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The wrong way to break up a fight

The risk when you jump in between two inmates – no matter who you think you are – is extremely high

Cook County Jail fight

A fight breaks out between inmates at Cook County Jail in Chicago.

Screengrab/Cook County Sheriff’s Office

Before I began my career in corrections in 1986, my experiences in dealing with difficult people generally stemmed from getting in fights in school and then, after I graduated, working as a bartender at the local pub.

When a fight or disruption broke out at the pub the first thing I did was grab the baseball bat hanging behind the bar and make my way out through the crowd to break up the fight.

Who was going to mess with a big guy with a bat, right?

My verbalization skills at the time consisted of yelling expletives and ordering the individuals to, “Knock it off or you’re out of here!” Most of the time I was lucky and I had very few problems. This, of course, was before I entered corrections.

In the mid-80s, new correctional officers were required to attend an eight-week training program at the training academy. This included five weeks of learning the basic security policies and procedures at the training center, followed by two weeks of on the job training and concluding with a week of officer re-class.

Nowhere in the program was there a class on defensive tactics – at least nothing that dealt specifically with tactics on how to defend yourself and others when confronted verbally or physically by an inmate. We learned about riots and disturbances and how to handle and fire weapons, but we were never given any direction on how to deal with difficult people.

Nonetheless, after training, I headed off to work. My first few months at the institution – a medium-security facility that housed approximately 500 inmates – were uneventful and gave me a good opportunity to get acclimated to the environment and the inmates.

The day of the standoff

I consider myself to have a good share of common sense. I know how to talk to individuals instead of talk down to them. However, these traits did not prepare me very well when I had to deal with my first fight.

I was working overtime on first shift in one of the general population units that housed 67 inmates on two separate wings. I was the only staff member assigned to the unit. My duty belt included a two-way radio with a body alarm. I had a set of about 13 keys, a set of handcuffs, a flashlight and a glove pouch.

First shift is generally a busy shift, especially during lunchtime when all the inmates are back in the unit. We did not have centralized dining, which meant that each housing unit fed its own inmates.

My job was to monitor the inmates as they went through the food line to ensure all inmates received the proper portions and that no one got out of hand.

On this day I had about seven inmates left in line and about 35 inmates eating in the dayroom about 25 feet from the serving line. A Hispanic inmate, smaller in stature, at the end of the line, noticed that there were only six servings of strawberry shortcake left and attempted to move ahead of an African American inmate, who happened to be part of the Gangster Disciples, to get the last piece of desert.

The next thing I knew, it was on: Both inmates were standing toe to toe, swinging away at each other.

Question: How did I respond to this incident?

Answer: I responded to the fight based upon my training and experience.

My training and experience was based on my years of experience working in a bar, not a prison. So the first thing I did was to run to the fight and yell at the top of my lungs for both inmates to knock it off.

Keep in mind what the circumstances were: A black inmate fighting with a Hispanic inmate while other black and Hispanic inmates were watching.

Note: I am a white male, and at the time I was 6’1” and weighed about 235 pounds and had a voice that carried very well.

Not only did I yell for the inmates to stop fighting, but I went as far as to jump right in between the two while they were fighting and separated them by throwing the Hispanic inmate out of his shower shoes onto the floor where he slid about 8-10 feet on his butt.

I then secured the black inmate’s arm behind his back and led him into my office and told him to sit there and wait.

Only then did I hit my body alarm, notifying the control center and other staff of my situation and instructed all the other inmates to their cells until this was over.

The irony of this situation is that it worked – other staff members and a supervisor arrived, restrained the two inmates and took them to segregation. I wrote the conduct reports and that was the end of it.

And yet, it could have easily been far worse. The risk when you jump in between two inmates – no matter who you think you are – is extremely high. What if I had been overpowered? What if one of the inmates had been armed? What if other inmates had gotten involved?

Please remember, this was before we were trained in principles of subject control, defensive control tactics or verbal judo. I have to admit that at the time, I thought I had done the right thing.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Lessons Learned

So, what are the lessons reflected in my experience? New officers, please consider the following:

  1. Recognize that it’s ok that you don’t have the answers for everything. Prior to this incident, I should have sought out members of veteran staff and asked them how and why they had been so successful in dealing with difficult people in their careers. I should have used their experiences and lessons as a guide for dealings with inmates. After all, if they’re still here, then they must be doing something right.
  2. From the first day that you walk into the institution, establish a professional presence and rapport with the inmates in your charge. Set expectations and stand by them. Make quick and decisive decisions. Use professional communication skills while being fair, firm, consistent and as objective as possible in carrying out your duties.
  3. Practice crisis rehearsal before the crisis occurs. Have a pre-planned, practiced response in mind for all emergency situations, both physical and verbal. Always be prepared for the “bad day.”
  4. Remember – and this was perhaps my biggest mistake – your safety is always the #1 priority. You cannot be effective and efficient in your job responsibilities if your safety is in jeopardy.
  5. Always sound the alarm, give verbal direction and ensure the scene/situation is safe before you enter it.
  6. Never, ever, think that you are invincible.

This article, originally published 01/12/2010, has been updated.

Rory Thelen is a retired 32-year veteran with the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. His expertise is in creating and maintaining the safest and most secure environment possible for staff and inmates, whether as an instructor or an officer. To that end, Rory is a certified Verbal Defense and Influence Instructor for the Vistelar Group, a Verbal Judo Instructor and has been a Firearms and Incapacitating Agents Instructor. Rory is also a call staff instructor at Moraine Park Technical College teaching Emergency Procedures in the Criminal Justice Program.