Manipulating the System: How Inmates Get Ahead with Gary Cornelius

This blog post covers our webinar: Inmate Manipulation in Corrections, with special guest Lieutenant Gary F. Cornelius. This webinar discusses how sworn, non-sworn and volunteer staff can be aware and trained on inmate manipulation tactics. 

Gary 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, planning/ policy and classification.

Inmate manipulation in jails, detention centers and prisons

If you work at a corrections facility, the Inmate Manipulation webinar is an important tool for your toolbox. Every sworn and non-sworn staff member enters a hostile environment when working at a corrections facility. Physically, it’s intimidating in a facility, but mentally, the offenders behave and think a certain way. For this reason, manipulation training is important. You don’t want to put anyone at risk—this includes yourself, your colleagues, the inmates and the general public.

Those working in corrections facilities must do everything they can to prevent the manipulator from gaining the upper hand. Resisting the inmate manipulator is common sense, easy to learn and can save both your life and career.

The goal of the Inmate Manipulation webinar is to get you thinking. When it comes down to working in a corrections facility, no matter how many years you have on the job, no matter how well you did in The Academy, and no matter your degree and rank, it’s easy to get complacent. Remember, the incarcerated inmate/jailed inmate can be one of the most intelligent forms of man.

The confined inmate is like no other person. Inmates are locked up against their will. Because of this, staff members at correctional facilities have something that every single inmate wants: access to the outside world. You have to remember that you can leave the facility whenever you want, but inmates can’t. While many inmates do want to change and have the desire to eventually leave the correctional facility a new person, many inmates fall into old habits.  

There have been many incidents where the inmate has manipulated a corrections officer, and sometimes more than one. One example to note is the Montague County Jail “Animal House,” which resulted in inmates running the jail. There was a 106-count indictment against the Sheriff and his deputies and one million dollars in damage. Nobody wants their agency to go through that.

Consequences of inmate manipulation

Carrying messages, doing favors, and acting out of your job description can ruin your career. If you’re charged with a crime and convicted, your freedom is gone and it will be nearly impossible to recover. Personal consequences of aiding and assisting inmates can include loss of job, loss of career and loss of freedom. Those working in correctional facilities must remember these consequences, as inmates will often do anything to gain access to the outside world through you.

Countermeasures to prevent inmate manipulation

  • Know your adversary.
  • Realize your environment is constantly being watched.
  • Realize you’re a target.
  • Know the definition of manipulation.
  • Do not be a ‘CHUMP.’

Inmates as survivors

To further understand inmate manipulation, it’s important to get a general understanding of inmates as survivors. Inmates are survivors and do not live by the same moral code as many people in the general public. They have street smarts, street talk and have their language sometimes. They survive. 

Here are ten reasons why people commit crimes, according to Robert Hare and Robert Agnew:

Robert Hare:

Learned behavior, product of a cycle of violence, powerful need, the crime of passion, pay, easier than working, thrill

Robert Agnew:

Irritability and low self-control, poor parenting, negative school consequences, peer delinquency, bad jobs, or unemployment.

Inmates often live dysfunctional lives. This dysfunction includes:

  • High rates of substance abuse
  • Unskilled in the job market
  • Lack educational skills
  • Very familiar with the criminal justice system —> come in over and over again. 
  • Don’t have any anchors: residence, family, relationships.

Inmates often have antisocial personalities. This includes:

  • Nonconformity: multiple arrests
  • Deceit: cons for profit and amusement
  • Impulsive tendencies
  • Irritable; short fuse
  • Disregard to others
  • Irresponsible
  • Lack of remorse
  • Lies

If an inmate seduces a staff member and that person gets fired, the inmate doesn’t care. As a staff member at a correctional facility, you must always remember that inmates will do anything to gain access to the outside world, and rarely will they show remorse for their actions.

Every correctional facility staff member is a target

Often people think, “I’m too smart; this won’t happen to me.” However, it can happen to anyone. Whether you’re sworn, not sworn, or you’re a volunteer, inmate manipulation can happen to every staff member of a correctional facility.

Three types of inmate manipulation targets:


These staff members are by the book. Keeps you safe; rules and regulations are there to follow. However, it’s important how the rules are enforced. Being “hard” can make you a target because manipulating correctional staff is entertainment. They may target you for that reason.


These staff members may be sympathetic, may disagree with the rules, and maybe opinionated. They may do favors for inmates. “Soft” targets will have personal information used against them. 


These staff members use discretion when necessary, check with the supervisors, and there’s discretion. They’re often empathetic, and this can be used against them.

Remember, regardless of the type of target, inmates are constantly watching. Inmates watch how you dress, how you do your counts, your attention to detail, how easily you get distracted, whether you gripe and complain, get checked on by superiors, and more. How you take criticism is important, and remember never to gripe to inmates about your job.

Inmate manipulation

There are three parts to the definition of the word “manipulation.” Keeping in mind these three parts is important. 

  1. To control or change
  2. By artful and unfair means
  3. To achieve a desired end

Through manipulation, inmates may want to control or change something. This can include:

  • Continue their criminal activity 
  • Access to contraband
  • Gain sympathy through staff members and the court
  • Change housing assignments
  • Have sex
  • Escape
  • Gain comforts

Inmates may show examples of artful and unfair means to manipulate a correctional staff member. This can include:

  • “Buttering up” and being overly complimentary
  • Game playing
  • Appearing depressed
  • Crying or tearing up
  • Getting too friendly
  • Acting as the model inmate
  • Appealing to the staff member’s weaknesses
  • Sex and romance

It’s important to remember that Inmates know confrontation with staff is futile. They may play up the staff member, and the model inmate can be the consulate actor. Inmates may want you to think of them as not bad people or criminals but as people with the same problems as you do. As soon as you do this, you lose objectivity.

Different types of manipulation

Verbal manipulation: Lying. If you suspect an inmate of lying, press for details.

Situational deception: Distracting you. Inmates can do this by:

  • Lying about death in the family
  • Lying about money
  • Feigning romantic interest
  • Performing favors for staff for a ‘kickback.’


Inmates have many names for correctional officers, including CHUMPS. However, correctional officers can make the word ‘CHUMP’ work for them. Here’s how:

C: Control

  • Saying NO.
  • Use the ‘broken record’ technique no again and again. Hold your ground. You have control of your post and your area.
  • Challenge the offender: make them explain.
  • Curiosity: be noisy.
  • Don’t get overwhelmed. 

H: Helping inmates to help themselves

  • We follow the chain of command; inmates should also.
  • Discourage ‘shopping for staff.’ 
  • Be careful of ‘problem theft’ and helping too much — don’t take things on yourself to help them.

U: Understand both the inmate subculture and yourself

  • Be well-trained in the lifestyle and culture of offenders.
  • Learn from veteran staff.
  • Know your weaknesses and shortcomings, and improve them.

M: Maintain a safe distance

  • Exercise formality
  • Shut down flirtations – fast!
  • Never disclose personal information or problems

P: Professional: policies and procedures

  • Follow the code of conduct
  • Act and look professional
  • Don’t complain about your job to inmates

As a correctional officer, how you carry yourself is important, as is your attitude, how you take criticism, and your appearance. Stressed-out staff members are vulnerable. If you’re stressed, get help for your stress but not from inmates. See a counselor or a supervisor. 

Be aware: burnout and stressing out lead to complacency and boredom. You’ll be a friend of the manipulator if you show your stress and symptoms of burnout.

Manipulation training:

All correctional facility staff members need anti-manipulation training. Always. It’s a standard basic throughout all training. Remember, there’s zero tolerance for sex with inmates, contraband smuggling, favors and accepting gifts. 

Staff cohesiveness is critical at correctional facilities. Nobody should be left alone in isolated posts. Remember to watch out for each other and demonstrate solidarity with staff members. Inmates need to see solidarity.

The Bottom Line

Those working in correctional facilities must be aware at all times. This includes: 

  • Be aware of where you are
  • Be aware of the type of person you’re dealing with
  • Be aware of the rules and regulations: they keep you safe
  • Be aware of the imagination used by the inmate manipulator
  • Be aware of the falsehood: “I am too smart for them; it will never happen to me.”
  • Be aware of your shortcomings.

Remember the word “CHUMP,” and make the word “CHUMP” work for you.

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