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A guide to personal survival basics: Reading an inmate

The truth is, many corrections officers still don’t feel confident in their ability to defend themselves


Correctional officer A. Andrews searches an inmate at California State Prison, Sacramento, in Folsom, Calif., Thursday, March 10, 1999.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

By Senior Training Deputy John Williams
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department

Most individuals who work inside our nation’s jails are not trained martial artists, nor are they brawny enough to discourage an attack by their mere physical presence. Furthermore, we are not seasoned convicts who have made a profession out of assaulting and manipulating others. The passage of time lulls many of us into a sense of complacency, leading us to become over-dependent on our portable radios, pepper spray and ready backup. Easy-to-neglect skills like empty-hand defense suffer.

Once we complete basic academy training, we’re immediately expected to supervise and maintain order among the inmate population. And even though the academy gave us basic defensive skills and orientation lectures gave us some expectation of what to expect working inside a jail, the truth is, many corrections officers still don’t feel confident in their ability to defend themselves. I wrote this article to help prepare you to feel more confident about your safety and your job — mentally and physically.

Mental attitude

Mental preparation is everything. Because the inmate already knows what he is going to do, your reaction time will leave you at a disadvantage. To minimize this reactionary gap, you need to have a plan of action. You must constantly be aware of your surroundings, who is behind you, where your backup is, or where is the nearest avenue of escape. Any time you have contact with an inmate, when/then thinking must be in full effect: “If he charges me, I will move to my left, hit him, create distance and call for assistance.”

As a peace officer, your “will to survive” attitude is rooted in minimizing injury to yourself and others. If an inmate comes up to you, presents his fists and says he is going to kick your ass, you need to back up, create distance and call for assistance. There is no honor in foolishly taking on an inmate for the sake of saving face. The saying, he who runs away, lives to fight another day is very applicable here.

In a nutshell, when possible, disengage — create distance, retreat, get back-up and have a plan.

Threat awareness

Never underestimate an inmate. Regardless of his size, age, or demeanor, you can never be sure of an inmate’s capabilities or intentions. The majority of inmates doing time in our jails are hardened career criminals. Many of these inmates are in jail for violent crimes including murder. Additionally, many of our inmates suffer from mental illness and may not be able to comprehend or follow your directions.

An inmate’s security classification is not a reliable gauge of the threat level he poses to you. The sentenced misdemeanor inmate you are talking to may also be a murderer who has not been caught yet. Unbeknownst to you, that same inmate may also be facing a third strike conviction. That third strike may be just enough to motivate him to launch an assault or escape through you.

As you can see, the motivating factor behind an inmate’s assault remains unpredictable. Because jails are a stressful place, he may just “snap.” His girlfriend may have just broken up with him, or he may have a deep-seated hatred of you because of your authority, race or gender. The inmate may be mentally ill, delusional, or suffering from substance withdrawal.

Make no mistake; inmates are well adapted to choosing their victims. They will be constantly sizing you up. They will observe your demeanor and command presence and evaluate your physical fitness, commitment, and experience. Never attempt to predict the behavior of an inmate. Always be prepared to act. Anyone who attacks you indisputably has a high degree of motivation and a high desire to win.

Primer for personal survival basics

The 3 Truths

Always expect the unexpected.

It can happen to you.

Better to have mastered a skill that isn’t needed than to need a skill that isn’t mastered.

If absorbed, practiced and used in custody, the following tips can help sharpen your alertness for early danger signs and improve your immediate response tactics.

Be a good observer

Just as body language and demeanor can reveal when an inmate is in a state of distress, his or her posture and behavior may telegraph when you are in danger. By reading these clues early, you may be able to build distance, issue commands, assume a defensive stance and, most importantly, avert a possible assault. The following are some common warning clues you may observe in inmate behavior. (Many of these early warning signs and pre-attack postures can be traced back to the Calibre Press Street Survival Seminars of the early 1980s. Although they have been updated and expanded over the years, these threat assessment opportunities remain as valid now as when they were first identified.)

Repetitious inquiries

A deceptive inmate who repeats your questions in order to stall while he thinks up answers may be using this tactic to buy time to formulate a plan for attacking you. This is a danger clue. You should be formulating your own defensive plans and direct the inmate to give direct answers now.

In trying to verbally persuade a difficult inmate to cooperate, you should follow this five-step tactical process developed by Dr. George Thompson of the Verbal Judo Institute:

  1. Ask: “Sir will you please...?”
  2. Explain the reasoning behind your directive.
  3. Present options by explaining both the positive and the negative consequences if the inmate refuses to cooperate.
  4. Confirm the inmate’s non-compliance by asking, “Sir, is there anything else I can say to get you to cooperate? I would like to think that there is.”
  5. Act: Use physical control techniques or other appropriate force measures in the face of continued resistance or threat to yourself or others. Remember that “acting” may include both disengaging and/or escalating, based on the “totality of circumstance” known to the officer at the time of the incident.

This five-step tactical process allows the officer to control repetitious inquires by focusing the inmate back to what the officer is asking the inmate to do and allows the officer to take action.

Conspicuous ignoring

Here, the inmate deliberately refuses to respond to your presence or dialogue. Failure to obey commands or to even acknowledge you is a universal indicator of trouble. His behavior is telling you, You’re not going to control me. He may be hoping to sucker you more in closely. If you do, he may attack.

Looking around

The inmate may be listening and talking to you, but his eyes are darting past you or to his sides. Darting eyes indicate agitation. He may be looking to see if you have backup, or he may be looking for help from one of his fellow inmates. This can be a significant warning sign to create space and establish a good defensive position.

Excessive emotional attention

If the inmate is cursing and/or ranting and raving out loud over what you believe to be a normal detention, ask yourself why he’s so upset. Excessive emotional attention can quickly escalate into an attack. Be especially cautious if he starts alleging that you want to use violence against him, e.g., You wanna kick my ass? He may be projecting what he really want to do to you.

Exaggerated movement

If an inmate begins pacing rapidly and angrily or throws his arms around in wild gestures, these may be signs of an imminent attack and should be dealt with immediately. Start with verbal commands such as “I need you to face away from me and stand still”. If he doesn’t, give an option to him: “Sir, I can put you in handcuffs; then you won’t wave your arms around.” Be ready to escalate to physical control measures if necessary.

Physical crowding

Consciously or unconsciously, the suspect moves in close to you. This may be an effort to intimidate you or a set-up to attack you. Your immediate goal should be to create space and provide for a reactionary gap. If the inmate fails to follow verbal directions and continues to crowd you, one useful option is to spread the fingers of your weak hand and place your fingertips on his chest. If he fails to move back, abruptly slam the heel of your palm against his sternum and, at the same time, straighten your arm and thrust hard. Put your whole body into the move.

If this move fails to move the inmate back, you may consider pushing into the small indentation located just above the inmate’s sternum with one or more of your fingers. This area is very sensitive to touch and will move back even the largest and most threatening inmate. Because this “pressure point” is located next to the sensitive and vulnerable areas of the neck, it should only be used when you believe your life is in imminent danger.

If he grabs your arm while you execute one of these maneuvers, he’ll expect that you’ll try to pull away. Push toward him instead. His momentum and your momentum will combine to push him backwards and most likely knock him off balance. At the very least, you will “redirect” his attention and position.

Sudden cooperation

An agitated, uncooperative subject suddenly has a profound change of attitude and has become sweetly cooperative. Maybe something you’ve said or done altered his thinking, or he could be tricking you into relaxing your guard.

Ceasing all movement

You should be at your highest level of alert if you encounter an agitated inmate who suddenly stops cold. This can be the calm before the storm, a brief transition period before taking action. It is often accompanied by the “thousand-yard stare” and a radical facial expression.

Pre-attack postures

Unlike the danger clues mentioned earlier, a pre-attack posture is a solid indication that you are about to be assaulted. Pre-attack postures occur when an inmate decides to assault and needs to arrange himself physically to carry out his attack. It can be done quickly or very subtly depending on how the inmate wants to launch his attack.

Some pre-attack posture clues include an inmate who begins to bounce up and down on his toes. His fists may open and close nervously or clench tight. He may attempt to bend his elbows or put one or more hands behind his neck in an effort to pre-position his hands to a ready position. He may turn sideways to you to protect his “centerline” which transverses his vital areas.

The inmate’s body in general will tighten just before he moves. He may also slightly bend his knees in an effort to lower his center of gravity to better launch a strike against you. Unless the inmate is highly trained, he will instinctively look where he intends to strike, before he attacks.

If you encounter any of these danger signs, clear, loud verbal commands may diffuse an imminent assault. Tell the inmate forcefully to “Stop, face away from me and stand still”. This tells the inmate you won’t be taken by surprise. Remember to stay cautious with all inmates. Ask yourself: If you were going to attack an officer, would you be noticeably aggressive right away, or act submissively and wait for the right opportunity?

Protective stances

If you consciously stand so you’re ready to deal with trouble, you send a message of discouragement to the inmate. Even aggression-prone inmates will usually think twice before attacking an officer who appears ready and alert.

Open stance

If an inmate is calm and cooperative, the “open stance” will help you convey a non-threatening appearance and promote rapport and communication. Here, your feet are about shoulder-width apart with your strong leg back slightly. You should position yourself at least six feet from the inmate. Your elbows are comfortably bent at about 90 degrees with your hands roughly at waist level. Your palms may be turned up and out, or you can stand with your fingertips together in a modified “prayer” position. Standing with your hands at your sides or in your pockets leaves you open to a sucker punch and increase’s your defensive reaction time. From this position, your hands are deceptively close to your pepper spray.

Defensive stance

If the inmate starts showing resistance, including verbal abuse or any of the other emotional indicators we previously discussed, take a more aggressive defensive stance and direct the inmate turn around and face a wall.

From the open stance, move your strong foot back and place your elbows to your sides with your arms protecting your chest. Your hands should be higher and your palms facing each other shielding your face and ready to curl into fists if you need to make a defensive jab to keep the inmate away. A modified version of this stance calls for you to leave one hand up to shield your face and put the other on your pepper spray, prepared to draw it if the inmate moves to assault you.

Assuming the inmate has followed your directions; you should call and wait for backup before you attempt to conduct a pat down search of the inmate for weapons. If the inmate continues to be resistant, you may elect to handcuff him for both his and your own safety.