The other day in our booking office, I found three correctional officers making small talk with a visiting dignitary in a suit and tie. My bemused look conveyed, “You’re in Alaska, Pal. You can be christened, married, and buried here without anyone showing up in anything more formal than a set of Carhartts and rubber boots.” Then came the double-take. The visitor was one of our inmates, waiting to be transported to court to receive a lengthy sentence on a home-invasion charge. He was apprehensive and couldn’t stop talking.
Next came the mental double-take. He was speaking to my officers in a familiar way, just blowing off steam. They let him talk and listened politely, occasionally asking harmless questions. They spoke to him about how to adjust to doing time and how to get started on the positive behaviors necessary to earn parole.
They threw him a lifeline when he needed one.
This shouldn’t have struck me as odd. Knowing that inmates can’t afford to cry in front of the wrong people, I’ve seen crusty booking sergeants offer them the privacy of a booking cell while they grieve the death of family members. Some of our most prized officers work magic in the Segregation Unit, spending hours calming volatile inmates with little more than patient conversation. These small acts of humanity are both admirable and consequential. To be honest, they’re also calculated.
Empathy vs. Sympathy
I’m still relatively new to the field of Corrections. Even after spending nearly 28 years in police work I have yet to rise to the level of correctional wisdom practiced by many of the officers who work for me. It is a mix of mindset and survival skill. As a police officer, I focused on identifying a suspect, gathering evidence, arresting him and moving on. What happened to him once he was locked up wasn’t my concern. Here on the inside, where we rub elbows with the same inmates every day, the relationship between the guy holding the cell key and the guy speculatively eyeing it is a little more nuanced. Confinement and authority establish invisible boundaries between us, but it is our conduct and communication over the long run, that gives substance to those boundaries and occasionally permits us to reach across them.
The booking officers displayed basic decency. Managing inmates is not the same as arresting or punishing them, but involves confining them as safely and securely as possible, providing humane care, and facilitating rehabilitation. None of us has any illusions about their capacity for mayhem but we also recognize that everyone confined here is a human being and just like the officers visiting with the inmate in Booking, we learn to empathize without necessarily feeling sympathy. The inmate in the suit bartered his freedom for imprisonment. That’s on him. Where sympathy urges us (unproductively) to change his circumstances, empathy permits us to understand how he feels, so we can respond or intervene appropriately, which may involve the extremes of offering him assistance or heightening security measures around him.
At the micro level, verbal defense training teaches us to avoid escalation by treating people with dignity and to tactically de-escalate when encounters threaten to get out of hand. However, correctional officers must operate at both the micro and macro level, because they encounter the same dangerous inmates for prolonged periods of time. Correctional de-escalation can be a years-long, strategic process that begins when an inmate is booked in and continues until the day he releases, almost certainly with some failures and re-starts along the way. Correctional officers recognize that inmates are most vulnerable shortly after booking and again after sentencing. These are the times when hard reality sets in and inmates are most likely to harm themselves or others. Empathetically intervening at these crucial junctures may calm them and help them to cope, forestalling a host of problems.
Robert Frost wasn’t thinking of prisons when he wrote that, “Good fences make good neighbors,” but he might as well have. Paradoxically, the walls and the wire, the bars and the rules all create a security framework that makes it possible to reintroduce humanity in our interaction with inmates. That humanity is neither idealistic nor “soft.” Empathy exercised with decency is pragmatic because it facilitates the long-term process of correctional de-escalation and positively influences the interaction between prison staff and inmates. It is effective only to the extent that it is genuine.
So what about the well-dressed inmate in the Booking office? He received a 17 year sentence, so he will be with us for some time to come. He may mature into a model inmate or a chronic management problem, but the de-escalation process that began prior to his sentencing will continue, with firmness, patience, and empathy until the day he walks free.
Daryl Webster is the Assistant Superintendent of Lemon Creek Correctional Center, Juneau Alaska and editor of the Lemon Creek Journal, a quarterly e-publication of the Alaska Department of Corrections. He retired from the Tulsa Police Department as Deputy Chief of Police in 2014. He holds a Juris Doctor Degree from the University of Tulsa and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration from California State University, Fresno.