When political discourse follows you to work
Correctional officers must understand how inmates weaponize hot-button topics
You see it in the news. Social media channels are saturated with it. Your local city and county governments are already contemplating new measures to address what appears to be on everybody’s mind. You even hear family members and acquaintances talk about what can be done to "fix law enforcement" in the United States.
You’re a resilient person. You were hired because you have the will to keep performing your job correctly when times are tough, but between your snooze alarm and the moment you hit the entry gate into your correctional institution, you’ve been exposed to multiple opinions on how you should do your job better. You are being told that law enforcement officers are racist and heavy-handed and that agencies operate in the shadows, with little transparency and no oversight.
After the morning briefing, you head into your assigned housing unit for a headcount. Halfway through your count, you hear one inmate tell another, loud enough for you to hear him clearly, “I’m telling you; jail cops are just as bad as their brothers and sisters on the street.” The inmate makes eye contact with you as you pass by and he finishes his statement. “These racists just look for reasons to knock you down.”
What do you do?
Inmates will add fuel to the fire
You have had enough of this anti-law enforcement rhetoric. Your correctional institution is your domain. You don’t need to hear this stuff at work too!
Do you escort the inmate out of the housing unit and explain to him that you will not allow him to disparage corrections staff? Do you give him a verbal warning or a write-up? Do you respond with facts and set him straight? Do you quote your policies and offer up some supporting statistics?
These may be questions you ask yourself as you hear an inmate disparage law enforcement, but there are a couple of other questions to ask instead.
When the politics of the community enter your institution and inmates echo anti-law enforcement sentiment in your presence, ask yourself why an inmate is vocalizing the sentiment. In some cases, an inmate may be speaking from personal experience and projecting that experience on anybody he sees wearing a badge. In many other cases, an inmate will see an opportunity to get an easy reaction from corrections staff.
An inmate is banking on an emotional reaction
Inmates in your facility will echo anti-law enforcement sentiment for the same reason they disparage corrections staff when there is no public outcry about police in the news. An inmate may be trying to get a rise out of you, getting the satisfaction of an emotional response from a corrections officer.
In the current climate, an inmate knows it will be much easier to irritate you when you have been hearing the same negative sentiment in the news, on social media and from people around you. The goal is an emotional response from staff. It doesn’t matter what the subject matter is.
Another inmate comment will be a seemingly positive one. The inmate will disparage law enforcement, except you and your partners, “because you’re different,” “you treat us right,” or “you are not like them.” Maybe the inmate is pointing to a partial truth and it is a matter of pride in your institution that you are able to maintain order without much force, or that you mix in some kindness and empathy while still maintaining control of the inmate population.
Pay close attention the moment an inmate points out your accomplishments and compares you with other groups in the justice system, as this can be the beginning of attempted manipulation. The inmate is stroking your ego and, at the same time, trying to inspire a philosophical separation between you and other members of the justice system.
It’s why they talk to you
Remember that the subject matter is much less important than the reasons why an inmate communicates with you. Whether an inmate is trying to get an immediate emotional reaction out of you or set you up for the long con, your response should be the same. Just like you would on any normal day, keep your emotions out of the exchange.
If you get angry, proud, or defensive when you have an exchange with an inmate, you’ve already lost that exchange. You have to maintain an outwardly emotional distance when responding to any inmate behavior. In times when law enforcement is under the microscope and you feel extra stress from outside your facility, be mindful of your response to inmates inside your facility.
Take control of the conversation
You may not want to ignore an inmate who is trying to make a disparaging statement to you, directly or indirectly; especially if he is trying to insult you. You don’t even have to stop a walk-through for a simple observation. Say, “That man has an opinion.” The reply is not an insult and it’s not emotional. It sounds like a compliment, but it’s a subtle way of saying that the inmate is making a statement of opinion, NOT a statement of fact. Most importantly, you’re not engaging in political discourse with the inmate.
An inmate may ask you for your opinion about a social movement to make radical changes to law enforcement or any other political hot topic of the day. The rules about personal opinions apply across the board in corrections. You don’t get paid to have an opinion. You are not going to share your serious opinions with inmates unless there’s an institutional benefit to doing so. You can simply advise the inmate that your opinion is not part of the job description.
If an inmate pushes for your opinion and you feel like engaging in some way, tell him, “You know, I do have an opinion, I think it might rain next week.” In a nutshell, you have told the inmate that opinions on matters of fact are not very useful. Further, even some facts are subject to change, as meteorologists know all too well. You may get a puzzled look from the inmate or a chuckle from his cellmate. You are also making it clear that you are not going to be pulled into a discussion of political opinions.
This is not the first time that inmates have weighed in on the social discourse that affects the corrections profession. Maintain a consistent response to inmate behavior, regardless of any connection to events outside your facility. Remember inmates will try to find the easiest way to get an emotional response from you. If you are experiencing stress as a result of the current national conversation, pay closer attention to your responses to inmate manipulations and hold the line.