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Universal precautions: How to adopt a readiness mindset

Exploring the importance of diligent observation, swift identification and effective communication in ensuring safety and combating complacency

New York City corrections officers

AP Photo/Seth Wenig

By Sgt. Jake Corneau

Over the past few months, we have observed an increase in incidents involving inmate assaults on staff, inmate assaulting other inmates, the introduction of contraband, and the discovery of significant contraband in housing units. I attribute these occurrences to two primary factors:

  1. The first major factor is inherent to our routine. In corrections, a steady rhythm of jail operations exists, characterized by peaks of activity and troughs of repetition. If we are not careful and vigilant, the troughs can desensitize us, resulting in complacency. Conversely, the peaks, exploiting this complacency, can illuminate our shortcomings.
  2. The second significant factor contributing to the increased frequency of inmate-related incidents is our security staff’s proactive enforcement of a set standard or the reestablishment of one. When standards are reestablished, a surge in negative activities often ensues, a phenomenon known as “extinction burst.” In corrections, we refer to this as “pushback.”

Newton’s Third Law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. This principle also applies to human behavior. When a standard is either established or reinstated, it must be enforced (action). This enforcement disrupts the way of life, leading to pushback (reaction). Regrettably, in corrections, inmate pushback can manifest as violent, demeaning and dangerous behavior. It is in these situations that the need for universal precautions becomes apparent.

The term “universal precautions” originates in the medical field, where it initially referred to the handling of bodily fluids. It specifically prescribes behaviors and protective equipment necessary to prevent the spread of blood-borne pathogens. Medical professionals are expected to use personal protective equipment (PPE) like gloves, masks, eye protection and gowns to shield themselves from diseases transmitted through blood or other bodily fluids.

In recent years, we have become increasingly familiar with the use of PPE. However, in a corrections context, universal precautions extend beyond the physical equipment one puts on or takes off. They also encompass what I like to call a “readiness mindset.”

A readiness mindset is founded on three fundamental attributes: observation, identification and communication. If you don’t already practice these, it is imperative you do so. These attributes are beneficial not only within our professional environment but also in all aspects of life. Let’s take a look at what they involve.

1. Observation

The first fundamental attribute is observation, which is as straightforward as it sounds. As correctional officers, we engage all our senses throughout the day. We observe movement, listen to conversations, detect the scent of smoke or an individual’s poor hygiene, and sense tension. The longer you work in a jail, the more honed these senses become. While some individuals may have a more acute sense of observation than others, it is not merely an innate talent. The art of observation can be practiced and perfected, a process many of us are undergoing, whether we realize it or not.

Several factors can impair our observation, but I’ll highlight two.

The first is complacency, defined as “self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.” A complacent officer poses a risk to everyone.

The second hindrance is an individual’s hubris or their “perceived expert knowledge.” We must strive to have an open mind during observation, particularly while observing human beings. The moment you believe you’ve seen it all and there’s nothing new to discover is when you are likely to be caught off guard.

2. Identification

If observation allows us to absorb information, then through training and experience we filter, process and either store or discard that information. This procedure is known as identification.

We can observe our surroundings indefinitely, but without the training and experience to identify what we’re observing, all that information becomes mere noise. For instance, while in a housing unit, once we notice an activity, overhear a conversation, or smell a puff of cigarette smoke, we identify factors such as risk, legality and ethics, and the potential paperwork. We then either proceed with action, archive the observed information, or immediately discard it. Identification is crucial to officer safety, and this process occurs instantaneously and without conscious recognition.

For instance, consider the situation when you are about to open an inmate’s cell door. As the key enters the lock, you observe the path of the door and identify the threat presented by its swing and your body’s orientation. This, within a matter of seconds, you position your boot against the base of the door and prepare your body for a potential physical confrontation.

Identification is our brain’s response to sensory observation. Through on-the-job training (OJT), new officers experience sensory overload, which can hamper the identification process. That’s why we spread the OJT over six weeks and provide manageable chunks of computable information at a time. The new officer’s Field Training Officer (FTO) helps them sift through the noise to begin developing a filter to single out only the relevant and useful information. This process allows new officers to refine their observation and correctly adapt their identification skills to the correctional environment.

This process applies to all officers, not just new recruits. It’s important to allow time, even just a few seconds, to take in observations and identify them. This is referred to as the “tactical pause,” and it promotes more calculated decision-making. The issue is that as we become more seasoned, complacency and our perceived “knowledge” can obstruct fresh observation and identification. When we become complacent, our filter becomes more porous, letting through pertinent and crucial information without identification. Vigilance is the antidote to complacency, and adopting a vigilant mindset enables us to identify relevant observed information swiftly, and accurately.

3. Communication

The final fundamental attribute of a readiness mindset is communication. Communication is the ultimate action, comparable to the follow-through on a baseball bat swing, the little sidekick after releasing a bowling ball, or the final double lock after applying handcuffs. After observing an action and identifying and reacting (or not reacting) through internal computation, you communicate, depending on the action taken. Communication is essential in any successful law enforcement operation, whether it’s part of the daily routine or during a major incident.

Correctional officers observe and identify hundreds of potential incidents every week. Some of these incidents are genuine and require follow-up, while others may be inconsequential or simply misidentified. All of these need to be communicated because even the smallest piece of information can offer insight into the larger picture.

One of the keys to creating an effective “readiness mindset” is to assist in creating or enhancing that mindset in others. This is achieved through communicating our observations and identifying apparent concerns, threats and interactions, regardless of whether they materialize into credible threats. This communication battles complacency and fosters a team that is both physically and mentally prepared.

As we endeavor to rejuvenate and maintain our established standards, it’s crucial to conscientiously practice the universal precautions of observation, identification and communication. Keeping these attributes at the forefront of our minds will foster a more acute readiness mindset for both you and your team.

NEXT: Diverting inmate anger to avoid use of force

About the author

Jake Corneau is the training sergeant for Merrimack County Department of Corrections in New Hampshire. He has worked in corrections for 14 years. He started as an officer, then promoted through the ranks starting with FTO, then operational sergeant and then training sergeant. Sgt. Corneau also holds the title of Tactical Team Leader for the MCDOC Special Response Team. He has presented at many local schools and colleges, providing insight to students regarding the correctional field. Sgt. Corneau recently presented on Staff Empowerment and Leadership at the 42nd American Jails Association National Conference in Long Beach, California. Sgt. Corneau has a passion for leadership and staff enrichment and takes every opportunity to invest in those around him.