Why the little things are BIG in corrections

When it comes to communicating with inmates, officers and administrators should always pay attention to the small issues

Most people are trained and experienced in dealing with the “big” issues impacting their lives and careers, while their acumen or capacity to address the “little” things seem quite challenged. This is never more evident than in the world of corrections. Whether at the administrative level or during the day-to-day actions of corrections officers on the floor, the “little” things tend to trip up officers and administrators the most.

When it comes to communicating with inmates, officers and administrators should always pay attention to the small issues.

Here are three rules to follow:

Never indicate to an inmate you will do something but not follow through.
Never indicate to an inmate you will do something but not follow through. (Photo/Corrections1)

1. Never indicate you will do something but not follow through

This could be as simple as saying you will get an inmate a bar of soap and doing it. Never force an inmate to repeatedly ask the next two shifts to complete a task you had “promised” to fulfill. If you say you will do something, the inmate perceives this as a contract you will personally follow up on. To not do so can create animosity that may never be overcome.

2. Never ignore the minor violations

Do not look past the little things, or minor violations that can occur in hopes they will go away, or to avoid irritating inmates when an issue is addressed. Make inmates aware when you have identified a minor violation so they know it is not being ignored. Every officer has a broad latitude of options to address violations that occur, and the officer’s response will either demonstrate a level of professionalism that will be respected or incompetence that will be ridiculed forever. Avoid the “it’s nothing really bad – just inmates being inmates” mentality.

3. Document even the littlest of things

Always take the time to document inmate behaviors or actions that violate the inmate handbook and how the behavior was addressed. Officers hear all the time, “If it is not documented, it did not occur.” This is true with the larger violations and should be the same with minor inmate disciplinary actions and responses.  

Rarely will an officer’s response and warnings to minor violations or the little issues that occur create an escalated or physical inmate attack. The officer will though need to bear the weight and agitated or aggressive verbal responses from inmates airing their displeasure of an officer holding high expectations for inmate behavior.

Inmates will try to place a wedge between officers addressing the little things by saying “no one else does that” or “don’t be such a hardass” (or more disrespectful expletives). They may dial up their manipulative tactics by claiming they will grieve the officer’s actions or discipline. Administrators must ensure their officers trust the grievance process to protect and support their actions.

There may even be feigned attack approaches and aggressive posturing to save face among fellow inmates. This is the dance that officers must learn to analyze and respond to daily. An officer’s ability to “read” these observations and develop an understanding of the individual inmates' personalities and then balance that with the unit or pod dynamics to maintain control and security in a unit is paramount. 

Officers and administrators must throttle back responding physically and outwardly toward inmates behaving badly. Stepping back and quickly analyzing what truly is occurring and the risks present and then formulating the immediate response and how to package it for presentation to inmates is an art. Each inmate may require a unique strategy to de-escalate and address the misbehavior.

I cannot overemphasize the value humor and sarcasm can play in a corrections setting. Officers who can address inmate attitudes and misbehavior with a light heart and obvious sarcasm will educate and mold inmate behaviors quicker and with more long-term effects than oral tirades and immediate application of restraint responses. The resulting inmate population’s respect for and appreciation of that officer’s uniform, presence and authority will increase.    

I encourage all officers and administrators to look inwardly and assess our “go to” responses to challenging inmate behaviors and rule violations. Determine if you look past the little things and only respond once violations have attained a certain level – or if you address what you observe each time – in order to create an understanding of the behavioral expectations each inmate should adhere to and expect to be held to.

Consistency is the dream. Inmates crave it throughout their days in our facilities. Let’s ensure we meet their expectations. If so, the behavior will generally follow the expectations presented.  

 A senior officer once told me, during my first weeks of training as a CO, “Focus on the little – respond to the large.” No truer guidance have I ever heard.

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