Trending Topics

Principles for success as a CO: Inmate safety

While the inmates in our care have been legitimately deprived of liberty, they still have certain constitutional rights


AP Photo/Chris Carlson

In what is the third of a nine-part series, I outline what I call the “Corrections Formula,” an easy way to remember nine principles to optimize your success as a correctional officer.

The formula is designed to guide your thoughts, decisions and actions so you develop an operational mindset where officer safety is your top priority, professionalism is your foundation and legality is your path.

There are three elements of the corrections formula:

  1. Safety;
  2. Legality;
  3. Professionalism.

Each of these three elements contain three principles that make up the nine principles for success:

  1. Officer safety – Your top priority and your duty to yourself and your coworkers.
  2. Facility safety – Your duty to the communities you serve.
  3. Inmate safety – Your duty to those you have been entrusted to protect.
  4. Federal law – The U.S. Constitution, which shapes state law, major acts of congress and case law.
  5. State law – The laws and statutes of the state, which guide your facility’s operations and practices.
  6. Agency policy and procedure – The guardrails that keep you on the path of legality and in compliance with the law.
  7. Guardianship – Your purpose as a correctional officer and why you do what you do.
  8. Health and wellness – Maintaining both physical and mental wellness.
  9. Firm, fair and consistent –The golden rule in being the same professional every day.

This month we look at the third principle, inmate safety.



Contributed Image

Corrections officers are entrusted to uphold the law behind the walls of their facility. This means not only protecting the community from inmates but protecting inmates from one another and keeping them safe.

Corrections officers deal with some of the most manipulative, violent and dangerous members of society, but a good majority of the inmate population are people who simply found themselves at the worst point of their life. While the inmates in our care have been legitimately deprived of liberty, they still have certain constitutional rights. It is not our job to punish inmates, but it is our legal obligation to keep ourselves, our facilities and the inmates we supervise safe and secure. Failure to keep inmates safe can lead to litigation for both you and your agency. However, more important is to remember that inmates are people, and each inmate has a story. Below are some strategies to ensure inmate safety is not compromised.

Use your power of influence: Remember that your power of influence is more powerful than your power of control. To influence is to lead, earning trust and respect, which generally results in compliance. We have the power of control (authority, force, tools) that is necessary at times, but we should try to use as a last resort. Human beings will always resist control, as control is “to make.” Use influence to your advantage. Work smarter not harder.

Behave with dignity and respect: Treat inmates with dignity and respect. As stated in the article on officer safety, respect makes for a safer environment. You should operate out of respect because you respect yourself, your profession and the situation. Respect leads to results.

Be curious: Be proactive, professional and curious when communicating with inmates. Curiosity will lead to establishing rapport and trust, which gets results and information. A suspicious mindset will often lead to hostility.

Listen: The only way to be an effective communicator and gather pertinent information is to be a good listener. Don’t interrupt or get caught up with what you are going to say next, rather actively listen and reflect and respond to what the inmate is saying. Be sure to validate. While the topic at hand may not be important to you, it is important to that inmate.

Be reasonable: Be flexible, patient and reasonable when communicating with inmates, especially with those who have a severe mental illness. You can personalize cooperation, but never personalize conflict. Ask yourself, “What would another officer with similar training and experience do if faced with a similar set of circumstances?”

Demonstrate empathy: Practice good emotional intelligence and try to understand the point of view of the inmates you communicate with. As you communicate with inmates with mood disorders, personality disorders and delusions, be flexible and patient. Have empathy toward inmates but don’t confuse that with sympathy. Find out what the problem is and fix the problem, but do not fixate on fixing the person.

Pay attention to the small things: Pay attention to small things like verbal cues and behavior indicators. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t.

Resolve conflict: Identify conflict and tension between inmates and try to problem solve at the lowest level possible. Document and inform supervisors about conflicts.

Be proactive about suicide prevention: Be familiar with suicidal warning signs, as well as the procedures for acting upon them. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that suicides in jails are one of the leading causes of death in U.S. local jails. More than a third of all jail deaths are self-inflicted. View suicide prevention as part of your job and never leave a suicidal inmate alone. Below are some suicidal warning signs to be familiar with:

  • Current depression (depression is the single best indicator of suicide);
  • Strong guilt or shame over the offense;
  • Threat of suicide attempt;
  • Prior suicide attempt;
  • Current or prior mental illness, particularly paranoid delusions;
  • Hallucinations;
  • Being under the influence of alcohol/drugs at arrest (first 72 hours of incarceration);
  • Projection of hopelessness or helplessness with no sense of future;
  • Noticeable behavioral changes;
  • Unrealistic talk about getting out of the facility;
  • Inability to deal effectively with the present, a preoccupation with the past or fixation on the future;
  • Packing belongings;
  • Giving away possessions;
  • Attention getting by gestures of self-injury;
  • Excessive risk taking;
  • Rehearsing a suicide attempt.

Understand the re-entry process: Corrections is literally the beginning of reentry for inmates. Know the various programs and services your facility offers, and appropriately point inmates to those services. Consider this when communicating with inmates and trying to come up with the best decision and solution for their situation. The goal of corrections is to change behavior for the long term, or at least influence it, leaving people better off after the incarceration process. Reducing recidivism starts just as much behind the walls as it does upon release. Influencing future-oriented thinking can help turn a destructive mind into a productive mind.

Provide medical care: Never think twice about calling medical to evaluate an inmate you feel needs to be evaluated. As far as care and custody goes, you have a legal duty to protect life.

Basic needs: Make sure the basic needs of inmates (food, water, hygiene, medical) are reasonably being met. Basic needs are the foundation for human motivation and effective behavior management. Additionally, litigation can arise if basic needs are not met.

Next month: Federal law

Brandon Anderson is a police officer for the Sumner Police Department in Washington State. He has spent the last few years as a sergeant/frontline supervisor with a large regional jail in Washington. He joined the Marine Corps in 2007 and started working in corrections in 2012 at a small county jail. He has worked both indirect and direct supervision as a frontline officer and frontline supervisor. He spent two years as the training coordinator and primary TAC officer for the Corrections Officers Academy in Washington State from 2015-2017. As a Master Defensive Tactics instructor, Blue Courage instructor, Emergency Response Team instructor and Use of Force instructor, he is passionate about training and optimizing the best out of those in our profession. Brandon also provides tactical, wellness and consulting services for his business On Mission Services-LLC. Follow his blog online at