How doing your job well can be a threat to inmates

Q: I have recently started working as a deputy sheriff at a max security county jail. I am in shape and training in martial arts, but I am definitely not the biggest guy. One issue I have come across is trying to maintain my security when dealing with inmates — without looking afraid of them. For the most part, I am prudent about officer safety, but sometimes it goes out the window, like when I’m conducting cursory cell searches and shakedowns while the inmates are out for free time in extremely close proximity (or still in their cell*). Despite all that, an inmate will occasionally ask why I'm scared of them. This perplexes me, as I don't feel like I'm giving off that vibe.

My questions are: How much credence should I give their "assessment"? Should I even care? What does it take to not seem scared of inmates? Is there a way to this, short of acting like a hardass? Your advice is appreciated. 


A: I commend your question. You are taking the time to analyze yourself and not afraid to ask for help. Let me address your questions one by one here.

First of all, congratulations. It sounds like you are trying to do the right thing to be a good, effective officer. Not having worked with you, I can only assume that you behave professionally in your encounters with inmates, and don't back down from doing the right thing, even if it is hard.

How much credence should I give to their assessment of me being scared of them?

If you only walk away with one thing from this article, I want you to understand that you are being tested. As a new employee, the inmates in your area have been watching you closely. They have watched you pat down inmates and complete cell searches rather than sit and read the paper. They have also seen that you take care of yourself, and that you are concerned with the security of the institution. The inmates don't like it one bit.

The inmates have several options at this point, as they now view you as a potential threat to their surroundings. It is an inmate's "job" to smuggle contraband, try to escape and to prey on the weaknesses of others; conversely, it is your job to stop these activities. When you do your job and threaten their plans, they must eliminate the threat. Assaulting an officer is not always an option for a lot of inmates, as this adds time to their sentence and interrupts their flow of contraband in the way of a lockdown.

So what is an inmate to do? The inmate will find your weakness.

It sounds like you take pride in your work, and a general pride in yourself. The inmates are simply trying to compromise that pride by seeding thoughts of doubt in your mind. You are probably questioning yourself now, wondering if you truly are scared of the inmates. (If you don't have some fear of inmates, I suggest psychiatric treatment!)

You have to sit and think about how you will respond to this question the next time it is posed. This is where the second part of your question comes in.

Should I even care? What does it take to not seem scared of inmates?

You should care about what the inmates are trying to do. When multiple inmates are trying to challenge you as a new officer, often it means you are doing your job.

Furthermore, you need to be able to separate inmates as individuals in a housing unit. There are going to be inmates that are a more serious threat than others. You cannot be scared of the entire group. You wouldn't be scared of everyone who wears white hats, however, you may be scared of the one person wearing a white hat who is coming at you with a machete — but that doesn’t make you scared of everyone who wears a white hat.

Being scared is part of being a new officer. Any officer who tells you he wasn’t even a little bit scared when he first started this job is talking out of his southern exit.

You need to understand that you can actually be worried about your safety with regards to an inmate without showing it at all. To not seem scared of inmates in general, it is best to treat all of them the same way, every day. If you treat all inmates fairly and without bias, it will be harder for inmates to find your weaknesses, as you are no different from day to day, inmate to inmate.

But, this doesn’t mean you shouldn't take a more aggressive self defense stance with a hostile inmate; I am targeting daily routines here.

This brings me to the last part of your question...

Is there a way to do so, short of acting like a hardass and literally getting in their face all the time (which can be an officer safety issue)?

If you're asking this question, clearly you sense there's a better alternative.

Imagine you're a lion tamer. You are tasked with taming the most violent lion ever to walk the face of the earth. What do you think is the best option here?

  1. Walk in and kick the lion in the head and tell him that he will obey your commands.
  2. Earn the respect of the lion, teach it to respect your commands, and know he will see you as an authority figure.

Obviously rhetorical, my question points out some obvious analogies to our job as correctional officers. First, at least half the inmates I meet on a daily basis could beat me into a coma faster than responding officers could pull them off me. Don't fool yourself that you cannot be beaten.

Second, you need to understand that simply going into an area and challenging the inmates to a fight by trying to be a hardass is only going to lead to a long career of fights and challenges. You will become a trophy, and in the end you will have affected no real improvement in the safety of the institution, or to the safety of your partners.

By continuing to present yourself as a law enforcement professional, you will defeat the inmates' attempts at breaking you down by seeding doubt. You will earn the inmates' respect by being fair and firm to every inmate you meet, regardless or race, commitment offense or stature. The inmates will learn to respect you for being a true professional.

Your integrity will not be compromised

I know some of you are beating your heads on the keyboard right now after reading my last paragraph. No, the previous sentence was not a press statement. I want to make it clear that earning the respect of inmates has nothing to do with getting them to like you; instead, it has everything to do with getting the inmates to understand that you will not compromise your integrity because you are challenged. You are above that.

You are on the right track, and must not deviate from it. The inmates are testing you to see if they can get you to follow their rules of prison. One of the cardinal rules of an inmate's life is to follow every challenge to your "manhood" with an act of aggression. This is not necessary as an officer. You have the law on your side. Simply continue doing your job, undaunted by the questions that inmates may ask you.

The inmates are asking you if you are scared because they have identified a weakness in your routine: Your "weakness" is your pride in your work. Don't mistake my interpretation of the inmates' questions as a negative interpretation of your abilities. Quite the opposite — you are doing the right thing already, you just need to come up with a good answer to the question. (Sometimes the best answer is silence. Do not give the inmate the satisfaction of probing your thoughts. Simply carry on with your task without responding to their inquiry, and see what the reaction is.)

A measured response

I can't tell you how to act, or how to answer their question, as one of the most important things you can do in prison is be yourself. Think about their question and decide if it's worth answering. If you decide it is, in fact, worth a response, make sure that response is pointed and well thought-out.

For example, I heard a new officer speak to an inmate after a heated discussion. The inmate told the new officer that he was nothing but a “scared punk” and that he should have taken a job at our local convenience store. The inmate stood and waited for a response from the officer. The officer turned to his partner and asked what the score of the football game was. The inmate walked away — frustrated, but nonetheless, he walked away.

Do you think that inmate challenged the officer again? My advice? Be yourself.

If you are someone who speaks directly and to the point, do so. If you are someone that prefers long explanations, do so. There is nothing more transparent to an inmate than an officer trying to be something that he is not. Be yourself, check your attitude, and respond (or not) accordingly. Being a new officer, you may not have found your "style" or way of dealing with inmates yet. This is fine, just make sure you draw direction from your partners, and your supervisor on how to handle this situation.

Make an effort to educate yourself on the local procedures and policies — and follow them.

It is obvious that the inmates in your area already know you are going to be a problem for them. Use this to your advantage and run a clean, safe unit. I cannot emphasize enough that you must get some guidance from the senior staff in your area. They may seem gruff and hard to work with, but after talking to them for a while, you will learn a lot. Many of these officers have been through the same things you have, and may have some insight for you.

Backspin, I hope I have both encouraged you to be who you are, and to seek out more training. Most of us have been at these crossroads in our careers, and it is crucial that you make the right decision based both on your gut feeling and the experience of others before you.

Other officers are encouraged to submit your feedback and comments here. I hope some will.  Remember, we were all new once and needed some help, even if we weren’t brave enough to ask for it.

As always, be safe our there, watch your six, and vest up.


* Post-script: There were a couple of things you wrote, Backspin, that concerned me, so let me address them quickly. First of all, you should not have to compromise officer safety when conducting searches. You should always call for assistance when searching an inmate, and you should NEVER, EVER search a cell or area where inmates are in close proximity. Tell the inmates firmly to move out of the area. If they do not move, contact your supervisor for guidance. Check your local procedures for guidance on this.


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