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Reasons why you should and should not apologize to an inmate

An apology should clearly project that you know right from wrong, nothing more


The power of an apology is often overlooked by corrections professionals.

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“Never apologize to an inmate.”

I was about one month into training at the county jail and my FTO was giving me a few basic rules to live by when running a housing unit. Some pointers included keeping my head on a swivel, projecting my voice when speaking to a group of inmates (actually, what he said was, “next week, we’re working in Main Jail, so you’re going to need to man up when you talk to the inmates”), always minding what was behind me, and never, under any circumstances, apologizing to an inmate.

I understood the reasoning behind the “no apologies” concept. Correctional staff must maintain control over inmates who outnumber staff. We have the backing of coordination, training and the public trust to help us balance out the power dynamic in a corrections setting, but it is a delicate balance when applied in real time on the floor of a housing unit. Without considering the physical power dynamic, think about the psychological power dynamic of being outnumbered 50 or 100 or 200 inmates to one officer. An apology from staff could tip the scales momentarily for an inmate and give him or her the opportunity to ask for a favor or use the offending conduct to shoot for an “I owe you.”

Inmates are a litigious group and another reason staff should hold back apologies is because a “sorry” may cost you and your agency a lost case if a judge finds your apology amounts to a confession of misconduct. If you make a mistake and land your agency in court, save your apology for your admin. And you may even need to hold that apology until after your IA interview.

Some would argue that the third reason to hold back apologizing to inmates is that inmates are people who exist in opposition to society and community norms. They drain tax resources, cause pain and suffering, constantly break the rules in your facility and generally don’t care about the wellbeing of others. Why would you care enough about these people to apologize for anything, right? This is the weakest argument to hold back an apology and it is short-sighted. Whether or not you subscribe to this philosophy, take into consideration that an apology serves a tactical purpose.

Tactical apologies

The power of an apology is often overlooked by corrections professionals. Inmates expect the “nothing coming” posture by corrections staff. Inmates use the posture to feed their own narrative that their bad behavior is justified because they feel they are already treated poorly by staff, so why try to behave well when poor inmate behavior is expected and reciprocated? A properly placed apology gives an inmate nowhere further to exploit your mistake and models civility to the inmate, opening a better behavior option to the inmate. The apology, however, should always be made while maintaining confidence in your abilities and authority.

For example, you make a mistake and issue an inmate one jumpsuit instead of two. The inmate gets agitated (or pretends to be mad) about the mistake, making a big deal out of it in front of an entire housing unit. Your response? “Inmate Walters, you’re right, I should have gotten you two jumpsuits. My mistake. Next chance I get, I’ll get you another.” Done, there is nowhere else to go with that conversation. If Walters wants you to fix the issue right away, that’s an unreasonable request because he has one clean jumpsuit now. Request denied and no apology.

An apology should only be made under certain circumstances. As it happens, the debate over apologies to inmates remains alive and well in the world of corrections. My FTO was right, in most cases, you wouldn’t apologize to an inmate for some of the same things you would apologize to most other people.

Do not apologize for doing your job

You get a tip that Inmate Jones has pruno in his cell. After an exhaustive search of Jones’s cell, you do not find any pruno. Jones is upset you tossed his cell and states you were just harassing him. Conducting cell searches is part of your job. You do not need a reason to search a cell and you should never apologize for doing your job properly.

A corrections professional should not apologize for writing an inmate up or conducting a cell search. Do not apologize for denying an unreasonable request from an inmate. Ten minutes left in the playoff game, but it’s time to lock down. You’ve made the decision and if it means the inmates in your housing unit do not watch the end of the game, do not apologize for your decision, even if you feel bad about it. You did not make a mistake, you made a decision.

Do not apologize for anything outside your control

When the kitchen serves a cold dinner because the power is out, when inclement weather forces a yard cancelation, or when visiting gets canceled due to a pandemic or commissary is late due to a crash on the interstate, don’t apologize. If you forget to pass out commissary and it’s late, say you’re sorry. Identify the frustration of the inmates. But don’t give them extra commissary as a result. They can be angry, they are allowed their frustrations, but your mistake doesn’t give them a green light for bad behavior. When inmates learn you can say sorry without giving a favor in the other side of the apology, you retain power and authority.

My mistake, but you own the drama

Inmate Smith asks you for her release date. You look it up on the computer, you read the wrong line and you give her the wrong date. You find out the next day you had the wrong release date and tell the inmate, “Smith, I gave you the wrong release date, it’s actually seven days later, my mistake.” You made a mistake, you correct the mistake, simply apologize, and move on. Be specific as to the mistake, show zero self-doubt in your overall capability just because you made a small mistake, and give the inmate the simple human-to-human respect of an apology.

You do not concede any power by admitting a mistake. On the contrary, you keep any power an inmate may try to take because of the mistake when you define the mistake, own it, and you set the tone for the results by stopping any inmate attempts to try turning your mistake into a manipulation.

Smith becomes angry and tells you she won’t have commissary for a week because she promised her last order to her cellmate. What’s more, she told her family when to pick her up and now they’re upset they will have to change their plans. She wants you to feel bad about her situation. Do not apologize. You bear no fault for the decisions Smith made after receiving the wrong release date.

Simply put, you will make mistakes. Most of your mistakes will be small enough that no one will get hurt, lose money or have their civil rights violated. For all these mistakes, apologize away, but make sure the mistake is defined by your standards and those of your agency code, as opposed to the rules inmates make up. Just as important, don’t feel bad when apologizing and offer an apology from a place of power and authority. An apology should clearly project that you know right from wrong, nothing more.

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