Trending Topics

Navigating the dynamics of inmate management: 19 essential strategies for correctional officers

Understanding and applying effective interaction techniques in the modern correctional environment

Election-California Sentencing Reform

These tips will assist in setting clear boundaries to ensure that interactions remain professional and do not veer into areas that could compromise your designated role.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

The landscape of inmate management has evolved significantly over time. Gone are the days of simply incarcerating inmates and disengaging until their release. In the modern corrections environment, your day is largely shaped by numerous interactions with the inmate population.

In this context, each interaction with inmates must embody a certain degree of control. For staff, maintaining both the perception of control and authority is crucial for successful and professional interactions.

The following 19 tips are designed to help you establish and sustain control and authority in every interaction with inmates. Additionally, these tips will assist in setting clear boundaries to ensure that interactions remain professional and do not veer into areas that could compromise your designated role.

1. Expectations

The professional relationship between inmates and staff revolves around mutual expectations. As I gained seniority and honed my discretion, I realized that while rules are a guiding pillar in my interactions with inmates, my authority is manifested through these expectations. Thus, the enforcement of rules is intertwined with the expectations shaping our working relationship. Whenever I resort to explicitly stating the rules to ensure compliance, it signifies a breakdown in the inmate’s adherence to our established agreement.

2. No!

When I started as a rookie, the inmates immediately tested my capacity to firmly say “No!” and stand by it. Initially, relying on the rules was my way of practicing this crucial skill. However, as time passed, I learned to draw strength from my own experiences and built my confidence internally. It’s important to remember that saying “No” and meaning it is an art form. It requires a certain finesse, allowing the person delivering the message to remain unchallenged. If this inward confidence is convincingly expressed, emphasizing the strength of your internal justification, then the “No,” when necessary, becomes unequivocal and enduring.

3. Endgame

Whenever possible, avoid engaging with an inmate without being prepared. Of course, there will be instances of spontaneous interactions with inmates during your routine, but remember, you are in control. You set the direction of the dialogue. If you enter an interaction unprepared, allowing the inmate to dictate the conversation’s trajectory, you risk veering off onto a path that is neither desirable nor necessary. Always aim to set the course of the interaction from the outset and strategically plan backward, keeping the desired outcome in mind.

4. Small talk

My perspective has always been to be cautious regarding small talk with inmates. I believe that excessive small talk can be purposeless and often benefits the inmate more than the staff. From my observations, staff members who frequently engage in small talk often find themselves fielding personal and probing questions. While some may argue this is a way to build rapport, I find this approach questionable. It’s important to exercise caution with small talk. Engaging in it too much can position staff in a way where they inadvertently reveal more than they intend to, tipping the balance of information exchange unfavorably.

5. Body language

Staff members need to be constantly vigilant about their level of comfort around the inmate population. This comfort can manifest both consciously and unconsciously through body language, such as placing hands in pockets, resting feet on a desk, not maintaining a proper reactionary distance, fist-bumping, or shaking hands. These behavioral cues can be easily noticed by the inmates.

No matter how routine an interaction may seem, staff should always guard against becoming complacent. Maintaining a professional demeanor and physical stance at all times is essential in preserving authority and ensuring safety. This caution helps in establishing clear boundaries and underscores the professional nature of the staff-inmate relationship.

6. Expect resistance

Never assume that inmate compliance is a given or the norm. Early in my career, my supervisor emphasized the importance of always expecting resistance from an inmate, even in situations that seem trivial or routine. This advice isn’t intended to encourage aggression in interactions with inmates; rather, it serves as a reminder to always be prepared.

Legendary coach John Wooden encapsulated this principle perfectly when he said, “Confidence comes from being prepared.” This mindset is about staying alert, aware and ready for any situation, ensuring that you’re equipped to handle challenges effectively and safely. Being prepared boosts confidence, and this confidence is key to maintaining control and authority in the correctional environment.

7. Be specific

Never let an inmate speak in circles or stick to vague generalities. Instead, compel them to be specific. If an inmate raises a concern, keep the conversation focused and direct by asking for specifics: who is involved, what exactly happened, where it occurred and when it took place. Each time the inmate attempts to evade or sidestep a question, staff should tactfully steer the conversation back to these four key details.

By insisting on specific information, the dialogue remains concise, clear and less open to interpretation. This approach grants staff greater control over the interaction. Keeping conversations with inmates precise and to the point not only aids in maintaining a professional distance but also helps in efficiently addressing the issues at hand.

8. Consistency

Striking a balance between consistency and predictability in dealing with the inmate population is a nuanced task. On the one hand, it’s essential to maintain a high level of consistent commitment and effectiveness in overarching expectations related to job responsibilities, such as routine tours, searches, demeanor, and overall safety and security. These aspects should always be met with unwavering dedication.

However, when it comes to specifics like the timing, location, method, or strategic reasoning behind certain actions, variability is key. This element of spontaneity ensures that while you are steadfast and reliable in your core duties, the finer details of how you carry out these duties are not easily anticipated by the inmate population.

Retired Sergeant Russ Hamilton from the CDCR succinctly captures this concept: “Consistency derives from policy, procedure, law, case law, and professionalism. Predictability, or the lack thereof, derives from strategy or tactics.” This means that while the foundational aspects of your role are rooted in consistency, the tactical execution of these duties should incorporate a level of unpredictability to maintain effectiveness and control.

9. Don’t take it personally

Dealing with disrespectful behavior from inmates, particularly when they refuse to accept or comply with directives, is a challenging aspect of correctional work. Staff must be thick-skinned in these situations. Professionalism and reason must always take precedence over emotional reactions. Interactions with inmates should not be framed as a win/lose scenario or as an us-versus-them dynamic. Maintaining a level-headed and neutral stance is key to effectively managing these situations.

It’s important to remember that before you can confidently exercise authority over others, you must first have mastery over yourself. This self-control is essential in maintaining the balance between authority and empathy in a correctional setting.

In his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” author Stephen Covey encapsulates this idea perfectly: “Between what happens to us, the stimulus, and our response to the stimulus, lies our freedom.” This quote highlights the importance of the space between stimulus and response, where you have the freedom to choose your reaction. In the context of corrections, this means responding to challenging situations with professionalism and composure, rather than reacting impulsively or emotionally. This approach not only upholds the dignity of the profession but also contributes to a more effective and respectful correctional environment.

10. Don’t overuse authority

While staff members hold positions of authority over inmates, it’s vital not to fall into complacency by assuming this authority is automatically understood or universally accepted. Unfortunately, some staff operate under the misguided belief that their authority, being institutionally granted, is inherently respected and agreed upon by all inmates. This belief can lead to the false notion that their authority doesn’t require daily reaffirmation or respect-building efforts.

Relying solely on one’s position of authority to gain compliance, especially in minor matters, is a misuse of that authority. It’s important to remember that authority should be exercised judiciously and not as a default response to every situation. Over-reliance on asserting authority in every interaction can lead to its diminishing effectiveness and respect.

Effective correctional staff understand that while they have authority over inmates, this power should never be taken for granted, misused, or overused. The more frequently staff fall back on their authority by overtly announcing or flaunting it, the more likely it is to become diluted and ineffective. Instead, authority should be reinforced through professional conduct, fair and consistent application of rules, and the ability to command respect through actions rather than just words or titles.

11. No favors

Staff members must be vigilant against being placed in situations where they feel indebted to an inmate, whether it appears as a favor or an offer. These situations often start innocuously, with inmates seemingly making extra efforts to assist staff, like additional cleaning, offering protection, or acting as a lookout. However, it’s crucial to recognize that these efforts are rarely altruistic and often come with strings attached. The underlying intention is to create a sense of obligation, setting the stage for a quid pro quo dynamic: “I do something for you, so you should do something for me.”

It’s essential for staff to avoid falling into this trap. They should clearly communicate to inmates that their relationship is strictly professional and not reciprocal. Staff should firmly establish that the relationship is not based on personal favors or selective acts of kindness. By maintaining this professional boundary, staff can prevent any misconceptions or expectations of reciprocity, thus upholding the integrity of their role and the safety and order of the correctional environment.

12. Popular vs. respect

“Don’t look to be popular, look to be respected” is a valuable guideline in correctional work. Staff members who seek popularity among inmates may inadvertently find themselves seeking inmates’ permission or approval to carry out their duties. This desire to be liked can overshadow their ability to perform their responsibilities effectively and impartially.

13. Building rapport

The goal of building rapport with an inmate should extend beyond the rapport itself and focus on gathering actionable intelligence. It’s a tool, not an end goal. Unfortunately, some staff members lose sight of this and become overly focused on establishing rapport, treating it as the primary objective. This approach can lead to a dangerous path where the lines between professional interactions and personal relationships become blurred.

Prioritizing rapport over actionable intelligence can compromise a staff member’s ability to effectively perform their duties. It’s essential to remember that the purpose of building rapport is to enhance safety and security within the facility by gaining useful, actionable information. This information should then be appropriately documented and shared with the relevant authorities.

As my friend and Retired Sergeant Russ Hamilton wisely pointed out, “Watch how fast your rapport with an inmate evaporates when you go to hold them accountable.” This highlights the transient and conditional nature of any rapport built with inmates.

14. Intimation

Staff should never hesitate to fulfill their responsibilities due to intimidation tactics used by inmates. Inmates might threaten to complain to supervisors, contact lawyers, or reach out to their families in an attempt to deter staff from performing their duties. These actions are often a strategic move by inmates to gain control and make staff apprehensive about executing their roles.

Staff must maintain confidence in their prescribed duties and not be swayed by such attempts at manipulation. Staff should calmly but firmly communicate to the inmate that they are free to contact whomever they wish, but this will not impede the staff’s obligations. The key is to convey that threats or intimidation tactics will not dictate how staff members perform their jobs.

15. Firmness

Staff’s ability to be firm with inmates begins internally. While firmness may be outwardly manifested through behaviors that reinforce confidence, staff needs to remember that this conviction originates from within. Staff need to have faith in their authoritative position, trust in the duties they’re responsible for, and confidence in their ability to effectively perform their prescribed roles. This belief in their work and purpose, as it relates to their duties and expectations, will permeate every interaction they have with the inmate population. Being firm is tantamount to the staff’s capacity to persevere when challenged. Ultimately, it’s all about heart.

16. Inmate rights

Correctional staff must clearly understand the distinction between privileges and rights. Their ability to exercise control over the inmate population hinges on this knowledge. The control system used by correctional staff operates on a loss versus gain dynamic. Inmate behavior is regulated through their attempts to regain privileges that staff have revoked due to negative actions. This process underscores the principle of accountability.

However, staff must be well-versed in what constitutes an inmate’s rights as opposed to privileges. This understanding not only aids in maintaining control and balancing the use of authority but also safeguards staff from potential job loss. Being able to navigate this distinction is essential in ensuring that the measures taken are both effective and legally sound, thus upholding the integrity of the correctional system and protecting the rights of all involved.

17. Accountability

As correctional staff, your primary duty is to hold inmates accountable for their negative behaviors when necessary. This responsibility persists irrespective of the potential outcomes, such as an inmate beating a charge or disciplinary action. Staff should not become disheartened by the results of charges or disciplinary actions. Managing inmate behavior is a process rather than a result-oriented task. Regardless of the outcome, staff should consistently recognize and fulfill their crucial role in maintaining accountability.

18. Feelings of guilt

Correctional staff should not let inmates use guilt as a tactic to deflect responsibility for their negative behavior. Staff should not feel guilty for enforcing rules and regulations within their authority. Manipulative inmates may attempt to make staff feel guilty for imposing necessary consequences for their negative actions, aiming to weaken staff’s resolve in enforcing accountability. Ultimately, when an inmate commits a wrongdoing, staff should not feel responsible for the inmate’s actions. Inmates who try to use guilt to avoid the consequences of their actions should be promptly reminded by staff that these were the results of their own choices. Consequently, the inmate must be held accountable.

19. Clear and concise

Correctional staff must be deliberate and purposeful in all interactions with the inmate population. Whether issuing a directive or addressing a concern, nothing must be left open to interpretation. Their communication with inmates should be clear, concise, and relevant. The gap between communicated expectations and actual behavior must be thoroughly bridged with complete clarity and understanding. This might necessitate staff asking specific questions to ensure their message is understood and to address any potential ambiguities. Caution is necessary as messages conveyed to inmates can easily be misinterpreted or selfishly twisted. By being concise and clear, staff not only maintain control over the dialogue but also enhance their chances of achieving the desired outcome.


For correctional staff, comprehending the professional and working dynamics of each interaction and possessing the tools to preserve its integrity is crucial for daily duties. Every interaction holds the potential to either support or hinder the facility’s operations.

Understanding this, and knowing how and when to apply each tip, is key to maintaining the authority and control necessary to ensure your interactions are honest, professional, and, most importantly, within the confines of your professional role.

Anthony Gangi has a BA in psychology and is a 20-year veteran in corrections. He currently works as an Associate Administrator for State Corrections and has worked his way up through the ranks, from officer to sergeant, and then into administration. Anthony currently sits on the executive board of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Correctional Association. To date, Anthony Gangi has been invited to speak on CNN, MSNBC, CBS, Lifetime, ABC, Fox and NewsNation. He is also the author of “Inmate Manipulation Decoded” and “How to Succeed in Corrections,” as well as the host of the Tier Talk podcast.