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How worn-down empathy can spell trouble for corrections

Patience, emotional intelligence and problem-solving are perishable skills, especially when tested daily

Deputy talking with inmate in cell 2.jpg

What you can absolutely control every shift is how much care you express in your duties toward the people in your custody.


You’ve been running control for the past 10 hours, with two more to go. Inmate Smith is a mental health patient. Smith started early today, about 25 minutes into your shift and the guy is persistent.

First, he asked for the nurse, stating he didn’t feel good. Nurses are busy and overworked, you told him to submit a med slip. Smith contacted you no less than 15 times within two hours to tell you about all the ways he was not feeling well.

You started with patience, but there was a lot going on and, at some point, you ignored Smith. He must have fallen asleep and stopped bothering you. Before he did, he told you he couldn’t breathe and needed medical “right away!” You shook your head and told him “No one cares” and the nurse is busy. You got a couple of chuckles from a coworker.

That was a couple of hours ago. Now, you hear a call over the radio for a medical emergency from Smith’s housing unit. Much later, and well past shift change, after being interviewed by DA investigators and writing your report, you go home with the death of an inmate on your mind and what you could have done to prevent the death. Terms like “federal case” and “deliberate indifference” are floating around. You have been directed by your union rep to “call this number” for an attorney.

Anyone who has seen their career flash before their eyes as a result of the above scenario will tell you it just took one quick thoughtless comment to change everything. They will also tell you some of the most caring and strong-willed corrections professionals have found themselves in a similar predicament. This is because we work long hours with periods of minimal recovery. The strong character traits corrections staff members are hired for can be diminished when we don’t take care of ourselves. Patience, emotional intelligence and problem-solving are perishable skills, especially when tested daily.

There are at least three major components at play in the scenario above: Finite resources, tested patience and reduced empathy. Each of these components exists on a sliding scale within every corrections facility and among each staff member.

Finite resources

Corrections nurses and sworn staff are far outnumbered by the people who regularly call for help. There is a constant triage taking place in a custody setting. Everchanging circumstances keep staff figuring and refiguring where their efforts are needed and in what order to handle emergencies. To exacerbate this issue, most of our jails and prison nationwide are operating grossly short-staffed today, some missing two or three shifts worth of personnel.

When an inmate repeatedly believes they are having an emergency or is seeking attention or obviously faking a medical issue to manipulate staff, it is natural for staff to prioritize other inmate medical calls before coming back to the repeat faker. Care and custody have to apply to the entire inmate population and sometimes what would normally be priority one will move to third or fourth in line if the emergent needs of other inmates are more apparent.

Patience meter

We are only human and after a constant barrage of false alarms and imagined emergencies, even the most patient control officer may lose their edge. With many other calls to navigate and safety measures to keep in place, staff members will meter out how much effort they will give one inmate at any given time.

If you had one staff member for every inmate in your facility, you could spend the entire day getting to the bottom of why Inmate Smith thinks he may have a medical emergency. Maybe he’s bored, maybe he is mortified by the voices in his head, maybe he is actually, just this once, having a medical emergency. Smith, however, is one of several inmates at any given time who is testing your patience. It takes a lot of internal fortitude to maintain that patience meter as more tests pile on from different directions.

Reduced empathy

This is the component most likely to land you in federal court because it directly relates to the term “deliberate indifference.” It is also related to the defense mechanism corrections professionals employ to protect our psyche.

If we showed full empathy for every emotional input we receive from inmates, whether real or fabricated to manipulate staff, we would not survive the correctional environment. We, therefore, distance ourselves from our interactions with inmates. We do so just enough to remain protected, but still actually care about the outcome of any situation and show it, bearing in mind the mission of care and custody. So far, so good.

Things get dicey when corrections professionals, exhausted by years of sustained overtime, exhibit false bravado and fall into the easy culture of complete carelessness like nothing bothers them. They show off for their colleagues and for some of the more sophisticated inmates who also exhibit indifference to protect their own psyche. Those staff members start walking and speaking like they don’t have a care at all. Then, an inmate says something or does something any professional should care about and the staffer’s response, “I don’t care” becomes a headline in the local paper.

Control what you can

Staffing shortages are a larger issue than any corrections officer. However, your patience meter will fluctuate and take more hits when staffing is low. You can feed your patience meter to an extent. More sleep, exercise and a developed sense of humor will improve your resiliency. I believe this is easier said than done, considering the past two years in corrections, but it’s not impossible.

What you can absolutely control every shift is how much care you express in your duties toward the people in your custody. Not to be confused with weakness, high levels of care do not translate to less accountability. You can expect good behavior from inmates while showing a professional level of care that will keep you legally safer.

Care will also protect your own psyche as much as the emotional distance will. The two can exist in tandem and should. In the case of a possibly imaginary or faked medical emergency, play it safe and treat the event like a training exercise if it helps you focus on making the right moves. An inmate who has already been seen several times by the nurse and just won’t quit calling for help may need to be moved to a location with more direct observation if you can justify the move within your policy.

The control operator may not be required to verbally engage with this inmate in order to act, but if you choose to connect via intercom with a difficult inmate, you will need to remain neutral or show some level of care. If you protect your frustrations with a careless remark, your intentions will be questioned despite your best efforts and any bad outcome will be amplified by the comments you make as you carry out your duties.

NEXT: How to bounce back from a bad outcome in your correctional facility

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