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Signs inmates are about to fight

The most effective way to win a battle is to avoid it by knowing what to look for ahead of time

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Learning to identify pre-fight indicators will help save you and others from injury or worse.


In corrections, dangers lurk around every corner, lying in wait, hoping to be unsuspected; however, the signs are there. Inmates unwittingly give off signs when something “bad” is about to happen. Correctional officers must always be alert and aware of their surroundings and learn to read the signs of dangers.

Safety starts with awareness

It is easy to be distracted when you have multiple job tasks during an assigned shift – count time, chow time, sick call, medical emergencies, just to name a few. However, it is of great importance for your own safety and that of your fellow officers and inmates to learn how to juggle several tasks at once. What do I mean by that? Learn how to do your job AND pay attention to your surroundings. Here are a few tips to accomplish that:

  • Situational awareness is the ability to identify prospective dangers in your environment. Know your environment.
  • Always assess your surroundings for threats before your shift, during your shift and at shift change.
  • Learn what normal behavior looks and sounds like so you can identify unusual behavior.
  • Learn to identify different dangers and role play in your mind how you would handle each situation.
  • Never assume everything is fine, take warning signs seriously.
  • Do not get distracted on the job by anyone or anything.
  • Always position yourself so you can not only see what the inmates are doing but you can also protect yourself.
  • Never allow complacency to win!
  • Use your peripheral vision at all times and keep your ears tuned in to sounds around you. Keep your “head on a swivel.”
  • Last, but not least, trust your gut feelings, as they are most likely correct.

What causes inmates to fight the most?

While inmates will fight over almost anything, it is a good idea to know the most common issues that start a fight to give you a better idea of what to look for. Inmates fight for many reasons, including:

  • What programs they want to watch on TV
  • Inmate phones
  • Canteen/commissary items
  • Unpaid debts to other inmates from gambling or loans
  • Hidden weapons
  • Another inmate lying or disrespecting them
  • Hits on another inmate by gang members
  • Gang wars
  • Drugs not received or paid for
  • Being high on drugs and wanting to fight anyone
  • Homemade alcohol
  • Chow hall food
  • Unsanitary conditions

Discuss other possibilities with fellow officers and learn from each other’s experience. Knowing what can cause a fight will keep you on high alert.

Indicators a fight is about to occur

Learning to identify pre-fight indicators will help save you and others from injury or worse. Use indicators as a way to gauge your response to disruptive behavior and stop it before it starts. The following are signs inmates are about to fight:

  • When an inmate says, “Lace up and catch a square.” This refers to when inmates go into their cells to remove their flip flops and lace up their tennis shoes.
  • When an inmate calls another inmate a punk or snitch.
  • When the recreation yard has a strange silence and inmates begin to gather in groups.
  • When a group of inmates rush or walk into a cell.
  • When inmates start picking up items such as mops, brooms, socks and locks.
  • When known gang members begin to separate into their identified groups.
  • When an inmate appears to be a “look-out” protecting a certain area.
  • When inmates suddenly leave an area or rush to an area.
  • When your dorm goes completely quiet and some inmates are looking at you but the majority of inmates are looking in another direction.
  • When you have a larger number of inmates than usual who will not go to chow or recreation and stay in their cells.
  • When inmate canteen orders increase dramatically.

Build on this list above from your own experience. Always be proactive about your safety and the safety of others. The most effective way to win a battle is to avoid it by knowing what to look for ahead of time. Stay ahead of the games inmates play.

NEXT: Use the ‘What If’ game to reduce complacency

Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.