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Managing inmate distractions during your walk-throughs

When you keep moving past potential distractions, you broadcast your intentions to maintain the safety and security of your housing unit


This June 1, 2018, file photo, shows a housing unit in the west section of the State Correctional Institution at Phoenix in Collegeville, Pa.

AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma, File

You walk into a housing unit to conduct a walk-through. Inmate Jones meets you at the front door to the unit with a very important question, as evidenced by the concern on his face. Jones wants to know when he will be going to court. He presents a complex arrest timeline and he thinks he may have been over detained. This is a matter of emergency and, also, his son’s birthday is today and he really needs you to look into this right now!

Inmate Jones has been doing time longer than you have been employed in corrections. He has the court’s arraignment calendar committed to memory and doesn’t actually have a son. The level of urgency in his voice and his mannerisms are manufactured. If you tell him you can look into his concern in 10 minutes, he may balk a little, but he will return to his cell and he will have done his job.

In Jones’ case, there was actually an emergency of sorts. Three of his buddies had lost track of time and you were early for your walk-through because you don’t like to be predictable. The three had a bag of pruno cooking in a sink full of warm water and the bag had expanded from the fermentation process. The cooks really needed to “burp” the bag, but you would have smelled the fumes as you walked by their cell.


Inmates often find reasons to approach you or call you to a cell for a conversation when you walk into your housing unit. Inmates sometimes engage in meaningless conversations, or ask you complex questions, slowing you down at the front door.

When you first walk into your unit for the shift, an inmate may engage you just to check your temperature. They may truly want to know if you are in a good mood or bad mood (there shouldn’t be a difference). Inmates want to know how the next 12 hours are going to go for them and housing officers have a big effect on how the day will go.

An inmate may be starved for attention and looking for some connection to society. Housing staff is often that inmate’s strongest connection to the community. That inmate who wants to talk about the weather or the latest championship game may just be checking in for some validation that they are still part of something.

These small exchanges are opportunities for staff to shore up an individual’s sense of relevance and build good will with a member of the inmate population. However, it is important to remember that your kindness can also be seen as an opening for inmates to attempt manipulation. Always pay closer than normal attention to a request from an inmate that comes after you have had a positive exchange with that inmate.

An inmate may try to get your attention because they are in danger or has a friend who is in danger in the housing unit. Inmates generally have a strong aversion to asking staff for help. It is often the socially higher functioning inmates who approach you and engage you in conversation. When an inmate meaninglessly engages you who doesn’t fit in with any groups, or seems to be socially uncomfortable in your housing unit, pay close attention as this inmate could be in trouble with the other inmates. You may want to find a reason to remove the inmate from the housing unit and have a private conversation.


Finally, you may be getting stopped at the door by the good neighbor, an inmate who rings the alarm and buys time for other inmates to cover up nefarious activities in the housing unit. This inmate will be very friendly and boisterous, sounding the sophisticated version of “hot water!” just in case his neighbors need a little extra time. He may have a manufactured urgent matter to stop you from walking. He may not have anything made up and just call you over, just to buy a little more time for other inmates to cover up blood from a fight or evidence of contraband.

Each time I come across the good neighbor, I think of my long-time sergeant’s story of his old army colonel. The colonel was always on the move and if you ever tried to stop him with an issue or a question, he would ask, “Can you walk and talk?” The soldiers in the regiment called him “Colonel Walkandtalk.”

When an inmate addresses me during a walk-through of my housing unit, I ask, “Can you walk and talk?” Then I keep moving. This gives me a chance to remain engaged with the inmate, as he may actually have something important to talk about. Even if what he is doing is running interference, I don’t want to ignore the inmate completely. He may choose to walk with me, at which point, I may jokingly ask him if he is escorting me through the housing unit. Now he knows that I know he may be the good neighbor. Once I’m done walking through the housing unit, I can stop and take my time addressing in earnest any questions the inmates may have.


Regardless of why an inmate who is not in danger attempts to stop you with conversation during your walk-through, you can keep moving. You can give the inmate a choice to wait a few minutes for your full attention, or walk with you as they address you. You maintain control of your duty timeline. When you keep moving past potential distractions, you broadcast your intentions to maintain the safety and security of your housing unit. Your priority to be watchful of the housing unit will give inmates second thoughts when they attempt to engage in nefarious activity and, when you walk past the good neighbor, inmates will lose faith in their alarm system.

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