inmate gamesmanship

Inmate Gamesmanship – Part 1

Inmate gamesmanship is the topic of our new multi-part blog series. This series is intended to provide valuable insights into the complex relationship – and subtle games at play – between inmates and staff at correctional facilities.

We’ve all heard the old saying, “Familiarity breeds contempt,” but nowhere is this more evident than within an incarcerated population. It is the nature of the beast: newly employed jailers or correctional officers, upon first entering into a confinement facility, are wide-eyed, and expect the worst. They’ve heard war stories; they have likely even done some research on their own. These tales are often disquieting, but what they don’t understand is this: the accounts make for interesting narratives because they are aberrations.

The Reality of Daily Life in a Correctional Facility

The reality of what occurs in a jail or prison population is a much different scenario than what new hires thought they would be experiencing. In fact, most days are yawningly ordinary. For this, the new hires are not prepared. No one told them about the day-to-day, boringly ordinary tasks that are required. Their routine day is (more or less) predictable. The aberrations are departures from the norm. They’ve steeled themselves for the worst, so usually, what they end up experiencing – on an average day – is not so bad. And that’s what makes it dangerous.

There is an undercurrent of mistrust in every prison or jail population. There is, as anyone who has ever worked in a secure facility can tell you, an Us versus Them mentality. Staff members are supposed to be cautious when interacting with inmates, but interaction with the population is a necessity. Staff members receive training on policies, on conducting cell searches, on current threat assessments, etc. The problem is that there is real danger lurking in the mundane everyday happenings.

On any given day, there may be a rumor passed along that there are weapons currently in the course of being manufactured for anticipated use in some inmate gang hit. This results in a shake down of certain housing areas where (predictably) a few makeshift weapons are found. Satisfied that the threat has been averted, the activity may result in a few inmate transfers wherein the combatants are moved and the activity is temporarily disrupted. This is the life of an employee who works in a secure facility. 

However, a custodial facility is just like most other workplaces: employees on the job interact with one another out of necessity. As in any other workplaces, social norms dictate that employees exchange pleasantries, chit chat about routine matters, and familiarize themselves with their co-workers. In a manufacturing facility, the product being moved around is a widget, but in a secure facility, these widgets correlate to inmates.

Inmates Can Be Keen Observers

Staff members, during the course of the typical day on the job, tend to lose sight of the fact that inmates have acute hearing and are keen on observation. They pick up on the slightest cues. For example, a staff member may comment that they enjoyed their weekend because they got to watch their favorite driver in a drag car race. This discussion just imparted valuable information: the staff member is a drag car racing fan. A female librarian complains that her husband drinks beer and she can’t get him off the couch. From that, the inmate learns that her husband is inattentive.

Let the games begin…

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