After the Webinar: Offender Manipulation – Safeguarding Your Staff (part 2). Q&A with the Presenters

Webinar presenters Gary Cornelius and Dr. Kevin Courtright answered a number of your questions after their presentation,  Offender Manipulation: Safeguarding Your Staff, Part 2. Here are just a few of their responses.


Audience Question: Could you highlight or talk about the importance of avoiding the term ‘manipulation’ in report writing when inmates threatened suicide, if they don’t get what they want? We have an audience member who has shared “I was a mental health provider in a large jail, and had to continuously remind staff to only record what inmates actually said, and or did not write their interpretation of the behavior. Too many wrongful death cases against jail staff where inmate manipulation was written before the inmate died by suicide.” Guys, what are your thoughts about that? 

Gary F. Cornelius:  When I was working in classification and like I said, in my background, I started out working inmate floors and housing units. I teach suicide prevention in jails. I am very careful to say that the line staff the first line in inmate management, are not mental health professionals. And I admire Greg for his service in that area. But I have found it is better to write exactly what the inmate says. Use quotes. If you observe signs of suicide, find a note, be factual, be observant, and be objective. Let the mental health professionals go in and talk to that person and make an educated opinion if they are manipulating. I think, once you use the term manipulation and say, “I think this inmate is manipulating,” everybody’s guard kind of goes down. One of the things about suicide prevention is you take it at face value, and you treat this suicide threat or ideation as real; that there is a possibility that the inmate may kill him or herself. And so, I would stay away from the manipulation part of it. Let the mental health professional deal with that. I think if you are factual, you report what you observe, you write it up and it appears to be a suicide threat and take it at face value. Do not try to second guess. Take precautions per your policies and procedures. You are on safe ground that way.


Audience Question: Could you please address familial threats on staff as a manipulation tool by inmates and what are the remedies? 

Gary F. Cornelius:  Yes. Just follow policies and procedures, I would not get involved with any family dynamics or issues. One of the things we want to stress is communication. If you do receive a threat like that, you put it in writing and document, letting everybody know. It takes a wind out of the manipulator sails, because a lot of these schemes are: ‘It’s just our secret just between us?’ The best way is report it factually, so the information goes into the right hands. It is read at roll call or reported to the post officers, classification, mental health, etc.; this inmate threatened suicide to his family, and so on. Or- the family called the facility and said that the inmate threatened suicide. It could be a real threat-or it could be a scheme to get the inmate moved to a mental health facility or elicit sympathy from the court. One never knows. Just take it at face value and report it. That is the best way to deal with this. So, be very careful. I would just write it up, so everybody sees it. Take precautions. I hope that answers the question.


Audience Question: How much training should staff or volunteers receive by comparison to sworn officers?

Kevin E. Courtright:  You know the article there from Burton et. al recommended what, 300 hours? But those were for sworn staff. So, yeah. I don’t know of any research that, that I’ve come across that answers that question specifically. Gary, maybe you have information or thoughts from your experience that would help us answer that one?

Gary F. Cornelius:  Well, I’m going to base this on experience. I have trained sworn and non-sworn. Sworn people are defined as custody staff, juvenile detention workers, people in facilities that work the floors, work the tiers, work the units. They interact a lot with the inmates. Some have told me it is like they are doing time as well. They are on 12-hour shifts with them. And I think that if you want to put a number of hours on the training, probably sworn staff should get more because of their close proximity with offenders. They are around the inmates and the offenders daily. But if you are non-sworn, you are only with inmates, for short periods, such as coming in and doing a program. They might do a Bible study, they might do mentoring, tutoring, activities like that. They do need, I think, several hours focusing on offender culture and manipulation. I know at the Fairfax County, Virginia Adult Detention Center, when we trained volunteers, we did a whole day training with the jail sections participating. We included classification and what the deputies did on post, then they had a few hours of manipulation training. It was not like a gloss-over. Gloss overs are: ‘Do not trust an inmate. Do not bring anything in for an inmate. They are going to try this to get you to bring something and do them a favor.’  Okay, that’s window dressing. What you need is a tailored, focused manipulation training lesson plan curriculum that takes non-sworn personnel and gives them some in-depth training, and that cannot be done in just an hour or in 30 minutes. I would, if you are asking me to put a number on it, I would say a half day of it for non-sworn personnel.

Kevin E. Courtright:  It’s interesting. It almost calls for a survey. Similar to what Burton and others did recently there in their Federal Probation article, right? I mean, I almost wish Jennifer the training director of the PADOC was here with us today to offer her perspective.

Gary F. Cornelius: Yes. Definitely.

Kevin E. Courtright:  It calls for a survey that maybe we could do in the spring or summer. I know New York after the escape at Dannemora shared some materials with us, including a training video, which they did, which I thought was very well done, and I made a point in asking them if that training component was offered to both civilian and non-civilian staff. And they said, yes. But I don’t think that specifically answers the question in terms of hours and what that should entail. But I know there’s some effort now, at least from some states, to train both sides.

Gary F. Cornelius: That’s why I mentioned the news because if you Google this and there are good websites, there are good factual media reports on these schemes, manipulations, contraband escapes, use that.

Kevin E. Courtright: This whole notion of a specific Offender Manipulation Training module, right hasn’t been well-assessed. You heard me talk a lot about the Burton et al piece on federal probation. And I was very interested to see if they might, in their survey, have included information on offender manipulation training, specifically, but, unfortunately, they did not according to a recent correspondence I had with the lead author. So, it almost calls for a follow-up or an additional survey to see, how evident that training is.


Click Here to Watch a Recording of Offender Manipulation: Safeguarding Your Staff, Part 2.


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