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The importance of being vigilant in a correctional environment

As COs, there must never be any doubt that we are observing, analyzing and ready to protect those under our watch


In this Oct. 28, 1999, photo, a group of inmates is moved from one cell unit to another at California State Prison Sacramento, in Folsom, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

If there’s anything I’ve learned during the course of my career as a corrections officer, it’s that it’s critical that each officer, be it a rookie or a seasoned vet, remain vigilant when walking onto the floor in their facility. Because you have to be ready for any danger or ugly that presents itself at the doorstep.

To be vigilant you must be fearless, observant and confident, especially when outnumbered three – or 60 – to one.

There is no mistaking the establishment of an inmate hierarchy in each jail/prison facility and inmate unit across this nation. This minefield of inmate posturing, pressuring and domineering behaviors can create a security nightmare for those working these posts. The vigilant officer, though, knows the areas they supervise intimately; they also know that many inmates do not hide their intentions well. To be vigilant is to be an excellent observer – taking note of the smallest details and, by extension, dangers each officer needs to be prepared for.

What follows are three actions the vigilant officer must always take:


There should never be any doubt when you walk onto the jail floor that the unit leader has entered the room. An officer’s place in the hierarchy should be immediately identifiable as you enter. Be noticed. Take it as a compliment if the talking ceases, eyes turn to look at you and inmates stop their actions to watch you as you enter. Inmates should be well aware of your high expectations for behavior and comply as expected.

How you carry yourself determines quickly how your time in the unit will proceed. Inmates will assess and evaluate you each time you enter. They determine in a second or two if you are sharp and on your game today or if you are depressed and accessible to manipulation.

Stand tall, look over and scan the unit, and keep moving. There should be confidence in your step as you know exactly what you are doing and the role you are filling.


Every officer needs to take time to assess, prior to entering, what is occurring in the unit. Look in a window, check a unit camera and see who is moving where, where inmates are congregated and determine what your “gut” sense tells you prior to opening the door.

I have observed too many instances, not to mention post-incident videos, in which officers dropped their heads, failed to assess a unit prior to entry, and walked right into a maelstrom. While most luckily exited after their rounds were completed, many other officers were not so fortunate and stepped into a brutal assault.

Every officer should know each unit they work and the number of steps required to get to the unit door, an open closet or available egress route in an emergency – regardless of their location in the unit. In an emergency situation, that escape route may be the only hope for temporary shelter until other officers arrive.

OBSERVE and ASSESS (continually)

The floor’s personality and stress level can change rapidly. Every officer needs to be attentive to those swings and recognize the signs as they occur.

  1. Noise levels rise or drop drastically in the unit.
  2. Inmates clear a unit floor.
  3. Fingers dance wildly on the tabletop or an inmate’s legs.
  4. Toes tap nonstop.
  5. Fists clench.
  6. An inmate takes an extremely deep breath.
  7. An inmate’s eyes stop scanning and focus on a target.
  8. An inmate rises to their toes when talking or walking.
  9. Teeth clench, jaws tighten, lips draw tight.
  10. Faces drain of emotion.
  11. An inmate fails to respond to directives.

All can be signs of imminent assault or outburst.

Each of us needs to step up our game to leave no doubt that we are vigilant while on these floors – observing, analyzing and ready to protect those under our watch.

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Craig Gottschalk entered corrections in 2010 as a floor officer at the Saunders County Corrections Center in Wahoo, Nebraska and was quickly promoted to a supervisor role as a corporal and then shift sergeant. He served as third shift sergeant for five years until he was selected to serve as the assistant director at the Hall County Corrections Center in Grand Island, NE. Gottschalk served as the liaison to the Nebraska Ombudsman’s Office, Nebraska Jail Standards Board and multiple agencies and partners with the Hall County Corrections efforts. He was selected to serve as assistant ombudsman for corrections for the State of Nebraska in May 2022. Gottschalk provides guidance, investigation and oversight for county jails and the state corrections system in Nebraska, addressing inmate claims of rights violations, health care neglect, classification appeals, and other incarceration security and operational challenges.

Gottschalk has testified before the Nebraska Legislature Judiciary Committee regarding corrections issues and has spoken to the media on multiple occasions about corrections issues in Nebraska and across the US. Gottschalk has focused his management efforts on the pursuit of “excellence” versus the challenge of attaining perfection.

Contact Craig here.