By Judith A. Yates
The three most important skills in corrections are report writing, the ability to ‘read’ nonverbal communication, and the ability to communicate. Sounds simple? It takes years of training, watching, and the ability to want to learn. Report writing is essencial. We have become far to reliant on electronic means for spell check and grammar. You should have noticed there are already two spelling and grammar errors here: ‘essencial’ and ‘to,’ easy to overlook but sloppy in a report. A report can lose a case in court, can have your statement thrown out of the Lieutenant’s basket, or can make your entire department appear disorganized, ignorant, and incompetent.
As the saying goes, “If it is not written down, it did not happen.” You should be able to read a report and tell exactly what occurred five minutes, five days, even five years after the incident. It should tell who, what, where, when, why, how. There should be no detail overlooked. All employees should take advantage of, and even request, report writing classes, because in this business you never know what may occur.
Reading body language is an art and a skill you cannot acquire in a day. Sometimes it is as easy as noting aggressive posture, such as two inmates squaring off in a heated argument, when you are yards away. It can be a slight flick of a hand to hide small contraband as you approach within feet. Inmates may throw a fast gang sign when being moved from a cellblock.
When I was a rookie I was assigned to the rec yard, sitting in a small office with heavily tinted windows. I spoke with a mentor and confided I was bored. She explained, “This is where you learn to watch inmate behavior. Who runs with which group? How do they act?” I began to watch their behaviors, when they did not think they were being watched, versus their body language when another officer approached their immediate area. I eventually cultivated a few snitches, discovered gang identities, and more. It is estimated body language is 85-90% of communication – we are what we do.
The ability to communicate is not what we say, but also how we say it. For example, officers speaking to child molesters know by berating the perpetrator they will get no information and may even be sued for discrimination. On the flip side, we must be careful not to become a ‘caregiver’ or a rule-bender, for inmates will see this as a weakness. We walk a fine line between supervisor and caretaker. We cannot shout at an inmate, “Get out of my office, stupid!” Nor can we ask sweetly, “Please leave my office, sir?” But we can say, “I need you to leave my office.” We know all inmates’ crimes are bad: hurting another person by theft, murder, abuse, or drugs.
As correctional employees we are not Judge or jury and we must play our role. The inmate is serving their sentence. If we degrade ourselves with name-calling, taunting, or purposely set out to “get” or “show them” we harm ourselves. In the Federal Bureau of Prisons there was a saying: “Inmates have 24 hours a day, 365 days to think about revenge.” In history, officers were part of the punishment phase. No more.
If you work on writing complete reports with no spelling or grammatical errors, are cognizant of your environment to include the ability to ‘read’ nonverbal communication, and communicate in a way that is fair and equal to everyone without being too compliant, your future in corrections is secure. This is a business like no other, and we must continue to train and work together so everyone goes home safe at the end of shift.Be safe out there.
Corrections.com author, Judith A. Yates was a trainer and Senior Officer Specialist for the Federal Bureau of Prisons. She was also employed at the Wichita County Sheriff’s Office in Texas. She is now a true crime writer and has written a book on common sense self defense. She can be reached atmailto:firstname.lastname@example.org