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How correctional staff conflicts threaten security

The presentation of a cohesive unit is a preemptive defense against any inmate manipulation to create and broaden divisions in the correctional team


In this file photo taken Jan. 28, 2016, inmates mingle in a recreation yard in view of COs, left, at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Wash.

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File

It is lunchtime at the county jail and Corrections Deputy Lambert has a crew of inmates serving meals at the front gate to D-Pod. Deputy Stark is bringing an especially difficult inmate, a mental health patient, back from court and into the housing unit. Stark needs Lambert to move his crew in order to return his inmate. Lambert tells Stark to wait with the inmate until he is finished serving lunch. Under his breath, Lambert says, “That dude (Stark) needs to learn it’s not all about him.” Inmates from the crew hear him.

While they wait to get into D-Pod, Stark’s inmate becomes impatient and quickly gets hostile. Stark calls for backup and ends up having to subdue the inmate. Stark and his backup are eventually able to escort the inmate to a safety cell. Stark is angry. “It would have taken three minutes out of the lunch service to let me escort my guy into the unit,” Stark complains to a fellow deputy as they walk past two inmates mopping the hall floors.

The story grows legs and soon other deputies are pontificating on the matter, some taking Stark’s position. Others side with Lambert. For the remainder of the day, the tension between Stark and Lambert can be heard in their radio traffic back and forth and in their complaints to fellow deputies. Inmates hear some of the traffic and can see the tension between Stark and Lambert any time the two work in the same space.

Inmates are always watching COs

Inmates can tell when staff members are not getting along. They watch how we interact and they listen for tension in our radio traffic. Inmates observe us in the housing unit. They see how often staff members will join the floor officer and offer help, or when the floor officer is being ignored by the rest of the shift. Inmates take note when the floor officer responds to radio traffic with a shoulder shrug, a headshake or a frustrated sigh.

Inmates listen to everything staff members say. Some use information strategically in any way they can, whether it’s extra yard time due to lack of staff communication, or a planned attack, when they know a shift doesn’t work as a cohesive unit.

Knowing there is internal strife on a shift, inmates will often complain to you about the staff member you just relieved, or will tell you how much better a job you’re doing than your partner, who may be standing right next to you. Others will completely ignore a floor officer and ask questions of another officer who just walked in.

The odds are that an inmate is stroking your ego for a favor down the road. He may also be attempting to create division between you and another deputy. If the inmate has already observed staff infighting, the inmate could be looking for ways to increase the division between team members.

COs are all on the same team

My good friend and mentor Rich Spurling told me, “Inmates outnumber staff 30 to 1, but we are the most organized (group) in this jail. That’s how we stay safe.”

Inmates should be under the impression that any shift working a facility is a tight, cohesive unit, with members willing to take reports for each other, back each other’s plays and who communicate constantly throughout the day. If your partner has a problem with the cleanliness of a cell, it should be your problem as well, regardless of what you think about the issue.

When you disagree with your partner, hash out your disagreements in the break room, far away from inmate eyes and ears. Don’t ignore the slightest issues. Work them out, even if the subject matter is uncomfortable and you find it easier to stay quiet. Until you work out any differences with fellow staff members, inmates will see an opportunity to cultivate division. Supervisors play a key roll in pinpointing tension between staff members and addressing that tension quickly in a setting off the jail floor.

Complain up the chain

We all know complaints, hopefully with proposed solutions, should be made to a supervisor. Most likely, you have shared a complaint or two with your shift mates, maybe more than two. This basic rule should be applied tenfold with inmates. If you’re complaining to an inmate, you better be complaining about the weather or road conditions.

If an inmate tries to fish complaints out of you, call him on it. Make statements to support your teammates and the chain of command. If you can’t hide your disappointment with a new directive and the inmate manages to figure this out, use your final line of institutional solidarity. Tell the inmate it really doesn’t matter what you think about the directive, the boss wants it so and the boss will get it as ordered. Period.

Legitimate grievances

Once in a while, an inmate will come to you with a genuine complaint about a staff member or you’ll witness staff acting in a questionable manner toward an inmate. It’s never a comfortable feeling to be anywhere near this type of situation, but it happens. You should know ahead of time what you’ll do to protect your organization and, at the end of the day, your team, including the wrongdoer.

The specifics of handling bad peer behavior are a subject for another day. What you communicate to inmates when handling negative staff behavior is as important as addressing the behavior. While you don’t want to present a broken team to inmates, you do want to communicate to inmates that they should expect a standard in how staff behaves in a correctional setting. Don’t ignore mistakes you’ve made or witnessed. The philosophy of public trust for law enforcement extends to the inmate population.

If an inmate comes to you with a legitimate gripe about a fellow staff member, first separate out the behavior from the person being complained about. Advise the inmate that is not how the jail does business, but be careful not to condemn your teammate. You don’t know if the allegation is even real, just that the alleged behavior itself is bad business.

Advise the inmate of the grievance process. I like to do this even when an inmate accuses me of wrongdoing, as you are giving the inmate a vehicle to address his issue. When an inmate prods you to condemn a coworker for alleged bad behavior, remind him that while you think the described behavior is bad, you don’t have the luxury of knowing what happened.

Inmates often accuse correctional officers of protectionism when officers refuse to side with inmates against fellow staff members. Sometimes those accusations are another ploy to divide staff. Inmates don’t need to know what process takes place behind the scenes to correct staff wrongs; only that as an institution, a prison or a jail will address staff mistakes.

The correctional team

Regardless of how we feel about fellow staff members, the appearance to inmates should be that each shift minding a correctional facility works together as a well-oiled machine. Our intrapersonal issues should be a mystery to the inmate population. Regardless of what you think about a specific directive from the chain of command or your partner’s priorities, your presentation needs to be that of support and buy-in. Even when we address bad staff behavior, we do so while presenting a united front for inmates. The presentation of a cohesive unit is a preemptive defense against any inmate manipulation to create and broaden divisions in the correctional team.

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