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Understanding aggression in the juvenile inmate

The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”
— Vince Lombardi

When you first start working in a correctional environment, you get hit with a culture shock. You realize that the inmates are not always locked in their cells, and they get more than bread and water to eat. Your preconceived notions of what privileges inmates should and should not have are challenged.

It’s at this point many correctional staff ask themselves, “What have I gotten myself into?” Maybe you’ve asked yourself that today. In that case, a little understanding goes a long way in helping corrections officers keep their perspective — and cool.

Keeping your cool is particularly important with juvenile inmates, who, like most kids, are likely to test authority figures to the Nth. Many of these kids come from extreme hardship and have seldom internalized boundaries — rules. So, in order to effectively communicate expectations in a juvenile correctional facility, we must first understand the reasons behind the aggression – that is, what sets juvenile inmates off.

Why aggression?
Before you can excel in your profession, you must apply a clear understanding as to why the incarcerated become aggressive and non-compliant. In this way, you will be better able to anticipate and neutralize violent outbursts.

A significant number of inmates are dysfunctional to begin with. Their afflictions run the gamut from chemical imbalances and addictive personalities to attention deficit disorders — the list goes on. When an already troubled youth finds himself in an isolated prison environment, his normal emotional state is highly disrupted. He doesn’t know how to handle it. As a result, juveniles are apt to “let it out” with aggression.

Some individuals become aggressive when isolated from the outside world. Sensory deprivation can attack the senses and cause psychological turmoil. This is especially true of a juvenile, whose brain is in a critical stage of rapid development and is thus highly susceptible to trauma.

To the criminal youth, aggression is physical and tangible. It makes sense. Aggression is an understood and accepted behavior among this cohort as a result of a lifetime of anger, manipulation, crime and dysfunction. This behavior reduces one’s senses to instinct and in this way, allows the inmate to “downshift” in order to escape the emotional mayhem of prison life.

Common psychological expressions
Sensory deprivation does a job on the nervous system, causing stress, anxiety attacks, chronic headaches and a wide variety of medical troubles. It can exacerbate preexisting (freqeuntly undiagnosed) psychotic conditions that many young inmates come in with. This is commonly exhibited as delusions, hearing voices, talking to invisible people and rubbing feces on themselves and their walls. Inmates exhibiting extreme symptoms such as these often end up on large doses of psychotropic medication, and often a lifetime of treatment.

Paranoia also afflicts a large number of inmates in varying degrees, and intensifies with time. The juvenile inmate might begin to believe that staff intentionally target them for a variety of harassments. They might think that their food is being poisoned or medicated — or that they are being spied on or talked about in a negative light. An innocent look from a staff member may set off a tirade of violence from an inmate simply on the basis of perceived disrespect or intimidation.

“Training” your attitude
The most deadly weapon a correctional employee can have is a punitive egotistical attitude — in other words, your mouth. Your attitude can set off a verbal tirade that can stall or even end your career. It can start a fight on your unit, activate the inmate’s aggressiveness, initiate the discipline process on yourself. It can even land you in court.

Every correctional employee knows that violence can happen in any situation involving an inmate if that officer wants violence to happen. You will find that some officers attract aggression, while others can get inmates to walk into their cells without as much as a touch. I sense that some officers truly want to go hands on, while others can truly do without the violence.

Generally speaking, younger, less seasoned officers are quicker to jump into a physical intervention than their veteran counterparts, who often seek alternate methods to a solution. However, years of experience can also lead to poor officer survival tactics that, on the face of it, are easier, faster and require less paperwork.

It’s a double-edged sword: Along with our vast experience and knowledge comes faulty routine, habit and shortcutting patterns.

Inmates may respond to the following with heightened aggression:

- Fatigue or a disruption in the sleeping pattern leading to sleep deprivation.

- Sensory overload – too much noise, activity or too many people in the environment.

- Being asked to respond to several questions or statements at once.

- A general response to a strict officer’s intolerance, stress or irritability.

- The inmate is being scolded, confronted or contradicted in a public setting.

- The officer’s instructions were unclear, too complicated, or the task was not broken down into easy manageable steps.

- Change of routine, schedule or the normal activities were canceled or eliminated.

- The orders of routines or activities were perceived as too childlike.

- Adverse side effect to a new medication, change in medication or the refusal to take.

- The officer failed to show respect, or the youth perceived disrespect from the officer.

- Inmate felt victimized, threatened or coerced by other inmates.

- Temperatures in the environment may be too hot.

- Exposure to violence via television, music or other violent inmate rhetoric.

- Sexual offender with sexual deviancies may be cycling.

- Mental illness, e.g., mood disorder.

Train, train, train
Even though we will never admit it, and will never talk about it publicly, we have to admit it to ourselves that nearly every officer assaulted, injured or put out on disability was a result of obvious – and preventable — mistakes. So it should go without saying that advanced, job-specific training should be your goal in excelling in your career, and keeping you safe every day.

Your ability to react to – and win – a situation will be a direct result of this training.

Psychological traits that often give rise to aggressive behavior:

  • Extreme egomania, selfishness and “me-based” orientation
  • Poor impulse control with manipulative behavior and constant performances, e.g., tantrums, aggression or intimidation to gain advantage.
  • Inability to accurately “read” others’ emotions, with little or no ability to delay gratification.
  • Your value is defined by what you can do for them.

Warning signs Inmates who have high risk factors and exhibit the following behaviors should be handled with a extreme caution. Care should be taken not to minimize the following behaviors or dismiss as “just something Johnny does.”

  • Intense anger for no apparent reason
  • Frequent loss of temper or blow-ups for relatively small incidents
  • Extreme irritability
  • Extreme impulsivity
  • Becomes easily frustrated and constantly demanding
  • Constantly challenges or questions your authority

Tracy E. Barnhart is a Marine combat veteran of Desert Storm/Desert Shield. Upon leaving the Marines in 1992, he became a police officer with the City of Galion, Ohio PD. Barnhart was the youngest officer to attain the rank of Staff Lieutenant and established a productive community-oriented policing program. Barnhart then left Galion to become the Chief of Police for the Village of Edison, Ohio where he continued his effective community education programs. Barnhart attained his Ohio Peace Officers Training Commission as a Unit Instructor teaching several law enforcement and correctional courses at the state academy. In 2000, Barnhart left law enforcement to start a career with the Ohio Department of Youth Services in juvenile corrections at the Marion, Ohio Juvenile Corrections Facility. The Marion Juvenile Correctional Facility is maximum security male correctional facility housing over 320 with over forty beds being super maximum security lock down capable. Barnhart deals with male felony offender’s ages 16 to 21 with violent criminal convictions and aggressive natures.