Readers respond: Is shaking an inmate's hand ever appropriate?

A recent training scenario elicited so many responses we decided to give them their own article


In a recent training scenario article, Corrections1 contributor Anthony Gangi posed the question: Would it ever be appropriate for a correctional officer to shake an inmate's hand? What about if it was the inmate's last day of incarceration, and he was simply offering his hand as a sign of gratitude for the officer's professionalism on the job?

Well, with more than 60 responses in a matter of days, this article clearly touched upon a topic that many officers feel strongly about. And while the reactions ran the gamut between emphatic approval and just as firmly felt disapproval, the majority fell somewhere in the middle.

Here's what many of you had to say:

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No, it’s dangerous to make exceptions to a tried and true policy

No. If you make an exception in front of other inmates they won't know why you're doing this and will probably think you see them as your peers. – R.F.

No. It's an officer safety issue. The inmate, having hold of your hand, can pull you off balance, slam you into the bars, or assault you in some other way. Wish the inmate all the best but decline to shake hands, telling him, "It's for my safety, nothing personal." – K.B.

No, If witnessed by other staff or inmates you open yourself up to allegations and accusations. The inmate is also creating a possibility by which he may be attacked by other inmates in his last few hours. – I.P. 

Handshakes in and of themselves are generally regarded as "professional" greetings, so the appropriateness in terms of "sending the wrong message" is not necessarily the issue here. After all, it would not be said that a CEO shaking the hand of a subordinate would necessarily erode any sense of professional boundary between the two. The issue that I feel should be at question here would be one of safety and security. Locking hands with an inmate definitely puts the officer at a tactical disadvantage and should therefore be approached with caution. I typically instruct officers and staff to have some alternative in mind (fist bump IF PERMITTED BY POLICY, polite hand wave, polite verbal exchange, etc.) to offer. Inmates know there are boundaries in place and will not be caught off guard if a staff member maintains those boundaries POLITELY. In the described scenario, the inmate's response would probably have been a little less tense had the officer simply had a polite way to return the greeting ready at the time. As I often teach: an inmate losing face is dangerous. Awkward social interactions can definitely lead to losing face. – M.M. 

I have a unique perspective for my profession although I am not a CO. I am a prison social worker. My profession would say it is absolutely appropriate and ok. However, I think my corrections training has been pretty thorough at the academy and on the job. Therefore I would say no, I do not think it is appropriate for the officer to shake his hand. That is a bridge-building gesture and one between equals. There are other ways to convey respect or congratulations with words, without a handshake. There will never be equality between inmate and jailer within the correctional setting. Now, if that same officer runs into that inmate four years down the road, he is an employee and serving on some community board that the officer is on, maybe then, yes, I would say it would be appropriate to accept his handshake. But not between jailer and inmate. – H.H.

Yes, it’s about human respect

Shaking hands with any human being is a sign of respect. This begs the question of how this became a question to begin with. To treat inmates other than human beings is inhumane. Trauma-Informed care model in corrections lowers threat levels, creates trust between staff and inmates and fosters a clean, quiet environment. – J.F.

Of course it’s appropriate. Two human beings engaged in a welcoming gesture – not a CO and an inmate. Human beings. Normalize corrections and watch violence go down. – D.S.

Shake the hand. It defeats a person to say, "I hope you don't come back." It builds a person to say, "I know you will become a law-abiding citizen and succeed at every good thing you do. Thank you for making my job easier." – A.S.

Pick your battles. Simple respect for inmates as well as all of mankind will get you places. – C.C.

U.S. presidents have shaken hands with some of the worse tyrants, including those guilty of genocide. Offenders, former offenders, citizens, people, good and bad are encountered by law enforcement officers, including corrections officers. It’s incumbent upon LEOs and COs to promote harmony and goodwill to foster personal relations that contribute to society. Shunning societal norms (e.g. handshaking) is destructive to that end goal. It’s difficult to see how shunning a common societal practice is in any way constructive. – M.K.

You can shake an inmate's hand without eroding boundaries or sending the wrong message. In the situation described, a handshake would have been totally appropriate. These are human beings, after all. When I worked inside, I had the same hang-ups, but over the course of my career, I've found that they were essentially "trained" into me. A handshake isn't an intimate thing. It's a professional thing. It's a respect thing. We shake hands with people we are meeting for the first time, who have had no opportunity to "earn our respect." If you've known an inmate for the duration of his incarceration and he's demonstrated respectable behavior, why would he not be entitled to that sign of respect in return. I think refusing to shake the hand simply because a person is an inmate sends the wrong message. It says, "You're not worthy of my respect." On the contrary, an appropriately timed, professional handshake says all the right things about a staff member and how they view their role in corrections. – J.T.

Yes. We are not there to punish them; that was the justice system's job. We are there to make sure their time is served as safely as possible and hopefully make them better people. They are human and as humans they still deserve respect. No one should ever disrespect another person who is showing you respect. That gesture would be the last thing the inmate takes back to the free world. – M.E.

Sometimes it’s OK, but there need to be standards

I wouldn't shake an inmate's hand for any reason during the normal performance of my duties. It really appears that the officer is being compromised, or can be compromised, but if an inmate is being recognized for the performance of an outstanding job, protecting staff during an incident, or has completed his time and is being released in good standing, I would shake his hand to encourage him to keep doing the right thing. Correction was meant to rehabilitate inmates. It can be very encouraging for an inmate who is trying to do the right thing if he is rewarded with a handshake, treated normally and not as another inmate. This particular inmate sounded like he respected the particular officer greatly for his professionalism. Treating the inmate as a normal human being and shaking his hand at the time of his release would have gone a long way towards maintaining his newly found confidence and good behavior. Rewarding good behaviors with a handshake is not too much to ask for or give. We do that very much outside the institution. – N.E.

I will shake an inmate's hand in the direct presence of other inmates where they all can hear. When I agree to shake their hand it is typically as in the article – he/she is showing appreciation or thanking me for a duty-related task that others often don’t have time to do. I always make it loud and clear to the others that it’s nothing secret or immoral. – S.W.

There are times when shaking an inmate's hand is appropriate. If the handshake is a well-intentioned gesture with no strings attached it would be a good thing. However, they should be used sparingly to have that impact. – W.S.

I believe there needs to be a protocol for when this is appropriate and when it is not. While an inmate is still within his sentence, I do not believe shaking hands is appropriate. This gesture could result in false acceptance that the inmate is an honest inmate and could ultimately result in an officer getting hurt by putting down his guard for that inmate. However, if the inmate has achieved a college degree and is being recognized in a ceremony, a handshake would be appropriate. If an inmate is being released and it is his last day, I believe a handshake would be fine. The last thing we should want to do is send an inmate out to freedom and be angry over a snub of a simple handshake and a wish for good luck. Otherwise, the next officer that inmate runs into is going to get the brunt of his anger for the other officer refusing the handshake. He is going back out into society; let’s treat him like a member of society with a positive first step in regaining his freedom. – R.K.

In the context of this scenario, yes, it is appropriate to shake his hand. Sometimes it is appropriate and sometimes it is not. No one should have a general rule that they absolutely never shake an inmate's hand. It sends the wrong signal sometimes to not shake their hand, and it can also send the wrong signal to shake an inmate's hand. Every scenario is different. Absolutes on this question are out of touch and inappropriate. – R.H.

Yes. There are times when it is. It's a sign of respect and appreciation. Every situation is different and we must always be on guard for a potential attack. I feel we must also set the example to follow. If we fail to return respect it sets a bad example. I've shaken hands with inmates and given a hug to an inmate who I had to push and motivate to go to class and get his GED. He felt he wasn't smart enough and wanted to give up. After his graduation ceremony, he gave me a hug and said that changed his life and showed if he tried and stuck with it he could do anything. There were about 10 other staff members present at the time. To my knowledge, he is still doing well. Now, If I'm in a housing unit no one touches me. No handshakes, no pats on the shoulder, nothing. It could be the inmate that hugged me. For my safety, I don't allow them to do so. You have to maintain situational awareness at all times. – L.M.

Of course it is. It should be the exception though, not the rule. A judicious use of hand shaking in appropriate situations can send a very GOOD and helpful message. It is a mutual sign of respect. While you shouldn't walk around a facility shaking hands and fist bumping, the occasional use of a handshake is appropriate when you come to a mutual and beneficial agreement with an inmate about something –maybe a program, or a course of action the inmate will take, or when an inmate is getting out and wants to show appreciation/respect to somebody they look up to. Inmates are human beings. As I said, you don't want to walk around shaking hands all day, but sometimes, it's the right thing to do. I advocate going with your gut; if your gut says don't shake, then don't shake. But if you are inclined to shake the hand, shake the hand. In my 20 years, I have shaken maybe a dozen inmates' hands. A few times I have even initiated it. – J.B.

I worked in corrections for 27 years at USP Leavenworth. There is a stigma with inmate dapping, fist bumping, and handshaking, but as I matured and actually worked in several different jobs I found that when an inmate accomplishes a positive milestone such as getting a degree, a pardon or sentence commutation, sometimes after a good record, going to a lower level facility or half-way house and/or release it can be appropriate. Otherwise, I am against any contact with an inmate unless necessary and staff need to understand the level of maturity in themselves and the inmate because it can often look like favoritism or you and the inmate being friends. – K.J.

It is not appropriate for you and an inmate to embrace, fist bump, or high five at any point of incarceration. But I personally will shake an inmates hand who is within moments of release. Generally speaking, it is a great gesture that means a lot in the final course of rehabilitation. Conversation I had: “I mean this in the best of ways, I don’t want to see you again. Do not come back.” Inmate: "I won't. I have learned there is more to life than this. Thank you!” From my perspective, it is a reward that I accept you as a free man/ woman when you E.O.S. – F.C.

Corrections1 readers respond

  • I had a very successful 24-year career in a state correctional system, and am now a jail administrator. I have shaken numerous inmates' hands, and I will continue. But I choose the inmates that I shake hands with. I believe it shows a level of respect. It requires the deputy or officer to possess a level of maturity, both personal and professional, to be able to read the situation. Another element is how the deputy or officer carries themselves. Do the inmates know that you will not be compromised? So yes, I believe that a deputy or officer can shake an inmate's hand.

  • In my personal opinion, one should never shake an inmate's hands. NEVER. Just examine the impact of hand touching and the COVID-19 pandemic. Inmates are first and foremost convicted criminals. Can you ever trust criminals? He or she may have a razor blade in their hand! One cannot be 100% alert to any criminal possibility if one allows one's guard down. This is the job.
  • In our jail setting, definitely not on a day-to-day basis but I personally have given fist bumps upon release, after serious conversations, and as general hellos/goodbyes.
  • I don't see myself ever shaking hands with an inmate. Not that it's necessarily wrong, I just see it as a sanitary thing, especially during this pandemic. In my institution, a sign of respect, thanks, or a greeting is often a simple fist bump. I've done that plenty of times.
  • Yes, shake the inmate's hand as he leaves the facility to congratulate him for finishing his sentence and to wish him well in his future, but not in front of other inmates.
  • I have never shaken hands with any Inmate. However, when I used to work in the housing units, if an Inmate was going to parole the next morning, I would allow them to take a shower once the dayroom was recalled if it wasn't their dayroom. I would give them 15 minutes to shower. If I worked in the mornings, I would give an early wake-up and ask if they would like to take a shower prior to R & R staff picking them up for parole. I always would let them know that I wished them the best and to do right.

Is there anything else that should be considered here? Share your thoughts in the box below.

Is shaking an inmate's hand ever appropriate?

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