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How effective is your civilian training program?

Here’s how to ensure civilians don’t become a safety risk at your correctional facility


When it comes to civilians and security, we must address several areas.


For those of us wearing the badge in correctional facilities, we see the many tasks performed by civilians.

Civilians cook thousands of meals a day in the kitchens. Civilians run laundries. Civilians maintain our heating, air conditioning and plumbing systems. Civilians install video surveillance and fix computers that crash. Civilians take inmate work crews around cleaning bathrooms, hallways and lobbies, and picking up trash. In some jails and prisons, civilians assist inmates in the law library or take book carts around to the inmate housing areas. Civilians are also part of the medical staff.

Institutional programs and administrations could not run without civilians such as clerks, secretaries, counselors, teachers and volunteers. Like the military and other areas of the criminal justice system, sworn personnel are helped greatly by non-sworn personnel.

Considerations for civilian training

Sworn personnel are always on the lookout for security breaches, unusual inmate behavior and contraband. They are trained how to look for it. From initial training at the academy and throughout the in-service sessions that span a career, correctional officers receive training in searches, escapes, special populations, contraband, manipulation by inmates, etc.

In most facilities, civilians receive an orientation that consists of an overview about the layout of the facility, what to do in emergencies, what correctional officers do, facility security, etc. This is good and necessary.

Overall, civilians in a correctional facility know the importance of safety and security. They know not to leave tools lying about, especially those working in maintenance or in the jail kitchen. They know the importance of controlling inmate movement and not allowing inmates outside of work areas, as well as keeping certain areas locked and secured.

Correctional officers should think about the items civilians use inside a facility. In 2014, Todd Gilchrist wrote about how kitchen, medical and maintenance crews are potential sources of contraband for inmates.

Contraband items that could be used by inmates include knives, spatulas, meat slicers, tongs, screwdrivers, hammers, chemical cleaners and wrenches. All civilian staff using these items must, in Gilchrist’s view, maintain situational awareness at all times.

Recent incidents outline the need for training

Thanks to the 2015 Clinton, New York, prison escape of two convicted murderers aided by a civilian worker at the prison, the alarm bell has sounded on the need to properly train civilians working in correctional facilities. Other recent incidents include the following:

  • In 2015, a food service employee at the St. Louis Correctional Facility pleaded guilty to smuggling drugs into the prison on three different occasions. Another kitchen worker was charged with second degree criminal sexual conduct with an inmate; she was “making out” with him in the kitchen.
  • In 2007 in Monroe County, Pennsylvania, five correctional officers and a kitchen worker were charged by state police with sexual contact with inmates, which had gone on for over two years. The kitchen worker reportedly kissed an inmate inside a walk-in refrigerator.
  • In December 2015 a sheriff’s drug dog alerted deputies to a car parked in the Colquitt County jail lot in Moultrie, Georgia. When the car was searched, its cargo contained methamphetamine, marijuana, tobacco, Saran wrap, rolling papers and cigarette lighters. Who owned the car? A 33-year-old jail nurse who is now facing criminal drug and contraband smuggling charges.

There is progress being made. In Delaware, civilian training in correctional facilities has taken a revolutionary step. Through the Correctional Employee Initial Training Program, civilians who work as culinary instructors, teachers and counselors attend training alongside correctional officer recruits. Developed as a result of a 2004 incident where a counselor was abducted and raped by an inmate (the inmate was killed by a CO sniper), the Delaware Department of Corrections wants the best security for many of its civilian staff. Firearms and physical agility training are not required, but courses about interacting with inmates and resisting manipulation are part of the training.

Questions to ask about your civilian training program

When it comes to civilians and security, we must address several areas:

  • Are we just doing perfunctory orientations – rushing through important subjects like manipulation, contraband and what inmates are like – or are we really discussing critical issues civilians need to be aware of?
  • Are we discussing situational awareness? Do civilians have an understanding and appreciation of the correctional environment? We must ensure they never forget where they are and the types of people they are dealing with. This is critical when training volunteers who need to know that tutoring inmates inside a correctional facility is vastly different from helping out at the local high school night adult classes.
  • When a civilian is transferred to a jail from an outside agency, are we conducting appropriate reference and background checks to ensure we are not getting a problem employee?
  • Many years ago, a paroled offender told me that when he was incarcerated he looked at all staff as having the main thing he wanted. Was it drugs? No. Was it smuggled cell phones? No. It was access to the outside. Civilians need to know that this is the focus of many inmates.
  • Are we encouraging “two-way street” communication between correctional officers and civilians? Do civilians feel comfortable informing officers of unusual things they see and hear from inmates? Are correctional officers going into areas where civilians are working to support security and professional behavior?
  • Do civilians realize there are severe consequences for such conduct as sex with inmates, assisting in escapes and smuggling contraband? Are they informed of criminal statutes for such behavior? Do they know they can be incarcerated alongside the inmates they become criminally involved with?

Civilians in corrections are a valuable resource. They help with operations and provide services to the inmate population, but it is our responsibility they receive the appropriate training to ensure the safety of correctional officers, civilian employees and inmates.

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs, planning/ policy and classification. Cornelius is the author of The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation and Stressed Out: Strategies for Living and Working in Corrections.