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How to stay in charge of your communication style in corrections

More effective communication leads to better supervision in any situation, especially in a jail or a prison


In this June 20, 2018 file photo , inmates pass a correctional officer as they leave an exercise yard at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, file

‘Working nightshift in a housing unit years ago, I sat at my desk and heard a group of young inmates make so much noise that they were most likely keeping other inmates up. It wasn’t a huge deal. No one was getting hurt, but I had to address the issue, as the noise would eventually cause an exchange of harsh words. Someone would say something they couldn’t take back and I would end up having to investigate why inmate Talksalot had a fresh black eye at the breakfast line the following morning.

I walked through the unit and formally told the loud group to quiet down. I didn’t raise my voice. I didn’t act hard with the inmates. I just gave them a quiet order to quiet down. They stopped long enough for me to finish my walk-through and picked back up as I sat at my desk. I returned to the group at my next walk-through and stepped it up a little, hoping they would understand me a little better. I tersely said, “Hey guys, this ain’t romper room. There are other people trying to sleep. Pipe down!” There, I explained how their behavior was affecting others and used an increased level of command in my voice. This was sure to send a message and quiet the young group down.

The inmates lasted just a little longer this time, trying to keep their voices down, but increased their volume within 20 minutes. At this point I was irritated. I marched into the unit, faced the scofflaws, and said, “You guys need to SHUT THE (EXPLICATIVE) UP!” The inmates stopped talking and packed it in for the night. As I calmed my face and nodded my approval to their response, one of the inmates said, “Hey, Zaied, why didn’t you say you wanted us to shut up in the first place?”

Control how you say it

There are plenty of moments in a correctional facility when communicating with inmates on their level will get you much further than talking to them as if you’re talking to civilians at the grocery store or communicating with your family at home. There are times when you can make a conscious decision to change your speech patterns, your tone and your body language to mirror inmate behaviors so that they may understand you better.

More effective communication leads to better supervision in any situation, especially in a jail or a prison. What happens, however, when we lose our awareness of the changes in our communication styles?

How many times have you observed your fellow correctional staff changing their behavior patterns gradually over time after more and more exposure to inmates? Have you ever noticed yourself speaking differently at home after long weeks in the jail? On many occasions, I have stepped through my front door after work and started a conversation with my wife. Five minutes into the conversation, my wife would say, “Hey, relax, you’re off duty. I’m not an inmate.”

Internal social strength

There is a spectrum of strength related to our egos and standings within any group of people. Within a social setting, one key indicator of where we stand in the group is the unconscious mirroring of others. On the bottom of the spectrum is the individual who has no conviction of self and mimics the mannerisms, language and behaviors of others. On the top of the social spectrum is the unapologetic maverick who barely notices anyone else’s behavior in the group and often comes up with sayings that become part of the group’s vernacular.

About a year ago, I noticed a catchy phrase everyone started using at work in response to unbelievable stories we all heard at shift change. These are the stories unique to corrections. The response was, “Checks out.” The respondent was saying, “That may be unbelievable, but in our place of business, it’s normal. It checks out.”

The phrase spread quickly through the facility, first with staff, then to the inmate population. The phrase became part of the facility language. One staff member who happened to operate higher in the jail’s social spectrum started the trend. I found myself using the phrase several times and had to explore the reason why.

What’s important in a correctional setting is that when you speak with inmates, you sound like you and not like a product of your environment. When you walk through a housing unit, maybe you shouldn’t thrust your hips forward and pivot your shoulders back and forth like a parolee walking down Main Street, unless that’s how you really walk.

If you do decide to mirror inmate behavior and speech, make sure you do it to better communicate with the inmates. More important, change your behavior with the awareness that keeps you from falling into speech and body language patterns by matter of habit.

Communication as social response

There is a heightened level of awareness when we walk into a facility and even more so when we walk into a housing unit where staff are grossly outnumbered by inmates. Let that awareness serve to make sure you don’t behave and speak in reaction to your environment. Worst, don’t let the correctional environment shape you with just simple exposure. When you walk into a housing unit, it is your housing unit. The inmates in the unit are your guests. It is your house. There should be some level of social comfort that you are in your own domain.

San Quentin is the oldest working prison in California. Sheriff’s transport units from around the San Francisco Bay Area have brought groups of inmates to the regional reception center for decades. Vans line up and wait in a caged area to unload new commitments at the intake area.

The cage is surrounded by the hustle and bustle of daily prison life, with inmates coming and going to their housing units, exercising in the yard and socializing. The caged area gets a lot of attention from inmates, mostly because they want to know who is coming to prison and from which county.

I’ve seen more than once county jail corrections staff waiting outside their vans behave in an overly boisterous manner, much like the inmates who get in the van at the county jail, preparing for their trip to prison. The inmates on that ride often talk excitedly about how much they know about prison and how wonderful it is to go to prison. In reality, a majority of the commitments are scared of what’s to come. The inmates in the transport van always get quiet as the van approaches San Quentin’s entry gate.

Who is in there?

I would argue the response to San Quentin is the same between the inmates and some drivers. We compensate with confidence to impress on the inmates in the van or the inmates watching us in the yard that we are not scared of prison, that we don’t have a care in the world as a hundred pair of eyes watch our every move. People behave differently as a response to social fear or discomfort.

Next time you are in a new correctional setting, surrounded by inmates you don’t know, pay attention to your own behavior and make sure what and how you communicate with your words, body and face comes from who you are as opposed to what your environment is.

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