When the line between correctional officer and inmate becomes blurred

Constant exposure to this criminal underworld instigates more officer turnover than any other factor

Most correctional academies and/or orientations will dedicate sections of training explicitly to officer complacency, inmate "overfamiliarity," and officer corruption. Many instructors will mandate copious note-taking regarding officer integrity, ethics and morality.

However, I have never experienced an academy that thoroughly delves into the psychology behind being a corrections officer, nor discusses the sociological and cognitive pressures that impact correctional officers’ lives.

To me, these factors are more than paramount and may actually assist both recruitment efforts as well as officer retention.

Officers are literally flooded with the inmate subculture and forced to adapt every single day that they are on duty.
Officers are literally flooded with the inmate subculture and forced to adapt every single day that they are on duty. (Photo/CorrectionsOne)

The world of corrections

According to Zajonc (1968), the psychological ideal of "mere exposure" postulates that if an individual is repetitiously exposed to a stimulus, then the attitude of the individual toward the stimulus will be enhanced. Over 45 years later, this concept remains to be both viable and ever-present in the world of corrections.

The main duty of a corrections deputy, according to the Tennessee Corrections Institute, is to solicit compliance from a population of non-law-abiding citizens. Compliance, in this case, can be crudely defined as the obtainment of adherence to rules and regulations. In other words, corrections deputies are charged with the task of managing citizens that have already demonstrated a blatant disregard for the local communities' ordinances, laws and standards.

From my personal experience, corrections officers are often in ratio with inmates at an average of 1:50 to 1:100. So, at any one point in time, there is approximately one officer attempting to tactfully monitor, reprimand, discipline, correct and build rapport with anywhere between 50 and 100 inmates that have either been arrested for or convicted of drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, assault and/or weapons crimes (amongst others). What may be just words and labels to society represent a cognitive conundrum for corrections professionals.

Imagine, if you will, looking into the eyes of man and seeing absolutely nothing but an empty, dark shell consumed with nothing but pure malice and evil; sociopathology at levels deemed unimaginable by contemporary society.

This man is one of my inmates, someone that I am required to deal with on a daily basis. I am required to converse with this man, feed him meals, provide him with information, de-escalate him when he’s upset, utilize chemical agents and physical force when de-escalation fails, and have contact with him continuously; even in days immediately following a use of force incident.

I am burdened with the responsibility of dealing with this man after society has cast him out and, furthermore, I am responsible for ensuring that this man complies with the policies and procedures of the correctional institution.

Psychological demands of the profession

As a corrections officer, I am locked in my institution for eight to 12 hours a day and am relentlessly exposed to the criminal underbelly of society. I am surrounded by drug dealers, wife beaters, rapists, murderers, gang members and drug abusers. I am submersed in a subculture of society that is filled with nothing but morbidity, hopelessness and dismal abomination.

My profession requires that I be exposed to the convict code, inmate bylaws, aggression, violence and turmoil. Given my environment, is it not outlandish to imagine that the lines between the peacekeepers and the peace disrupters become blurred? In my opinion, constant exposure to this criminal underworld instigates more officer turnover than any other factor.

Ironically, this “mere exposure” effect allows for officers to think as inmates in order to pursue justice. Officers must think like inmates in order to decode documents, discover contraband, interrogate subjects, and to literally get a feeling for a housing pod/unit. Officers may also learn how to read jail-house sign language, understand inmate terminology, and be privy to the socioeconomic roles that most inmates play.

Officers are literally flooded with the inmate subculture and forced to adapt every single day that they are on duty. These adaptations cannot be controlled by way of some metaphorical switch or shut-off valve; these adaptations carry over into officers’ personal lives and become permanent fixtures in their respective personalities.

Perhaps if officers fully understood the psychological demands of the profession, they would be more successful in combating this cognitive flooding. To me, complacency is nothing more than a byproduct of fully adapting to one’s surroundings. Officers must be fully briefed on this adaptive inevitability and different ways must be formulated in order to reduce the fallout.

1. Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(2p2), 1. 

This article, originally published 03/06/2015, has been updated.

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