they were able to do by coopting corrupt and weak officers. So extensive was the sex, contraband smuggling, and drug dealing that it became impossible to tell the inmates from the officers.
  • By artful and unfair means: Manipulation is inherently deceptive, and therefore hard to detect. The manipulative inmate must figure out a way to circumvent the CO’s training and professionalism. The most obvious way is to befriend the CO, to cross the line and enter the officer’s personal sphere, encouraging him to share small talk about family, interests, and problems. Then come the small favors – first, favors the inmate does for the CO, like offering to keep an eye out for problems, or offering exorbitantly high cash payments for ordinary commissary items; then the favors start to go the other way – “Can I go up the hall to borrow a book or see a buddy?” “It sure would be nice to have a cell phone so I could stay in touch with my kids.” Staff members who take the bait and bend the rules are reeled in, slowly but surely. No manipulator seizes on the CO’s first lapse to take advantage – only by establishing a pattern of breaches without consequences or problems for the staff member can the manipulator gain control. The hook may take a long time to set, but inmates have all the time in the world.
  • To one’s own advantage: Perhaps the biggest lie among the many lies manipulators tell their victims is the lie that they care – they care about the officer’s safety, his status and reputation on the floor, his well-being at work and at home. They care because of the special relationship the inmate and officer have. The truth, of course, is that manipulators don’t care about anyone but themselves.


Officers who believe “I’m too smart” to fall prey to a manipulative inmate are not smart at all. There are simply too many shocking examples of good officers lured into behavior that starts out innocently and harmlessly, and then grows until the officer becomes ensnared in a web of favors, violations, and threats that can prove impossible to break free from. The “smarter” you are, the greater the pleasure the manipulator will take when he brings you down. For crafty inmates, fooling a smug staff member is part of the fun. It’s entertainment.

In September 2014, authorities at the Bibb County, Georgia jail charged two inmates with marijuana possession and bringing contraband into the jail. The method? Convincing their CO escort to permit them to “grieve alone” at the wake of their deceased 74-year-old grandmother. While paying their respects, the inmates scooped up marijuana, tobacco, and a cell phone planted there by relatives to bring back to their cells. Sheriff David Davis, naturally, blamed the inmates: “To use the body of a deceased grandmother to hide drugs and other contraband is wicked.” [6] Wicked, yes. But clever, too – a good deal more clever than the officer who let it happen.


While writing my book, “The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation,” I recalled many times in my jail career when inmates referred to the staff as ‘chumps’. This term can be turned around and used as a teaching tool. Each letter serves as a preventative tool against manipulation: [7]

C: Control and not complacency. COs and civilian staff must maintain professional control of their posts and duties. Control means saying no to the inmate when necessary. Complacency and boredom have no place inside a correctional facility. COs must also be constantly curious as to what inmates are up to.

H: Help inmates to help themselves. There are many programs and ways that inmates can learn to deal with their problems. They must learn that change is difficult but worthwhile. One place to start: follow facility rules and regulations.

U: Understand the inmate subculture and understand yourself. Observe offenders and how they act. Learn from veteran COs how they have handled inmate manipulation. Learn and understand yourself. Ask: Am I spending too much time socializing with inmates? Do I have control over my area? Am I easily distracted? Am I bringing my personal problems into the workplace in ways that may expose me to manipulation? When in doubt, ask a trusted colleague or supervisor. Not all inmates are manipulators, but your default should be to assume they are.

M: Maintain a safe distance. This means never discuss your private life, where you live, what you like and don’t like, your financial life, your health, or any personal matters. If a staff member shares too much – and anything can be too much – you can be sure the inmate will keep it friendly while filing away any information that can be exploited later on. Keeping a safe distance also means adopting a formal, supervisory attitude – not bossy, but not offhand or intimate or playful. Be the adult in the room. Never allow inmates to address you by your first name – and definitely not a nickname. Guard against flirting – it may stroke your ego, but there is always an underlying reason why an inmate flirts, and it’s not about you. Never accept any gifts or favors from inmates – someday, you’ll be expected to reciprocate.

P: Professionalism means consistent adherence to agency policies and procedures. Inmates look for staff members who are lax about following rules. Rules are there to keep you safe – they’ve been developed over years of experience, trial and error. When you look neat, well-groomed, and professional, you command respect. Keep your post well organized. Conduct yourself professionally at all times and manipulators will look elsewhere for an easier mark.

S: Corrections is stressful. Officers get fatigued, experience highs and lows like anyone else – often more intensely, given the job – and can be subject to periodic bouts of low self-confidence and burnout. When you feel stressed out, talk to someone – anyone but an inmate. Confiding one’s feelings with an inmate is like handing over classified documents to a foreign spy. You may as well hand over the keys, too. What happens when an inmate becomes your “friend?” Consider the female corrections officer in the Baltimore jail who witnessed a gang assault in which an inmate suffered a bloody head wound. Upset, she abandoned her post. Where did she go for help? Not to a supervisor – she went to the inmate gang leader. Later it was reported that she was one of four female COs who had been impregnated by the gang leader. Baltimore jail inmates had learned to watch for women “with low self-esteem and insecurities.” [8]

Of course, the current textbook case is New York’s Clinton Correctional Facility escape. The two escapees cultivated a personal relationship with the female civilian worker; their attentions, gifts and sexual advances made her “feel special.” Over time, the inmates and the civilian employee did more and more favors for each other, including supply room sexual encounters, gifts of paintings done by one of the inmates, and a long-running pattern of smuggling tools into the prison which were used in the escape. These favors and romances went on until the inmates had the tools, the route, and the trust of the staff to make their way out. Authorities were alerted when the employee, who had planned on picking the two up and driving to Mexico after they had tunneled out of the prison, backed out at the eleventh hour and instead admitted herself to the local hospital ER with a panic attack. [9]


Training staff to recognize and defend against inmate manipulation is essential – and with embarrassing cases like Baltimore County Jail and Clinton Correctional Facility in the headlines, there is plenty of material trainers can use to liven up the presentation. The simple truth is that a corrections officer who allows an inmate to manipulate his or her ego, emotions, insecurities, appetites and resentments is a compromised officer incapable of fulfilling his or her primary function – supervising the conduct, movement, activities, and whereabouts of inmates and their compliance with rules.

Manipulation is just as dangerous when practiced on non-sworn staff – it prevents counselors, teachers, volunteers, mental health workers and medical personnel from providing rehabilitative, medical and mental health services to inmates who need them.

Any staff member can be the target of a manipulator, but almost always it’s the most vulnerable ones manipulators latch on to. Gender doesn’t matter. Rank doesn’t matter. Age doesn’t matter. What matters is the professionalism of the officer or staff member, their awareness, their perceptiveness and their preparation.

Officers who maintain control while keeping a safe distance, who help inmates to help themselves, who understand inmate thinking and behavior and their own feelings and tendencies, too, who watch their stress levels, and who follow procedure unswervingly are the kind that manipulators do not want to deal with. That’s the kind of CO you want to be.


1. Hare RD, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. pp. 84–85

2. Agnew R. Why Do Criminals Offend? (October 2011). IACFP Newsletter, 43(4):1,3.

3. Karberg JC, James DJ. Substance Dependence, Abuse, and Treatment of Jail Inmates, 2002. NCJ209588. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2005.

4. Harlow CW. Education and Correctional Populations. NCJ 195670. Washington, DC: Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003.

5. James DJ. Profile of Jail Inmates, 2002. NCJ 201932. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Revised October 12, 2004.

6. Moran L. Grandma’s casket used to smuggle drugs into prison: cops. New York Daily News, September 2, 2014

7. Cornelius, pp. 200–206.

8. Vargas T, Marimow AE, Shin A. Baltimore case depicts corrupt jail culture ruled by drugs, money and sex. The Washington Post, May 4, 2013.

9. State of New York, Office of the Attorney General, Investigation of the June 5, 2015 Escape of Inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt from Clinton Correctional Facility, June 2016, pp. 30–33.