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Don’t let ego get in the way of inmate control

One of the best ways to bolster your career longevity in corrections is to remove your ego from the duties you carry out


When an inmate is behaving badly, he is not behaving badly for you specifically. He is just behaving badly.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file

You’re walking through your assigned housing unit for an initial headcount. Someone yells out, “It’s Deputy Jones, everyone be cool today!” That’s right, they know not to mess with you. You won’t put up with any guff. You’re a hard charger who gets things done, and these guys respect you.

Later, during lunch service, one of the inmates gets an extra tray and walks away, pretending he can’t hear you while you yell for him to come back. You’re irritated. He got one over on you. The inmate tricked you in front of the entire housing unit. Some of the inmates are laughing. They can tell you are unhappy.

About an hour before shift change, you cover the ad/seg unit for one of your partners. One of the inmates you put in ad/seg just a week prior yells at you from behind his door, “Hey Jones, you ain’t nothing without that radio.” The inmate is angry. “Why don’t you take that badge off like a man and come in my cell? You’re not so tough without all your little friends.” Other inmates are standing at their doors, watching you, waiting to see what you are going to do.

“Kick his ass, Jones,” another inmate yells at you. “I’ve seen you fight, bro, that guy just likes to flap his gums!”

The inmate who first yelled starts mule kicking his cell door. You’ve had enough. It’s been a long day. Inmates see you’re angry. This guy is disturbing the housing unit. If you don’t deal with him now, other inmates will think you let this behavior go unchecked.

Some of the inmates are already banging on their cell doors. Others are encouraging you to open the mule-kicking inmate’s cell door and “handle your business.” You’ve lost control of the housing unit. You just want to call in the cavalry and drag the inmate’s happy ass through the dayroom to make clear that this type of behavior will not be tolerated. This is your jail!

As you consider your quickly dwindling options, you look over at the mule kicker’s cell. Encouraged by the chaos and attention, he is now flooding his cell. You’re going to be writing your report well past shift change. This could have turned out differently.

Remove your ego

Inmates rely on the ego of correctional staff for several reasons. They use your ego to manipulate you when they pay you compliments. Inmates employ your ego for entertainment. Just seeing correctional staff lose control of their emotions gives inmates a sense of power and satisfaction. In more serious cases, inmates will use correctional staff members’ egos to snare officers into an incident that can end in termination, or worse, a conviction for unnecessary use of force.

One of the best ways to bolster your resiliency throughout a career in corrections is to remove your ego from the duties you carry out. Removing your ego takes your emotional response to inmate behavior out of the equation. Do not dwell on inmate behavior, regardless of whether it’s meant to make you feel good or bad. Just deal with the behavior and move on.

When an inmate is behaving badly, he is not behaving badly for you specifically. He is just behaving badly. Period. That inmate will behave the same way with or without you.

When you observe inmates misbehaving with other staff members, you may say to yourself, “Ha! If that was me in there, that behavior would not be going down the way it is with Jones.” Maybe what you are telling yourself is true, but what you are doing is attaching your ego to inmate behavior.

This is just business

One place to start working on your ego in a correctional setting is in your response to the compliments inmates pay you. Next time an inmate announces to other inmates not to mess with you, remind yourself that controlling a housing unit and correcting inmate behavior are your assigned duties, not some award-winning magic show you’ve been working on for the last decade.

When an inmate pulls an extra lunch tray from you, take note. Escort the inmate out of the housing unit, tell him, “That was pretty slick,” hand him a rule violation, and move on. If you want to address the slick move right away, do it in the housing unit. Address the behavior with some humor, “Thank you, Inmate Smith for being part of the facility training program, I’ll need you to sign your commendation (meaning, a rule violation) later on.” Inmates will immediately turn their laughter on Inmate Smith for getting caught and written up.

However, you respond, do so with clear non-verbal communication that this was a blip in your day and, most important, the behavior was entertaining at most.

de-escalate a hostile inmate

When an inmate challenges you to come into his cell and “be a man,” there is not one ego-driven response that will end well for you.

If you tell the threatening inmate he wouldn’t last two seconds fighting you, you are now back in middle school at recess with a group of kids chanting, “Fight, fight, fight, fight!” The moment you let your ego make decisions for you, you have lost.

There is absolutely no reason you need to prove your muster to any inmate who challenges you to a fight. If you really want to show the other inmates how your team can handle this window warrior, you might as well bring your pension into the cell and hand it to the inmate. He just won. Remove your ego when you address a hostile inmate.

When the inmate you put in ad/seg challenges you to a fight from behind a locked door, address the behavior. Ask the inmate why he’s so angry. Ask him if he understands why he’s on lockdown. Tell him it would be easier to understand him if he took a couple of breaths and just talked to you. If he makes specific threats, ask how he plans to carry out his threats. He may continue to threaten you, or he may calm down. Later, you’ll write a classification input either way and keep him in ad/seg if he can’t change his behavior.

More important, the rest of the inmates in the housing unit see a staff member who is not angry or affected by the challenge. The inmates will do the same thing kids do at recess when it looks like there won’t be a fight. They will lose interest and return to playing with their friends.

Inmates and admin expect and respect stability in correctional staff. Checking your ego in at the locker room will help you retain that stability and get you through your shift safer with less trouble from the inmates in your charge. If you have ever wondered why some staff members have few issues with the inmate population, it very well could be that these correctional professionals have removed their ego from their jobs.

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

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