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10 ways correctional officers jeopardize safety

Any of these things can place officers, correctional staff and inmates in harm’s way


In this Aug. 31, 2007, file photo, a guard tower is seen behind the wire fence that surrounds California State Prison, Sacramento, in Folsom, Calif.

AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File

The number one goal of any corrections agency should be to keep everyone safe behind the prison walls. This can be accomplished through continuous training in areas such as inmate manipulation, spotting corruption among the ranks, correctional officer ethics, leadership skills and, most of all, knowledge of the agency’s policy and procedures.

Even with all the corrections training and education on offer, we still have some drifters who place officers and prison staff in jeopardy. Here are 10 ways officer safety can be threatened:

1. Failure to back up fellow officers

An officer call for backup requires immediate attention. All available officers must respond as soon as possible. You do not finish your coffee first or walk slowly to avoid arriving first on scene having to type a report. If report-writing scares you, additional education in this area is available. Not responding to the aid of a fellow officer or running to get help at the most critical time your fellow officer needs you will not go unnoticed. Do not earn the reputation of “coward.” Cowardice is unacceptable and gets officers injured or worse. If you sign up for this job, you sign up for the entire job description.

2. Discussing personal information in front of inmates

Discussing personal information about yourself or your fellow officers around inmates causes problems. Inmates listen and learn. They gather information on officers to use against them later. Gang members are known to have people drive by staff homes to gather information. Do not become a victim of inmate manipulation due to personal gossip or sharing private family information. If an inmate approaches you about your family life or financial issues, write them up immediately for your protection and report the event to a supervisor. Staying away from home talk while at work is always good practice.

3. Falling in love with an inmate

For obvious reasons, this is bad news. I always remember the story of an officer who broke up with an inmate after she’d had a months-long affair with him. She gave him the bad news right at shift change. The inmate became irate and flooded his cell. When officers came to take him into custody, he threw one of the officers against the cell wall. The officer later passed away in the hospital due to complications from the injury. There are many other reasons this is dangerous to all of us, as contraband and security information goes together with inmate/officer personal relationships.

4. Bringing contraband to inmates

Simply put, contraband injures and kills! Prison employees involved in illegal activities with inmates may cause a fellow employee, officer or inmate to be injured or killed. Bringing contraband to inmates provides them wealth and power. Report any suspicious activity to ensure corrupt employees who place us all in jeopardy are prosecuted for bringing contraband into a correctional facility.

5. Allowing inmates to use your personal items

Do not fall for the old, “Please, I cannot get through to my five-year-old daughter…just one call from your phone!” Do not do it! You have just fallen into an inmate’s trap and the inmate now owns you. Report the inmate’s request immediately and write him or her up.

6. Failing to keep inmates in line

Ensuring inmates follow rules and regulations maintains a well-run facility. Allowing inmates to roam freely and run about causes a dangerous environment. By conducting random cell searches and body searches we make inmates aware we are not playing games. Stopping inmates from horseplay and any non-approved activities, along with verbal or written counseling, creates an awareness for them to behave better. Do not sit back and allow tattooing because the inmates are quiet, and you do not want to be bothered. Enforce rules and fix the problem, using verbal judo to avoid physical altercations. It is much easier to run a dorm, pod or compound using discipline to keep the inmates in line.

7. Falling asleep on duty

Falling asleep on duty places yourself and everyone else in danger. While you are asleep, inmates could use the time to attack or rape another inmate. While you are asleep, an inmate could be committing suicide. Try explaining all these events to supervisors and investigators the next morning.

Call your supervisor if you cannot stay awake to let them know you need to leave the dorm to walk around and get some coffee. A good supervisor will relieve you themselves for a few minutes if there are not enough staff on board. I have done this myself on nights I could not keep my eyes open. It is better to be safe than sorry.

8. Correcting officers in front of inmates

Do not correct or scold a fellow officer in front of the inmates, as this makes inmates not respect that officer or follow that officer’s instructions. A supervisor who is called to a dorm or pod over an incident and goes to the inmate first for information is dangerous. Always hear from your staff first away from the inmates and then interview the inmates. Correcting officers in front of inmates is poor management. An example of this would be a dorm officer telling an inmate he cannot shower because it is count time, but the inmate goes to the shower anyway. When a supervisor arrives, they want to know why the count is not in yet from the dorm. The officer explains, and the supervisor goes to the inmate and they talk a while. Then the supervisor comes back and tells the officer it is not a problem this time, let the inmate finish his shower then put him in the count. This action has now placed the officer below the inmate’s rank.

9. Jeopardizing an investigation

There is a major investigation regarding gang activity in the prison that leads to the streets. Very few people are aware of the joint investigation between DOC and outside law enforcement agencies. Word somehow leaks to an officer who warns inmate gang members about the investigation and tells the inmates there are inmate informants involved. This officer has interfered with a criminal investigation and placed everyone in danger. Now there is the possibility of a riot, a hit placed on anyone involved and endangerment to the investigating officials. This officer needs to be terminated and criminal charges filed. If you receive information regarding a criminal investigation you are not involved in, report it immediately to protect yourself. Do not become a “rat” for the inmates.

10. Failure to report corruption

This should be a no-brainer, but many officers struggle with this issue. Fear of retaliation is the main reason officers are afraid to report staff misconduct. Corruption scares many people in our profession. On the one hand, a large portion of correctional officers feels they have an obligation to report corruption. On the other, many of those who feel obligated have a fear of being victimized or retaliated against by the so-called good ol’ boy’s system or the corrupt officers themselves. We must change this. Fighting corruption saves lives and protects us from harm’s way. No officer should be afraid to report corruption. Going home safe each day needs to be a priority.

Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.