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How to use inmate habits to your advantage

Inmates get involved in many learned habits in a correctional setting – here’s how COs can use those habits to their advantage


In this April 16, 2018, file photo, a guard tower stands above the Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in Bishopville, S.C.

AP Photo/Sean Rayford, File

I’ve noticed throughout the years that inmates generally walk in a counterclockwise circle when in the yard and in their dayrooms. One day I commented on this phenomenon when I took a group of inmates to the yard. I started talking about habits and how hard they are to break. I challenged the group to walk the yard clockwise. They laughed and ignored the challenge, except for one older inmate. He walked against the stream for two rounds. You would think the guy was juggling alligators. Other inmates looked at him as if he had joined the circus. The brave man quickly returned to his more comfortable counterclockwise walk. He commented that it was hard for him to be like a salmon.

Learned habits in corrections

Inmates get involved in many learned habits in a correctional setting. Some are as harmless as the direction they walk in the yard, while others can cause disruption, harm or extra costs to a correctional facility.

A majority of bad inmate habits and behavior are the result of poor control measures by staff. While corrections staff can use some inmate habits to the benefit of the facility, when bad habits become the new norm, it takes a coordinated approach to changing them.

Bad habits in action

Coming back to the jail from a multi-year transport detail, training officer Joe Smith, who happens to be a stickler for the rulebook, finds multiple inmates with rings on their fingers in the housing units. Joe is baffled as he knows this is against policy. What’s more, he recently saw a memo by the lieutenant that all jewelry shall be removed at intake.

If Joe walks into a housing unit and starts removing rings, he’s going to have a tough time, especially since staff members around him have ignored the issue for so long. Inmates will argue. In some way, since staff has allowed the habit, the inmates have a solid argument for keeping the rings. Intake staff let them keep the rings when the inmates arrived at the facility. Other staff allowed inmates to keep the rings in the housing units. Even supervisors have walked through the housing units without addressing the matter.

This is an issue that is created by staff. In Joe’s case, any change would have to be made on a facility-wide basis with a plan set out by the facility administration and buy-in down the chain of command.

Changing a widespread bad inmate habit takes a concerted effort. Taking advantage of existing habits, however, can be pretty easy and actually enjoyable.

How to take advantage of inmate habits

When you walk into a modular housing unit where all of the cell doors face the entry door, a majority of the inmates who are mentally aware and awake will walk to their cell-door window to see who is coming in. If you have something important to tell the whole housing unit, take advantage of the initial attention you already have when you first walk into the unit.

In my county jail’s linear housing units, inmates line up for meals generally in the same order they did the previous day and generally they do so as their cell doors open. They also know what time they are scheduled to come off lockdown and when the television should be turned on. They know that when the television is turned off, most likely, they will need to lock down.

Inmates live by the clock, so the more regularly you adhere to that clock, the harder they take it when you rearrange the time in which events will take place. For example, if you take a specific housing unit to yard right after medication pass every day for weeks, the inmates will line up for yard right after the nurse leaves the unit. They’ll expect yard within a short time after medication pass. Conversely, if you feed your jail in a specific order every meal, inmates will expect to be fed in that order. If you regularly feed A-Pod first, then B-Pod, then C-Pod and finally D-Pod, C-Pod will never expect to be fed before B or after D.

Knowing when inmates all leave their cells gives corrections staff great advantage when planning a search of a housing unit. Inmates are all lined up and outside their cells at a specific time. The shift supervisor can have extra staff at the ready and responding when the inmates are in their scheduled comfort zone. It’s true, you can always order all the inmates out of their cells for mandatory yard, but they will flush contraband on their way out.

Keep in mind, if you surprise inmates in H-Module every Wednesday at lunch with a cell search, they’ll quickly learn to bring their contraband with them to the chow line. It’s in our nature as corrections staff to schedule ourselves and sometimes, even our random surprises become predictable.

Inmates pay attention to shift changes, walk-throughs, inspections and any irregularities in the pattern.

There is comfort in routine

There is a certain benefit, both to staff and inmates, from repeating certain events in the same order every day. If we had to spell out every lockdown for a group of inmates because lockdown was at random times throughout the day, head count would be a daily headache. This in fact rings true in mixed classification housing units where inmates have unscheduled lockdowns for movement or other reasons. Even if unscheduled lockdowns become a matter of regular practice, they still cause extra tension in a housing unit.

For correctional staff, not having to think about what we will be doing next provides room in our creative bandwidth for more important matters. If the floor officer follows a repeated schedule, she or he can focus more on observing inmate behavior, or spend time in the housing unit searching for contraband.

Inmates live a life filled with unknown court case dispositions, chaotic relationships and unpredictable living situations outside of custody. For the inmates, order and predictability provide some sense of safety. In knowing when he will be going to yard every day, an inmate will take comfort that yard is one thing not up in the air. Unfortunately, predictability also provides inmates with the opportunity to engage in nefarious behavior.

When correctional officers need to be unpredictable

Scheduling certain events in specific predictable order throughout the day makes sense. Other predictable staff behaviors should include our reaction to bad behavior. What should not be predictable is how often you walk through a unit and how long you walk through a unit. Conduct facility perimeter checks at different times, not just first thing after shift change, after lunch and sometime before dinner. If you have a partner and you take turns walking the unit, try walking the unit together and coming out at different times, or having one follow the other five minutes after.

When you walk into a housing unit, try not to walk the same way. You can walk directly to the back of a linear unit and zigzag back from cell to cell. You can start with the higher number cells instead of walking from one to two to three and so forth. Instead of conducting cell inspections first thing on shift, try inspecting cells several at a time, so you can conduct longer, more meaningful walkthroughs.

One side benefit to changing up your duty habit where you can is that your brain will remain more engaged in your duties. Pay close attention if you just did a walk through and, like driving home, the action becomes as much a routine as breathing. This would be a good time to stay on your toes and change what you can to remain engaged. Inmates take advantage of a passively engaged housing deputy.

There’s nothing wrong with changing up the order of events in your jail from time to time. Sure, it may cause disruption, but if you’re ready with good reasons and the ability to address possible inmate agitation, a little periodic schedule scramble can help inmates think twice about counting on a schedule for nefarious purposes.

Surprise the housing unit that gets fed last every day with the first hot lunch trays. They will be thrilled and tell you what a great human being you are. This will later be followed by, “I thought you were cool!” when you search their cells. The inmates in the traditional first unit to be fed may balk. You really don’t owe them any explanation, but these matters can be easily addressed with humor or an appeal for fairness.

Habits can both help and hurt corrections staff. Regardless of how you handle inmate habits, it’s important to be aware of them. More important, it is crucial for corrections staff members to be aware of our own habits, both good and bad.

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