Complacency has no place in corrections

Tips for officers to maintain their edge and enhance safety

I was first introduced to the term “complacency” at the age of 18 while training in the United States Army at boot camp in 1978. I was a young, former long-haired boy being trained on how to survive. During our training we were told, “Don’t get complacent,” and “complacency kills.” As a young soldier, I thought, “That will never happen to me! I will not let my guard down.” However, this is much easier said than done, and it takes mental training and a good attitude to stay alert. Military trainers often use the following definition for complacency:

Complacency can slip into our ranks, putting missions and our soldiers at risk. Complacency has many causes and reveals itself in many forms, but, at its core, complacency can be defined as a feeling of confidence or security that is unwarranted because it overlooks actual shortcomings or threats.”

Now, take the definition above and replace the word “soldiers” with “correctional officers.” We, as correctional officers, also work the front lines risking our lives every day. We face inmate attacks that cause serious injury and, at times, death. We see inmates killing other inmates, and we witness suicides and suicide attempts. We face the possibility of being taken hostage at any moment or acts of defiance and disorder among inmates ready to set off a riot.

As correctional officers, we must be on constant alert for the many dangers that surround us.
As correctional officers, we must be on constant alert for the many dangers that surround us. (Corrections1)

As correctional officers, we must be on constant alert for the many dangers that surround us. We cannot allow complacency to bring our guard down.


It is never good to become comfortable with your surroundings. When we get comfortable, we let our guard down. When everything seems to be fine, then we should know something is wrong. We have all heard the joke about the rookie officer who says: “It sure is quiet tonight.” In corrections, the sound of silence has many meanings, and silence can also mean danger.

Not only must we have our heads on a swivel, but we must know the normal and abnormal sounds of the jail or prison. Once you learn what to look and listen for, you will be better off when it comes to safety.

Once you allow complacency to take over your feelings, your sense of danger and awareness weakens, leaving you vulnerable to any dangerous inmate looking for prey. Never lose your edge – it is part of your survival mechanism, along with your other senses and your gut instinct.

Corrections1 resource: Use the 'What If' game to reduce complacency


Prison violence is a daily occurrence and nothing to become comfortable with. Inmate attacks on prison staff can be either impulsive and spontaneous or well-planned and premeditated. Inmates often feel animosity or a sense of hatred toward officers. At any moment an inmate can turn on an officer and attack without warning.

The sooner we as officers realize the inmates can become very dangerous the more aware we can become. Have you ever heard an officer say, “I trust inmate so and so?” Then later in the week, that inmate goes off on an officer. “Care, custody and control” is our job, and trusting an inmate is not part of the job.

Getting too close to an inmate is part of complacency. Trusting an inmate is letting your guard down.

Although dangers abound in the corrections field, there are ways to defeat complacency:

  • Never let your guard down.
  • Always be aware of possible dangers.
  • Know your surroundings (e.g., dorm areas, compound areas).
  • Know your job and the agency policies and procedures – knowledge is power.
  • Always use your gut feeling and senses to aid in survival.
  • Realize that inmates can become dangerous at any moment.
  • Avoid inmate manipulation.
  • Fight against routine; change up your pattern from time to time.
  • Be aware of areas of vulnerability; do not walk into a trap.
  • Never become overconfident in thinking nothing will happen to you.
  • Never take your foot off the gas pedal for improvement.

Corrections1 resource: How to use inmate habits to your advantage


Management can help fight complacency by keeping officers in touch with the agency goals and safety precautions. Here are some ways management can generate trust with frontline officers and empower them to take the initiative and get involved with creating a safer work environment:

  • Allow your officers to provide feedback.
  • Communicate with honesty, respect and integrity.
  • Leave your lines of communication open so officers can express concerns.
  • Help your officers set their goals.
  • Be involved in your officers’ success.
  • Set expectations; let your people know what you expect.
  • Never leave an officer alone on an island – check on them.
  • Inform and educate your officers.

Corrections1 resource: How to be an effective leader in corrections


Training is such a valuable tool, and we need to use it as much as possible. Besides supervisors communicating with frontline officers these are in my opinion especially important areas of training that will aid in battling complacency. Providing direction in these areas will not only benefit the officers but the whole agency. A complacent officer has a false sense of security, which is detrimental to the overall success of the officer and the agency.

Agencies can help combat complacency through training, including:

  • Teaching a course in complacency itself and the dangers of complacency.
  • Teaching a course in inmate manipulation.
  • Teaching a course in ethics.
  • Promoting physical fitness as a way to build a sharper mindset.
  • Teaching a course in self-defense for survival.
  • Teaching a course in contraband control for survival.

Corrections1 resource: 5 essential training topics for correctional officers

These are just a few suggestions but if you think about it, our overall job knowledge has much to do with our success and helps us from falling into traps or becoming complacent.

Stay alert, stay vigilant and stay safe! Go home to your family and friends after work.

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