How to survive inmate tests on your first day on the job

There are many reasons why inmates ask questions of COs; remaining in control of how and when you respond is the key to success

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By Zohar Zaied, C1 Contributor

Think back to your first day of training. Untethered to the security of a training officer, you walk into briefing, receive a set of keys and a radio, and then off you go to face 50 or more inmates. You’re armed with several weeks of knowledge to navigate your day. You have the daily housing schedule down, you know how to inspect a cell and you’ve memorized the visiting schedule.

You walk into your assigned housing unit and start an initial headcount. You hear an inmate ask his cellmate, “Who’s this guy?” He says it loud enough for you to hear. You walk onward past another cell and the testing continues. An inmate asks you when the unit will come out for program. Another inmate asks you why he hasn’t been taken to court yet. A third inmate tells you he should have been released, time served, hours ago!

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.
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)

Two friendly inmates in Cell-216 engage you in conversation. One asks how long you’ve been working at the jail. The other asks what your first name is.

The first inmate gives you his approval, “You seem pretty cool. You have a nice day, CO.” He sends you off.

You finish your headcount and walk to your desk. An inmate you passed moments ago stands at his cell door and yells at you, “CO! CO! I need a towel and a pair of boxers!” The man acts like he’s having an emergency and becomes irritated when you sit at your desk and acknowledge his request with a head nod and thumbs up instead of filling his request right away.

They’re taking your temperature

Inmates often check on corrections staff early on during a shift. They want to know what they can get away with, and if rules will be enforced. Inmates want to know if staff will be responsive to their needs or if the floor officer will blow off requests. Sometimes, they just want to see if they can distract you with small tasks, or somehow effect your day.

The longer you work at any facility and the more consistent you are with your responses and reactions to questions, the less chance the inmates will test you unnecessarily. But for the new corrections deputy or officer, inmates want to know what reaction they will get to their questions and challenges.

The inmate who says something derogatory to another inmate within your earshot is actually speaking directly to you. He wants to see how you will react if he says something about you or asks a question meant for you. He feels pretty safe testing the waters this way, because he can always say he wasn’t talking to you. If the inmate wants to test you further, he will say something inappropriate about one of your fellow staff members.

Most of the inmates who ask you about schedules and court dates have been “doing time” longer than you. They know when the housing unit comes off lockdown. They know the court schedule. The unreleased inmate is not asking why he hasn’t been released. He is asking if booking found the warrant in the system from two counties away. Inmates are testing what you know and how you respond if you don’t know.

An inmate with a non-emergency emergency may actually feel like it’s an emergency that he doesn’t have a towel. Maybe he has asked the last three staff members who walked through for a towel without response. More likely, that inmate wants to push your response timeline and pressure you to respond faster than you need to a simple request.

The two nice inmates who give you positive feedback on job performance may be cultivating you with social judgment – You seem pretty cool. Maybe they actually mean well and want to promote goodwill with you. It’s possible. It’s also possible the two are trying to create an environment in which they can get unreasonable favors from you. Any time an inmate initiates a positive interaction with you, keep in mind he may follow up with a favor request. If the request is reasonable and you say yes, there may be an unreasonable request coming.

The inmate who asks your first name doesn’t care about your first name. My favorite response when an inmate asks me what the Z in Z. Zaied stands for is: “It stands for deputy.” The response generally gets a chuckle from an inmate, but sends a clear message. Let’s face it, anyone can find out your first name. We use them when we testify. Our first names sometimes appear on official paperwork and on the internet.

Our first names are not highly guarded secrets. In a corrections setting, however, the social interaction associated with asking and finding out the first name crosses barriers and turns a formal environment into an informal one. This is why we address inmates by their last names. Consequently, I’ve found using first names is useful when addressing inmates who are experiencing mental distress due to mental health issues or drug use.

The inmate who dismisses you from his presence before you disengage is attempting a small power play. Find a subtle reason to extend your presence and control when you leave.

Check your ego at the gate

After 16 years in corrections, I still don’t have all the answers. I don’t need to have all the answers. After California rolled out the Prison Realignment Act, many prison inmates ended up in local jails. During the transition, many inmates made requests for paperwork identified differently by the prison system. Jail staff did not know what they were asking for. A common incredulous response from an inmate would be, “You don’t know what that is?”

The funniest response I heard to this small attempt at a power play was, “No, this is a jail. You’re here because the State of California has determined you’re not hard enough for state prison.” I don’t recommend this specific response because, at its core, the comment encourages state prison-bound behavior. The point, however, is that corrections staff shouldn’t be embarrassed not knowing something. Don’t let an inmate try to shame you for not knowing something, especially if you don’t need to know it.

Don’t hesitate to tell and inmate you don’t know the answer to their question, but make sure you follow up with, “I can find out,” or “I’ll get back to you.” Then do what you’ve promised, but do it on your own timeline, not one created by the inmate. An inmate’s need for instant gratification is no reason to prioritize his need.

This is how it’s done

Inmates love to train new guards or offer up information on “how things are done around here.” Some inmates give you good information, and some give you bad information. Don’t discount anything an inmate tells you about how things are done, but always double check what they tell you. This serves two purposes.

You want to encourage the inmate who gives you good information to continue. Maybe, down the road, the inmate will tell you something more critical to facility safety. Indicating to inmates that you don’t trust anything they say will close off any useful lines of communication.

You want to know which inmates will give you bad information so you can flag them for potential negative behavior down the road. It will be obvious if you believe them or not as you will have not followed bad advice. Ignoring bad information puts an inmate on notice that you are paying attention and may serve to deter future nefarious activity.

Some facilities have used inmates in the past to help train staff. While this may be a very real way to create training scenarios, there can be several negative outcomes. First, the inmates get insight on the facility’s systems and first-hand knowledge of staff situational responses. Second, the inmates used to train staff feel they have an undue stake in the running of the facility. Finally, using inmates to teach lessons to staff has the potential to create unnecessary animosity between the two groups.

The more you know

For so many reasons, you should remain curious and actively seek out as much information about your facility as possible. Do this as soon as you walk in the door and don’t quit being curious until the day you retire.

In the case of inmates testing you, they will stop testing you much quicker when they see you have a good knowledge base. Once they test you less, you’ll find inmates will ask you more legitimate questions and respect you for having the answers. Having good command of your policies and procedures further allows you to quickly respond in a definitive manner to an inmate who challenges your decisions.

As you know more information about your correctional facility and have meaningful responses to address questions and challenges, you’ll find your job confidence will get a boost. Better mental confidence translates to how you carry yourself in the facility. Inmates will read your confident body language and test you less.

What time is it?

Inmates ask us questions for many different reasons. They often have legitimate questions. Be aware that in many cases, an inmate has ulterior motives for asking a question. Any inmate-initiated interaction has potential to be a test or setup.

One inmate question I haven’t figured out yet is, “What time is it?” I know inmates don’t have watches and they most likely legitimately want to know what time it is. Most events in a corrections facility run on a clock. I can’t help think, however, that there are other reasons inmates ask what time it is. Perhaps for some of the same reasons they ask any questions, to find out staff’s level of willingness to be helpful. I am interested in your thoughts and experiences. Please share in the comments below.

About the Author
Zohar Zaied works as a correctional officer in California.

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