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How to bounce back from a bad outcome in your correctional facility

Why trading finger-pointing for constructive response keeps officers resilient and maintains morale


Beyond helping your institution recover from a bad outcome, participating in a debrief will support your own quick recovery from a critical incident.


Central Control has just announced there’s a fight in the Special Housing Unit yard. Per policy, the floor officer is already waiting at the yard door for backup and the sergeant before he enters the yard.

You arrive at the housing unit’s entry door as you hear the floor officer yell out, “He’s going to kill that guy!”

The floor officer convinces Central Control to open the door and rushes into the yard as you and your partners cover the 80 feet to back him up.

At the yard door, you see two inmates have turned on the floor officer as you arrive. The inmates knock the floor officer down to the ground and start kicking him. Your group rushes to the yard. After a minute’s struggle, you manage to control the two inmates. The sergeant arrives with more backup, but the incident has been resolved.

One of your partners is limping. He is sent for a checkup and comes back with his knee wrapped in ice. The floor officer is a bit shaken, but unharmed. He feels guilty that one of his partners got injured, blaming himself. Within a week, other staff members play armchair quarterback and blame him too. The disciplinary lieutenant officially determines the floor officer and the control officer are to blame and should have managed the incident differently.

In the aftermath, the floor officer receives a written reprimand for rushing into an inmate fight without backup. The Central Control officer receives a written reprimand for opening the yard door prematurely. The 24-year-old officer who was injured, with three years into his career, has shattered his left knee badly enough that he may not return to work.

Discussions around the break room focus on other areas to place blame. People blame the training sergeant for not keeping staff trained with less than lethal weapons. Others identify staff shortages and blame low pay.

Your facility’s morale takes a hit as some line staff members are bitter at the written reprimands. Other staff members blame a lack of training for the outcome of the incident, and others express a lack of trust for the level of backup they receive from their partners when responding to incidents.

The facility’s administration reacts with new directives to avoid the same outcome in the future. Line staff see the directives as a punishment for an incident most staff would have responded to in the same way. Morale dips some more and you can hear a lack of commitment to the job and a lack of trust in radio traffic. Divisions start to form within the facility; between shifts, within shifts, and between line staff and command staff. You wonder how this all could have been avoided.

Negative reactions to bad outcomes

Incidents in correctional facilities that cause staff injury and death, create reactionary policy, or otherwise end in negative outcomes for seemingly sound decisions can have a long-lasting negative impact on an institution if the proper steps are not taken shortly after they occur.

Your facility may have a full debriefing process after critical incidents, or maybe the sergeant just checks in with the parties involved and makes sure no one got hurt. Regardless, you will have to actively participate in any effort your institution makes to bounce back from a critical incident. Beyond helping your institution recover from a bad outcome, you will support your own quick recovery from the incident.

Corrections officers make split-second decisions regularly, often without the benefit of time to formulate a plan. In the case of the floor officer above, he decided to safeguard the life of an inmate. Command staff didn’t agree with the floor officer’s assessment, resulting in a reprimand.

Moving forward from a bad outcome in your facility is one of the most important skills you can develop to maintain a high level of resiliency. You may feel you made a bad call, or lay awake at home, reliving the “what ifs” of any situation. Otherwise, you may feel your actions were justified, but your supervisor feels you made a bad call and now you’re in trouble.

Find the silver lining in any bad incident

It is very easy to blame yourself when the outcome of your actions produces a critical incident, even if there was no way to predict the outcome. It’s easy to blame your partners, lack of training, lack of equipment, bad policy and command staff. Ask yourself, however, what all the blame is accomplishing. When you have finished a griping session in the breakroom, what tangible solution have you produced? Pointing a finger in any direction will leave you in the same spot you were when you started pointing.

When you are disappointed with the outcome of an incident, remember that there was a complex set of events and factors that ended in that outcome. Remove yourself from the incident and pick it apart, from start to finish. Remove any emotional response you have about the outcome for the sake of dissecting the incident and to figure out what went wrong.

Next, recreate the incident in your mind. Start with what went well and what you would have done again the same way. Then ask yourself if there was anything you or anyone could have done differently to change the outcome. Make a list of the steps you would take before any similar incident in the future to change the outcome. Write yourself a narrative of the incident and your final thoughts, and include the good, bad and ugly. You may find there were some actions you took that could have just produced different outcomes due to the elements of an incident that were out of your control.

Without placing blame, discuss the incident with your partners in an informal setting. Ask your partners what they think could have gone better. In asking for input without pointing fingers, you will strengthen trust in your facility, instead of creating an atmosphere where staff in your prison or jail feel defensive. If you have the opportunity to brief your command staff about your findings, do so. The most important point to this exercise is that you will have a better chance to move forward from the outcome of any incident if you treat that incident with some scientific distance, knowing full well that you have learned something from it.

Finally, move on! You will have plenty of opportunities in your career to try something different. You will also have plenty of opportunities to learn from your mistakes without the useless exercise of pointing fingers.

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