Inmate violence: Countermeasures and controls
You never know what is going on in the mind of inmates
An inmate bursts out of his cell as a correctional officer is delivering lunch, kicking and punching the officer repeatedly until other deputies can subdue the inmate with pepper spray.
A correctional officer supervising more than 50 inmates is attacked without warning by an inmate, forcing him into a fistfight until another inmate intervenes. It was the first encounter the officer had ever had with the inmate.
An inmate pushes, strikes and drags a corrections officer by her hair.
An officer is struck in the head and placed in a chokehold by an inmate, who refuses to let go until another officer uses pepper spray.
Inmate violence is a given in correctional facilities. In my last article, I highlighted some of the lifestyle factors that contribute to inmate violence and volatility, as well as the need for correctional officers to have constant situational awareness regarding the physical conditions of the facility and the people in it (inmates and staff). But what causes inmate violence, and what steps can staff take to reduce the chances of a violent encounter?
Causes of Inmate Violence
All staff working inside a correctional facility must realize violent acts can occur anytime and anywhere. Inmates can attack each other, a uniformed staff member or a civilian. Besides the lifestyle factors outlined in my previous article that contribute to inmate violence, many inmates also live with mental illness, which can distort their sense of reality and lead to unpredictable behavior. Seriously mentally ill inmates may hear voices commanding them to strike out at others. They may be uncooperative, especially if they refuse to take prescribed medications.
There are two main types of inmate violence:
- Interpersonal violence is violence that occurs between two or more individual inmates, such as a fight or a small disturbance. It may be the result of arguments over property, the television, canteen, insults and so on. [1,2]
- Collective violence is violence between large groups such as gangs and racial supremacist groups. These can escalate into riots and disturbances. 
With both types of violence, correctional officers are duty-bound to respond. And when they do, there is always the possibility of serious injury or death.
In addition, correctional officers can be the target of random violent attacks, sometimes in ordinary places. In Fresno, Calif., in September 2016, two jail deputies were shot in the lobby of the Fresno County Jail. They were unarmed and working visitation when a man entered the jail lobby and demanded to see someone. He tried to go to the front of the line and was pacing back and forth. As the two deputies tried to calm him, he shot both in the head and neck areas. Both deputies survived; one suffered serious debilitating injuries and is unable to walk, talk or feed himself. The shooter received 112 years to life. He claimed he was trying to be arrested to protect himself from someone his girlfriend was sending to hurt or kill him. He said he was high on methamphetamine, paranoid and was looking for help. He was described by the prosecutor as a habitual criminal; he had a long criminal history. [4,5]
Inmates may be impulsive; many exhibit low self-control. While mature persons will keep their tempers in check in situations where another person disagrees with them, many inmates are not mature, and have learned that to get their way, violence is the answer. Many have prior institutional histories, where they learned that only the strong survive and how to fight and be physically intimidating.
In addition to inmate personality characteristics and personal histories that can contribute to violence, there are factors within the correctional facility that can create an unsafe climate and increase the possibility of violence. These include:
- Poor classification and intake: Booking, intake and classification are the staff’s first opportunities to get a look at the offender. The criminal record is a good indication of how streetwise and hardcore the offender is. Has the inmate been convicted of several violent offenses? Have they served long sentences? Any gang affiliations? How cooperative is the offender with staff? Are they combative, abrasive or uncooperative? Failure to identify and record these warning signs can contribute to violence during the inmate’s stay.
- Poor observation skills (little “mobility”): Assaultive inmates know which staff are not attentive to security, which staff sit too long at their posts and where the blind spots are in the facility.
- Poor supervisors: Supervisors must be mobile, walk around and check on staff, and make sure policies and procedures are followed, including the disciplinary code. If an inmate commits a criminal act, they should be charged criminally under the law. Failure to supervise properly creates complacency—something inmates intuitively know how to exploit.
- Failure to use segregation: While some criticize the use of segregation or isolation, it serves as a useful tool in inmate management. Some inmates are so violent and unpredictable that housing them temporarily away from others is the safest thing to do. Some inmates are given many opportunities to live in general population. However, if their behavior is so negative and they cannot follow the rules and respect others, then segregation is necessary. Remember, inmates in segregation must not be denied services or forgotten about. Placement must follow due process, affording them their constitutional rights.
- Availability of weapons: Inmates are ingenious in their efforts to make something out of nothing. Homemade knives or “shanks” can be made out of any hard, sharpened material. The less stuff lying around, including in waste cans, the safer it is for all. Correctional officers must also be aware of the possibility that inmates will use chairs or other heavy objects as weapons.
Countermeasures: Being Safe
There are some commonsense practices that can be used inside a correctional facility to enhance correctional officer safety. We can’t eliminate all risk, but we can take some practical steps to reduce it.
- Prevent contraband: Contraband can provide inmates with power, whether it be drugs, cell phones or material to make a weapon. Contraband is generally defined as anything not authorized by the facility, or any authorized item that is deliberately altered from its original state. Inmates must be informed at orientation on rules about contraband and the disciplinary penalties for violating contraband rules. To combat contraband, correctional institution staff must present a united front to the inmate: Certain items are allowed, and certain items are prohibited. Correctional officers must also hold firm when inmates try to manipulate them into bringing in items. At first, it may only be a can of soda. Once that staff member passes the test, the next time it could be a weapon or a means to escape. Penalties for delivering contraband to inmates must be enforced.
- Stay alert to behavioral changes: All correctional staff, sworn and non-sworn, must be able to recognize changes in inmate behavior that may indicate tension or anger. Is the inmate raising their voice? Are they perspiring profusely or acting nervous or agitated? Are they in a fighting stance? Do they appear to be looking for a weapon or help from fellow inmates? Are their fists clenched? Are they defiant? Do not be a hero – if you observe these signs, get backup. Security threat groups require constant observation as well. Are members becoming more deviant toward staff? Are you finding more clandestine correspondence with gang signs, etc.? Are inmates meeting in groups, and are very quiet and guarded when you are nearby?
- Expect the unexpected: You are never 100% safe. You never know what is going on inside the minds of inmates. Always try to be in a good position where you can observe inmates without them getting too close. Try not to let inmates get behind you. Know who and where your backup is. Be especially alert on transports and hospital duty – the chances of inmate assault and attempts at escape increase when the inmate is beyond the security perimeter of the facility. And do not relax your guard ever, even with inmates you think are all right.
- Search – frequently! You run your post, not the inmates. Frequent searches of inmates, living areas and work areas keep inmates off guard.
- Maintain strength, physical fitness and mental sharpness: By doing so, you feel better and are more able to meet a threat.
- Do not display arrogance or try to “push the inmate’s buttons”: You are dealing with people who are streetwise and potentially violent. Be professional.
- Closely document, communicate and follow inmate-specific security precautions: If classification decides, per due process administrative hearings, that an inmates is under conditions of hand and leg restraints and a two-officer escort when out of the cell, then those precautions are to be followed – without exception.
Methods of Control
There are several controls correctional staff can use daily inside the facility to control inmate violence and stay safe:
- Physical control: Doors, locks, cameras, line-of-sight control centers, handcuffs, restraints and the uniformed presence of officers are all physical controls. Physical control also means that correctional officers, displaying professional demeanor, are neat in appearance and are good physical shape. They appear to be everywhere because they are constantly moving throughout the facility and come to the aid of any staff member – sworn and non-sworn – who needs help.
- Antiviolence norms, values and beliefs: Not all inmates believe that every disagreement or problem can be solved by violence. Simply reminding them of that may help them to calm down and listen. Inmates know if they assault a staff member or other inmate, there will be consequences, either under the disciplinary code or by criminal law. Staff should frequently remind them of these consequences.
- Fear of reprisals: Some inmates think officers are “out to get them.” If correctional officers harass inmates, they should be disciplined, including being terminated. However, instilling appropriate fear can be advantageous. Inmates should always have a “fear” or concern that officers are around the next corner or may appear unexpectedly to perform searches and inspections.
- Legal and administrative sanctions: Many violent inmates need an awakening. Correctional staff can charge inmates with disciplinary violations or under criminal statute (“street charge”), increase custody levels, remove them from trusty jobs and place them in administrative or disciplinary segregation. They may also take away good time. Inmates should be informed of this at orientation and be reminded occasionally.
- Housekeeping motive: Realistically speaking, the inmate’s cell, room or dorm is their home. Inmates make friends and get comfortable. They realize that if they act up, they will be relocated to less pleasant surroundings. In staff interactions, they can be reminded of this. Some inmates possess and hide contraband where they live; they do not want to move.
Increase Your Odds
Correctional officers are never 100% safe, but our actions can increase or decrease the margin of safety. Correctional officers must be aware of physical conditions that can threaten safety, understand the reasons behind criminality, and remember violent behavior can happen at any time. Applying effective countermeasures and controls will help correctional officers enhance their safety while also keeping inmates safer.
Be aware, be smart, be safe!
1. Cornelius G. The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, Third Edition. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2017.
2. Brasswell MC, Montgomery RH, Lombardo LX. Prison Violence in America, 2nd ed. Cincinnati: Anderson, 1994.
3. Seiter R. Corrections: An Introduction, Edition 3. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 2011.
4. Anderson B. More details emerge in California jail shooting.
5. Lopez P. Man who shot 2 COs at Calif. Jail sentenced.
6. Bowker L. An Essay on Prison Violence. In Braswell M, Dillingham S and Montgomery R. (Eds.). Prison Violence in America. Cincinnati: Anderson, 1985.