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How shining your boots could save a life

A professional group of corrections officers will improve the level of cooperation from inmates in their facility.

Ready for parade detail

Projecting professionalism with a well-shined pair of boots, a clean uniform and proper interactions helps externally, by preventing any confusion from inmates that you are open to manipulation.

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Two newer deputies were getting ready in the locker room last week. One was giving the other a hard time over a pair of neglected boots. The boots had not been polished for a while. Beyond having very little polish on them, the boots were dirty to the point they could barely pass as a pair of black boots. Shined black boots are required by policy.

The owner of the offending boots shrugged his shoulders. He provided no defense. The next time I saw him, his boots had been shined. When I pointed at the boots and nodded my recognition of his effort, the deputy smiled and stood taller.

The boots stayed on my mind, and I asked a salty old sergeant later in the day about his philosophy regarding shined boots. He argued that shined boots are for new deputies who need to prove their muster. In his opinion, it is a badge of honor to let your appearance decline a little once everyone knows your character and rock star performance. He further argued that minding a professional appearance and demeanor later into a corrections career means an officer is lacking in skills and toughness.

I believe the only reason for a decline in professional presentation is laziness. Your boots get dirty from doing hard work. Starting your workday with dirty boots shows one or both of the following attitudes: “I’ve been there and seen that, so I don’t need to be here and see this,” and “Ten minutes into my 12-hour shift, my boots are dirty, and no one can see whether I put in 110% today or 35%.” Don’t be a ROD (retired on duty) — shine your boots.

Professionalism as a safety measure

Professionalism might not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering safety measures in a high-security environment. However, it plays a pivotal role in reducing danger and maintaining a sense of order. Inmates are observant. They notice discrepancies, weaknesses and inconsistencies in corrections professionals. Corrections officers who professionally conduct themselves become less of a target for manipulation.

Consider the situation where a corrections officer neglects to shine his boots. This seemingly minor oversight may be interpreted by inmates as a sign of complacency, lackadaisical attitude, or disregard for the rules and standards of the institution. Small signs of staff complacency will encourage the inmates to test other boundaries, leading to a potential escalation in risk.

Conversely, officers who present themselves professionally communicate a message of authority, respect for the job and adherence to standards. This fosters a climate of discipline, reducing the likelihood of inmates exploiting perceived weaknesses.

In your interactions with inmates, the earlier you can project your professionalism, the sooner inmates will give up on the notion you will let bad behavior slide. And the earliest interaction you have with any inmate is the visual presentation you make when you walk into a housing unit at the start of your shift. You want an inmate to look at you and make that initial assessment in his head, saying, “Oh, never mind, if I try this today, it will be too much work.” You can stop or slow down a series of behaviors from the inmates in your area of responsibility by setting a tone of high expectations early.”

Shine your boots.

Internal impact of preparation

Projecting professionalism with a well-shined pair of boots, a clean uniform and proper interactions helps externally, by preventing any confusion from inmates that you are open to manipulation. Internally, what you are doing when you prepare your professional look before shift is reinforcing your own sense of self-worth, internal strength, and purpose of your agency’s mission before you enter a jail or prison environment.

The psychology of this preparation has been proven by warriors preparing for battle with face paint. The ritual and resulting presentation of war paint is just as important to the benefit of the warrior as it is to the detriment of his opponent.

Shiny boots can save lives

Professionalism in corrections is an unseen armor, a shield against potential threats that can arise within a jail environment. Each officer must understand that their actions, words and appearance are under constant scrutiny. Adhering to a high standard of professionalism is critical, not only for their safety but for the overall operations of the facility.

By maintaining professionalism, corrections officers contribute to a safer, more orderly environment for all. What may have been a challenge to your authority can be reduced to a passive inmate complaint. What may have been a cell extraction, can be reduced to a rules violation. Ultimately, your shiny boots could save a life.

Small habits to huge impacts

Maintaining professionalism requires an intentional commitment to always uphold standards. This commitment is not a one-time decision, but a habitual effort that demands conscious attention to our actions, speech and to how we present ourselves in appearance.

At the end of the day, corrections officers are more than just enforcers of rules and regulations. We are also role models, leaders and professionals who play a crucial role in maintaining the safety and integrity of our correctional institutions. Our professionalism is an example that guides the conduct and culture within our facilities, and that includes the culture of inmates. You will likely never see the same level of professionalism that you present from inmates, but a professional group of corrections officers will improve the level of cooperation from inmates in their facility.

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