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Diverting inmate anger to avoid use of force

Take advantage of the moments before an inmate loses control when you have the opportunity to divert that rage


AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

I’ll tell you about the day some glitter saved me from a fight with an inmate. But first, let me tell you about the day my partner and I stood in the yard with a group of inmates.

Inmate Green was disgruntled this particular day. He had a laundry list of complaints about how the facility was being run and how unfair everything was, from the visitation schedule to the way meals were served.

This was not an uncommon scene, but this particular day, Inmate Green did his best to direct every complaint to my partner and me. He also had the full attention of the inmates around him. He was very effective in getting his points across and we noticed inmates nodding in agreement and shaking their heads, mumbling in unison, “It’s just not right!”

Green was encouraged by the feedback he got from his friends. He became louder and more theatrical. He was very entertaining because he peppered his complaints with comedy and outlandish scenarios. My partner and I, however, saw a storm cloud of less comical anger developing in the group of inmates.

My partner called out, “You know what, Green, you’re pretty freaking funny! I think you have a future in comedy.”

Green stopped and replied, “Oh, yeah, you think so?”

My partner doubled down, “Yep, when you get out, you need to take this show on the road.”

Inmates laughed around Green. Green smiled in appreciation. He had just received a genuine compliment instead of a defensive response from my partner about why corrections facility rules keep inmates and staff safe.

The conversation in the yard turned to Green’s future career as a comedian and radio talk-show host. The spell broke. Inmate Green’s theme of doom and gloom turned into talks of what could be and the possibilities of success. My partner had skillfully released a pressure valve, calming down a group of inmates before they became a more serious problem for staff. She also sidestepped an attempted manipulation by Inmate Green to get my partner and me involved in a defensive and angry debate with a group of inmates.

When presented, take an opportunity to divert

Corrections facilities are filled with primarily negative thinkers who have poor emotional regulation. It’s why seemingly good friends in a housing unit will still get into fights from time to time, then return to BFF status before dinner is served. Inmates can easily take a poor outcome in their own lives and travel a path to hostility in a short distance and when inmates work themselves up to a froth of anger, they are primed to take that anger out on corrections staff.

There are moments in corrections when you will have no choice but to face the physical threat of an inmate who has spent enough time stewing to be fully invested in his own anger. This is something you are trained to do. In most cases, however, there will be some moments before an inmate completely loses control of his anger when you have the opportunity to divert that anger.

Just as they watch and learn what makes you tick, so should you as a corrections professional observe inmates and learn what inspires their behaviors. Find how you can divert an inmate’s path to anger early on before they invest too much effort into that anger to change direction voluntarily.

In Inmate Green’s case above, he started by casually enjoying feedback from the other inmates as an influencer and an entertainer and he was ready to do something about his anger for being incarcerated. My partner interrupted the path to more anger with slightly different feedback but kept the attention on Green’s self-absorbed roll as an influencer and entertainer. My partner didn’t try to stop a moving train. She simply deployed the equivalent of a railroad switch and moved the tracks so the train, or inmate Green, didn’t have to slow down to make the change in the direction he was headed.

My partner recognized why Green was riling up the other inmates in the yard and fed Green’s ego just enough to refocus Green’s attention on what a good radio shock jock and entertainer Green might be one day. In doing so, my partner took control of the conversation in a non-confrontational direction without engaging in a predictable and unproductive argument with a group of inmates about how a jail should be run.

Emotional intelligence is a sign of strength, not weakness

Diverting the attention of an angry inmate may be seen as a weakness by old-school corrections professionals. After all, we should have full control of a jail or a prison and if the inmates don’t know it, we will show them with monster truck force, right?

Sort of.

Controlling an inmate population is a high priority. Deploying a higher level of emotional intelligence and maintaining control of a yard while the inmates don’t realize what you’re doing is a true strength and a skill that will save you from injuries, paperwork and legal proceedings. Save your force options for last resort, not to prove something to the inmates.

Intentional influence on inmates without the default to a “do it or else” protocol will also last longer when you are making adjustments to poor behavior. It takes more effort and patience, but the practice is well worth the investment. Divert the direction of bad inmate behavior before the behavior gets to the point when you have to go hands-on.

I was called years ago to negotiate with a mental health patient who was headed to a violent interaction with staff. When I arrived, Inmate Davis was attempting to flood his cell. After some dialogue, he calmed down enough to tell me why he was upset. His mom had put some money on his books and he hadn’t received the receipt. Not an extraordinary issue, but in his unbalanced mind, it was mission-critical to have the receipt. Davis was convinced staff was hiding information from him and taking his money.

Sometimes, you get lucky

Once Davis calmed down, I opened his cell door to signal that I didn’t think he was going to be a threat and we could figure the issue out. It was a mistake on my part, driven by my own overconfidence that I could completely fix this issue. The wild-eyed Davis flipped a switch and I was now the focus of his rage. He pushed the door further open and walked toward me. I knew I would have to fight hard to defend myself. This young man felt little pain and had zero emotional regulation. As I was reaching for my radio’s man-down button, Davis stopped and looked at my forehead. The switch flipped back.

It happened to be my birthday that day and a friend had dropped off a gag gift at my desk, filled with glitter. Davis saw a few pieces of glitter that had gotten on my forehead, the focus of his anger just disappeared.

“Hey, Zaied, you got glitter on your face!”

Sometimes you will get lucky and an unplanned diversion will save you from a hands-on situation. For all other situations, plan ahead and develop your ability to divert poor behavior before an inmate finds himself fully vested in a bad direction.

NEXT: How worn-down empathy can spell trouble for corrections

Zohar Zaied is a background investigator assigned to the Corrections Division at the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California. He served 16 years as a deputy and supervisor at the Mendocino County Jail, including a post in the Gangs and Classification unit and the Home Detention and Work Release programs. His book, “The Corrections Toolbox,” is now available on