Let’s just call it what it is. The nature of our job, of our responsibility as a Correctional Officer, is changing. The days of locking people up and throwing away the key are over. There has been a shift in philosophy and the focus, the future of corrections is rehabilitation and reintegration.
This metamorphosis of our mission has a lot to do with a newfound emphasis on the mental health and well-being of our inmate population. Ten years ago, we would look at an individual who was screaming and kicking and banging on the cell door as nothing more than a troublemaker, and we would deal with them accordingly. We would gain compliance through stern commands and brute force, paying little to no attention to the actual issue, to the root cause of the behavior.
We were trained to maintain the safety and security of our facility, and that’s what we did.
Today is different. Today, we understand that an individual screaming and kicking and banging on his cell door may be suffering from a mental illness. We now classify this potential confrontation as a crisis that can be resolved through conversation or professional help.
As Correctional Officers, we encounter individuals in crisis daily. Because our populous is under an extreme amount of stress, something as simple as a candy bar or a misplaced piece of mail can escalate to the point of physical violence if not handled properly.
Look, the dynamics of our detention centers are changing. In my opinion, prisons and jails are slowly becoming mental institutions. And, we need to adjust accordingly, starting with the way we communicate and deescalate when dealing with people in crisis.
So, what can we do? How can we deescalate said individual when they are in crisis?
Well, I’m glad you asked.
I recently responded to a call for assistance. When I entered the housing unit, I saw my fellow officer on the top tier screaming at an inmate. He was screaming with so much force and raw emotion that spit was flying out of his mouth. Needless to say, this officer’s approach to the situation did not work. The inmate did not respond kindly. His behavior escalated and eventually became physical.
Look, you have to be able to CONTROL yourself and your reaction to what’s happening around you. In corrections, we talk a lot about tone and how our behavior (good or bad) can influence our inmate population. This is no different. You need to be able to set aside all preconceptions and biases when speaking to an individual in crisis.
If you go into a situation with a closed mind, and you interact as if you are inconvenienced and irritated, you will receive an undesirable response. Be mindful of the tone of your voice, the cadence. Are you coming off as concerned or condescending? Does your body language send a message of approachability, or are you distant and distracted?
Once you are in control of yourself, you can start to establish a CONNECTION with the individual in crisis. Creating a connection and finding common ground will build a bridge that you will be able to use to ultimately resolve the situation.
A lot of officers have a problem with this concept because we want to keep our personal information safe. But, they’re over thinking it. Understand, I’m not suggesting that you try to connect on some super deep spiritual level. I’m just saying that you need to find something that you have in common with the individual. Try talking about sports or the weather or music.
A few months ago, I was called to talk to a female inmate that was refusing to go to court. Our common ground, interestingly enough, was nachos. Once I mentioned nachos, she opened up, Started talking about the different types of peppers and cheeses that she liked, which eventually lead to her talking about making nachos at home for her family. Ultimately, I was able to gain her trust enough to get her to talk about her family.
This bridge, this connection, those nachos, leads us right into a CONVERSATION. Now, having a real conversation is hard for a lot of people, especially authoritative figures that are used to individuals immediately complying with their directives. Keep in mind there is a big difference between talking and communicating. A lot of people are great at talking and telling stories, but they aren’t good conversationalists.
To have a genuine back and forth, you need to be able to listen to the other person and respond appropriately. Remember, this is their time to talk, to air their grievances. People want to be the most important person in the room. They want their stories to be heard and their concerns to be addressed.
A crisis is not the time for you to tell stories about yourself. You don’t have to provide examples of traumatic events or disappointments in an attempt to relate. Do not say to the individual in a crisis that you understand what they are going through, because you probably don’t. Everything affects everybody differently, and when you’re in the throes of a crisis, it doesn’t matter what another person has been through. All they can focus on is what’s happening right now, to them.
This is your time to show them that you care and that you’re invested in the outcome. Be an empathetic ear, a calm, confidant who is a reassuring resource for them.
As you build on your foundation, your connection, through control and conversation, you will find that the individual you are interacting with will begin to open up. This will allow you to gain COMPLIANCE, resulting in a peaceful resolution.
Look, I’m not saying that you can avoid the inevitable. There will be times when words will not work and we will have to use force to meet the correctional objective. But maybe we can reduce the risk for a violent outcome by practicing the four C’s of crisis communication: Control, Connection, Conversation, and Compliance.
About the Author
Correctional Officer, Author, & Corrections Instructor
William has worked as a Correctional Officer since March of 2005. He has worked throughout his facility in various areas ranging from Sanitation to Segregation and is currently assigned to Community Corrections. William has been an instructor for his facility since 2009, teaching courses such as Emergency Preparedness (LETRA), Stress Management, Motivational Interviewing, and “From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment” (CF2F). He is a member of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) and is the Assistant Coordinator of the Crisis Negotiation Team (CNT). William is a regular contributor to the “Correctional Oasis”, a monthly Ezine produced by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and is the author of “When Home Becomes a Housing Unit.”
More of William’s work can be read in the “Correctional Oasis”, a monthly Ezine produced and published by Desert Waters Correctional Outreach and in his book “When Home Becomes a Housing Unit”.