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How minding your performance levels will get you though a tough day in corrections

When you take stock of your performance levels and the factors that are affecting them, you can make adjustments where needed


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You just came back to work after three days off. You ate like a yogi and rested like a bear. You even hiked for half a day with your best pal and took in some good views at the local lookout. You forgot about work for a good 48 hours.

Working with a full battery

Shift change comes and you tag in, ready to walk the two housing units in your beat. You’re focused, present and walking upright in your initial headcount. Inmates test your levels right away. They check your level of humor, patience and emotional temperature. You are aware of what they’re doing and properly navigate their tests. All is well.

Two hours into your shift, the inmates are slow to lockdown for med-pass and you shout out a general announcement about consequences. After lockdown, an inmate in cell 16 asks you why you think you need to control everything. You don’t miss a beat.

“That was literally one of the job descriptions on the flyer when I got hired.”

The inmate retreats, shaking his head. His cellmates are cracking up and one of them asks for a request form. You tell the cellmate you will get him a request form after med-pass. One hour later, you walk through the housing unit and hand the cellmate in cell 16 an Inmate Request Form.

This incident all seems like very simple stuff and soaked up less than one minute from your shift. An inmate tried to get under your skin and epically failed. You managed his attempt without showing an emotional reaction, but you didn’t ignore the attempt. The inmate’s cellmates responded appropriately to an exchange that wasn’t so serious, but one of them wanted to make sure, so he asked you for a request slip to see if you are just a little angry and therefore unwilling to do a small part of your job. He finds out this is not the case, because you are well-rested and your skillset has been charged up for the week. Imagine the same scenario under different circumstances.

Life at home will affect your performance

For example, you get home for your regular days off to an argument with your spouse. You really just need a break and go out with your pal to the bar for a drink. Four drinks and a super nacho platter later, you get home and flop on the couch, to be woken up by the dog three hours after you fall asleep. You spend the next two days off trying to reconcile with your spouse and catch up on sleep. You almost clear the laundry from the treadmill. Maybe one day, you’ll get on that treadmill.

The specific skillset you have developed while working in a prison or jail needs to be constantly monitored and maintained. The level of each skill will fluctuate, regardless of how well you can perform your duties on your best day.

Your performance level will be influenced by the time of the day, the number of hours you have been trucking along, how much sleep you have been getting and what kind of breakfast you had before you came to work. Your shift may get so busy that you feel the need to start cutting corners. This will include the time you spend with difficult inmates and the level of patience you exhibit. Your sense of humor may reduce a couple of levels when you have mentally grappled with enough inmates in a row. That level of black belt verbal judo you started the week with may suffer by hour nine of your fourth day on duty.

In practice, think of all the skills you need to get through your day as a group of volume dials. There is a dial for patience, one for awareness, one for emotional intelligence, and so on. Each of your volume dials are set at a baseline created by a combination of your experience and practice. Each skill dial is affected by a number of outside influences, represented by sliders, which can reduce or improve that skill.

Your performance at work is directly related to how many skills you can use with high enough proficiency (volume). Each skill proficiency is affected by factors out of your control, and also by factors in your control. This group of factors makes up the equalizer. You will need to keep up factors you can control in order to get through the unpredictable and sometimes uncontrollable moments during your shift which can lower your ability to perform a skill.

Check your levels before shift change

You are a professional. You don’t let your home life affect your work life. At what levels, however, are your skills when you walk in for briefing after a rough weekend? How will your observation skills be? What will your patience meter look like? When an inmate tests you, will you be ready, or will you bark back and set a heavy tone in the housing unit, advertising to all inmates in that unit that they will probably get under your skin just a little easier today (and they will take the opportunity)?

Be mindful of the percentages at which you are performing. You will not function at full capacity every day you are at work. When you take stock of your performance levels and the factors that are affecting them, you can make adjustments where needed. If you know, for instance, that your patience meter is down, be very mindful if something an inmate says irritates you. Take the extra time to get through that moment. Maybe you won’t have a smart response that shuts the inmate down, but you also won’t respond with emotion, which is what the inmate wants when he tests you.

In managing the elements within our control to perform our skillsets, we mitigate the influences that will reduce the effectiveness of our abilities. When we fail to get the rest and relaxation needed to come back for another round, we have to keep that in mind and be more aware of a potentially lower set of skills for the coming shift.

Zohar Zaied is a background investigator assigned to the Corrections Division at the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California. He served 16 years as a deputy and supervisor at the Mendocino County Jail, including a post in the Gangs and Classification unit and the Home Detention and Work Release programs. His book, “The Corrections Toolbox,” is now available on