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How to be successful in dealing with inmates

What do inmates look for in a correctional staff member?

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Inmates despise the officer who laughs with them one day and writes them up the next.


When I talk with inmates formally or informally, I often ask them what exemplifies a good officer. The overriding consensus is that they want consistency. They want the officer to be the same person every day. They hate it when an officer acts like a “Rambo or Ramboette” one day and then acts passively and don’t care the next.

They despise the officer who laughs with them one day and writes them up the next. Inmates understand that everybody has a bad day once in a while, but they respect the officer who puts everything aside and does their job when they enter the gate each day.

Here are a few more tips to keep in mind when dealing with inmates.

Listen up

Inmates want to be actively listened to. Mark Twain once said, “If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have had two tongues and one ear.” Our egos tend to overwhelm our desire to listen, which usually leads to us interrupting when important things are being said. When we are unable to effectively listen to inmates, it is generally because we are listening to ourselves preparing what we are going to say when we interrupt.

Inmates notice how body language affects the message being sent by the officer. Listening takes a lot of effort on your part and your words need to be in congruence with your non-verbal actions. This will add to your credibility and enhance your professional identity when dealing with inmates.

Be positive

Maintaining a positive attitude is a huge part of your success. You control your attitude when you get up every day. A large part of what you see depends upon what you are looking for. Maintaining a positive attitude each day enhances your chances of making a difference.

I have said many times that you control your attitude, your attitude controls your motivation, your motivation controls your performance, and your performance ultimately determines and controls how successful you will be each day.

Your attitude is a direct reflection on your professionalism, the quality of your actions and your integrity.

Be friendly, but aware

It’s okay to smile at work. Inmates often ask me why officers don’t smile. Think about how much more effective you could be if you were perceived as enjoying your job! Make eye contact with the person you are talking with. Nod your head when listening to show you understand what they are saying. When you interrupt, say “Excuse me, l want to make sure I understand what you are saying,” and then paraphrase it back to them to ensure their message has been received.

Maintain good posture and be prepared if things go bad. We need to focus on the individual and what is being said, avoiding the distractions that limit our ability to actively listen to inmates, especially when they are in crisis.

Remember what your goals are when talking with any inmates. What do you want to accomplish, and what is the path of least resistance in getting it? I want to get the inmate to comply with my directives and I want to do it in the most respectful and professional manner possible.

When doing this, my chances of positive results can increase. Inmates appreciate being talked to, not down to. They understand the hierarchy and know who’s in charge. We don’t need to continue to throw the badge in their face. Never lie to an inmate. It diminishes your credibility and makes you an easy mark for manipulation. Respect given is respect gotten.

Mental preparation

When I walk in the gate each day, there is an automatic click in my brain that says, “Showtime!” I’m now ready for the task at hand and reminded that there is an audience to perform in front of. This mindset allows me to mentally prepare myself for the task at hand.

It reminds me to change from my personal face to my professional face. I am not being phony or deceitful; I am doing my job based upon who I am and how I have been trained.

This mindset allows me to remain alert and be decisive in the same surroundings every day. You have to remember, it is our job to interact with people who don’t want to be interacted with and then be able to respond in a moment’s notice when bad things happen.

I believe that people are like steel. When they lose their temper, they are useless. Our goal is to be respected, not liked.

Respect given is respect earned

The late Dr. George Thompson, founder of Verbal Judo, encourages us to focus on how people are the same instead of how they are different. This is the concept he used to create the 5 Universal Truths. The concept is simple and speaks to what inmates are always talking about. Treat others with dignity and respect, regardless of the behaviors they may be exhibiting at the time.

This maxim is unconditional and should be applied to all situations. We will ask people to do something instead of telling them. Always tell them why you are asking them to do it. Present them with options rather than threats. And when appropriate, give them another chance to correct the inappropriate behavior.

Too often we take the disruptive behaviors of others as a personal attack on our character and react hastily and escalate the situation. I encourage you to separate the behavior from the individual and respond to the meaning of the words and not the actual words themselves. Have you ever been angry and said something you didn’t mean? So do inmates, all the time.

We need to address why they are angry, not the words. As your ego goes up, your power to control any situation goes down.

Foundations for the future

I remember Doc Thompson’s “Closure Principle.” I want to make every attempt to leave the inmate feeling better than I found him/her at their worst. This allows the inmate to save face and will more than likely enhance future interactions with this inmate.

In our business, there are always future interactions with the same individual and believe me, inmates remember both the good and the bad experiences.

Treating inmates with dignity and respect will only enhance your reputation and professional identity.

This article, originally published 06/24/2014, has been updated.

Rory Thelen is a retired 32-year veteran with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. His expertise is in creating and maintaining the safest and most secure environment possible for staff and inmates, whether as an instructor or an officer. To that end, Rory is a certified Verbal Defense and Influence Instructor for the Vistelar Group, a Verbal Judo Instructor and has been a Firearms and Incapacitating Agents Instructor. Rory is also a call staff instructor at Moraine Park Technical College teaching Emergency Procedures in the Criminal Justice Program.