You cannot stop the clock, and as one retiree who is getting older, I think about the field of corrections. It has changed and is facing challenges that were not thought of not that long ago. One wonders what advice could be given to the new generation, the ‘rookies’ (as we used to say), the ‘newbies’ or the ‘new boots’.
In September of 2010, The Corrections Connection ran a column of mine titled: The Twenty Minute Trainer: What Do You Tell a Rookie? Several civilian and sworn staff gave great advice about safety, attitudes and boundaries. The article has withstood the test of time and the advice is as important now as it was over 10 years ago.
So, as I think about the field that I worked in for over 27 years, I want to throw these thoughts out for your consideration; advice for the new personnel in the field. No theories, no statistics-just some observations that I hope are viewed as common sense.
Finally-never stop learning-get all the training you can. Corrections is an ever-changing field-and you must keep up with the changes! Good luck and have a great career!
- Race relations: The death of George Floyd during an arrest in Minneapolis in May 2020 sparked tension between law enforcement and minority groups, notably African Americans. This situation, combined with tensions, is still in the news. Corrections is an important part of the criminal justice system. Corrections staff, sworn and non-sworn, work inside facilities that are tense-inmates do not want to be there. Many are angry, abrasive and cause trouble. My advice to new staff is to be professional, and not engage in any form of racial bigotry. Why turn up the heat in a facility that is already simmering on a stove? Do not play the ‘race card’-and keep your opinions outside. Be professional and treat all inmates of all races and ethnic groups with respect and human dignity-even if they do not treat you in the same way. Keep politics OUT of the workplace.
- Social Media: I teach an in-service jail staff class on social media etiquette. THINK BEFORE YOU CLICK!! If you post a derogatory comment or photo about the offenders that you maintain custody of, or the department you work for, you can be disciplined-including termination. If you injure the image of the agency or denigrate or defame its mission and values, you are not protected under the First Amendment-freedom of speech. Remember-it is like they told you on the firearms range. Once you fire the bullet, it cannot be brought back. It is the same with a distasteful, negative posting on social media. Once it is out there-it is out there. You can delete it, sure-but who took a screen shot of it? Or forwarded it? Before you click, take a breath-and think about how the post makes you and the department look. We live in a republic-and enjoy freedom of speech. However, political views and views about current events can be decisive. It is best to keep them to yourself-and not post them on social media.
- COVID-19: The pandemic of 2020-2021 has altered our lives in many ways. Some COs have died from contracting COVID-19. Take all precautions possible, including the careful consideration of getting vaccinated. I am not advocating vaccinations-that is your decision.
- Inmate safety: You are in the ‘people business’. Inmates are to receive adequate medical care, dental care, and mental health care. They are not to be mistreated, have their grievances and problems ignored and are to receive services established by standards, laws and case laws from the courts. Keep up with the latest developments with standards, statutes and case law. Have a good working knowledge of your standard operating procedures. Inmates must also be kept safe from ‘rogue’ staff. There have been cases where out of control and negligent correctional officers have harmed inmates, sometimes fatally. If you see or know of staff mistreating inmates, you have a duty to speak up to your supervisors.
- Special populations: There is no ‘one size fits all’ when discussing inmates. Thanks to research and better training, we now know more about suicidal inmates, female inmates, elderly/mature inmates, LGTBQI inmates, youthful/juvenile offenders, inmates with disabilities and substance abusers. Also, many offenders suffer from various mental disorders. Some inmates are suicidal. Special populations also include security threat groups such as gangs, and escape risks. Learn ways to safely handle them and get as much training as you can about them.
- Staff safety: Staff safety, and the safety of the public is everyone’s job. Everyone in the facility must practice situational awareness. They must realize two things: inmates may be dangerous and prone to anger and violence, and no one is 100% safe. Be aware of your position around inmates, know where other staff members are and always have your safety and the safety of your colleagues in mind-both sworn and civilian.
- Inmate manipulation: Remember-no matter how much time you have on the job, or how well you did in the academy, you are a target for the inmate manipulator. Inmates live by a different moral code than you-lying, cheating, using people, and having little or no remorse. Every staff member-including you-has what the inmates want. And that is access to the outside. They, will through promises of friendship, lies, flirting, romance, and saying that they care about you, try to get you to perform favors for them and bring in things. These things include cell phones, drugs, weapons, messages, and so on. Stay on firm ground-adhere to your policies and procedures. Never trust an inmate, no matter how sad they look or how friendly they are. You may think that ‘it will never happen to me-I am too smart for them’. As I say in my in-service inmate manipulation classes: ‘If there was a university for street smarts, some inmates would have PH. Ds’. Watch out for each other! If you observe a colleague getting too friendly with inmates, talk to them and if necessary-your supervisor. Do not tell inmates about your personal life, including problems. Inmates will feign friendship and concern-and will manipulate you.
- Stress Management: Corrections is not an easy career. You will work shift work, work overtime, and ‘juggle’ many tasks at once. On a post, you will handle inmate arguments, fights, suicide attempts, mentally ill inmates, inmate requests, inmates having medical emergencies, and so on. Combine these with more routine tasks like counts, feedings, sick call, medical staff rounds, inspections, searches, programs, recreation and so on and you realize that you are constantly busy. This takes its toll. Learn how to manage your stress, take care of your physical and mental health and recharge your energy. Attend stress management training; learn how to manage your stress on and off the job. Strive to stay mentally and physically healthy. If the job is getting to you, do not hold it all in. Talk to your colleagues, friends, family, spouse/partner, peer support staff and employee assistance program personnel. Do not go to inmates about your stress-they will befriend you, only to use you for their manipulative ends.
Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.
He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University since 1986, where he has taught four corrections courses: punishment and corrections, community corrections, jails and preparation for internship. He also teaches corrections in service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. He has also presented webinars and Skype presentations on correctional issues. His latest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition was published in April 2017 by Carolina Academic Press. He has authored several other books in corrections, including The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition, (2009) from the American Correctional Association, and The American Jail: Cornerstone of Modern Corrections, (2008) from Pearson Prentice Hall. Gary has received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in Social Science from his alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an Instructor Appreciation Award from George Mason University. In January 2011, Gary started a blog “Tales from the Local Jail” on The Corrections Connection (www.corrections.com) followed in December 2012 by his second blog, “Talks About Training” on Corrections One (www.correctionsone.com). Gary has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP) representing local adult corrections. He has corrections projects in development, including, a new second edition of The Twenty Minute Trainer, from the Civic Research Institute, and a new third edition of Stressed Out: Strategies For Living and Working in Corrections from Carolina Academic Press. Gary has appeared on CNN, MSNBC and Tier Talk, discussing corrections security, training and staff issues. He presents training for InTime Solutions and Lexipol. He resides in Williamsburg, Virginia.