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What it Means to be an Active Listener in Corrections

Spend a little time in a corporate setting, and you’ll probably come away knowing a thing or two about being an active listener. That’s because it’s become a bit of a buzzword in workplace training curriculum.

But in a correctional environment, active listening is more than some overused, trendy word.

On the contrary, it’s fundamental to working directly with the inmate population. Corrections officers are regularly—sometimes, daily—placed in stressful, high-pressure situations, and it’s at these times that active listening is most vital.

No universal definition of active listening exists. However, it’s generally defined by four key ingredients: being aware of your body language, suspending judgement, listening intently to understand and responding when it’s appropriate.

Here’s how each applies to the corrections space:

Be Aware of Your Body Language

Though it might sound counterintuitive, nonverbal communication is a critical component of active engagement. Your body language gives clues as to where your attention is directed when communicating with an inmate.

Make eye contact to demonstrate that you are engaged, have removed distractions and are interested in a solution. Really, body language sets the tone for the whole conversation. It could even be argued that mindful body language is a powerful de-escalation technique, putting out a fire before the match is even lit.

Giving credence to this sentiment, Dr. Jenna Curren states, “Your body language, facial expressions and gestures can contradict what you are verbally saying, so remember to match your non-verbal cues with your words.” 

In other words, you could be saying one thing verbally while your body language says another.

Suspend Judgement

The importance of suspending judgement in your interactions with inmates cannot be overstated. Take the time to learn about the inmates in your charge. Doing so empowers you to develop empathy—an extremely powerful soft skill.

Passing judgement when communicating with an inmate, whether silently or out loud, works against your ability to be an active listener. Not to mention that it risks dehumanizing, belittling or angering the inmate on the receiving end.

Now, suspending judgment doesn’t mean you’re legitimizing certain behavior or tacitly agreeing with the inmate. The Center for Creative Leadership puts it best: “Even when good listeners have strong views, they suspend judgment, hold any criticisms, and avoid interruptions like arguing or selling their point right away.”

Unfortunately, inmates—both former and current—are often written off. Many come from rough-and-tumble backgrounds and difficult circumstances.

Listening with an open mind could make all the difference in future interactions, contributing to a safer correctional environment.

Listen Intently to Understand

There’s a difference between hearing and listening; the former is passive and one of the five senses while the latter is an active, learned ability. Active listening involves drilling down as the speaker is talking to understand the meaning behind the words.

As you interact with the inmate population, pay close attention to whether you’re listening or simply hearing. Ask follow-up questions and express curiosity about what is being said.

This creates mutual empowerment: The inmate feels empowered because they feel heard and their concerns are taken seriously. You, as the officer, feel empowered because you’re learning about individual inmates and the population you supervise.

Asked if active listening has a noticeable effect on inmate attitudes and behaviors in his facility, Sergeant David Ruiz says, “Definitely.”

Sergeant Ruiz serves as the administrator of the Ferry County Jail in Republic, Washington. “Active listening helps build a sense of rapport between officer and inmate,” he adds.   

Developing rapport can be as simple as, in Sergeant Ruiz’s words, “doing our hourly walks and stopping to talk to inmates.” On those walks, his staff makes a point of asking inmates how court or a visit went or talking to them about their day.

Then, they listen.

And Sergeant Ruiz will tell you from firsthand experience that inmates appreciate having someone ready and willing to listen.

Respond When it’s Appropriate

If you’re reading this, you’re likely a problem solver in a correctional capacity.

However, to be an active listener is to know when to put your problem-solving cap on and when not to. Here’s what I mean: Sometimes, inmates simply want to express what they’re feeling.

Perhaps they’re having a tough time or suffering from depression. Rather than cutting the speaker off or coming up with an answer right away, listen to what’s on their mind and only respond when the time is right.

This is an often forgotten part of active listening not just in corrections but across the board.

But “the key to active listening,” Tonya Echols of Thrive Coaching Solutions points out, “is to stop talking and stop thinking about talking.”

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Articles Correctional Insights Recidivism

Connection Prevents Inmates from Developing a Criminal Identity – Here’s Why

Any student of history knows that functioning societies and verbal communication are inextricably linked. Whether we’re talking about skyscrapers or social bonds, without verbal communication, humans would have never succeeded in building anything.

Our ability to communicate is an integral part of our identity. However, in the absence of communication, a criminal identity can take the place of a functional identity.

Thanks to our ever-growing digital landscape, more traditional forms of communication have been taken for granted. Why make a phone call when it’s more convenient to share the same information via text, email or social media?

Technological progress has made it possible for us to communicate in ways that don’t involve a true vocal exchange. The consequence of which is a dramatic social shift that has forever changed human interaction.

Nevertheless, the most tried-and-true method for getting a message across, resolving conflict or reinforcing social ties is speaking face to face or by phone. Take the workplace for example.

A 2020 study done by SocialChorus revealed that 73 percent of survey respondents believe effective workplace communication promotes a healthier culture, inevitably leading to stronger worker mental health.

Meaningful communication gives us a sense of belonging and validation. It’s vital to our emotional, mental and social wellness. Though many of us don’t think about it, the same is true for inmates in our jail and prison systems.

Countless studies have shown that regular contact with loved ones, whether through visitation or phone calls, creates positive stimulation for those behind bars.

Picture of an inmate being lent a hand to make a connection. That connection, in the form of familial contact, will help preempt the development of criminal identity.

The upshot of this is inmates are less likely to violate rules while serving their sentence or, more importantly, reoffend at some point. Encouraging inmates to maintain communication with their families leads to positive short-term and long-term effects.

In the short term, correctional environments are safer and in the long term, reintegration is often smoother. As researchers Michael Rocque, David Bierie, and Doris MacKenzie put it, socialization lowers the chances inmates will develop a criminal identity while confined.

Conversely, an inmate who’s unable to speak frequently with loved ones is liable to smuggle contraband into the facility—namely, cellphones. And as technology continues to progress, illicit access to mobile phones will be considerably easier for inmates.

An inmate who introduces contraband to a correctional environment is likely to continue this behavior, thereby taking on a criminal identity.

Along with facilitating communication between inmates and their families, the need for modernized options is fundamental to rehabilitation efforts as well.

With the increased push towards virtual and online services, correctional institutions will need to keep pace. Ensuring security and making every effort not to disrupt existing family ties should be a top priority.

Picture of an inmate making a connection. That connection, in the form of familial contact, will help preempt the development of a criminal identity.

Not only does this apply to telephonic modernization, but it should also include a less burdensome and arbitrary approach to visitation. A 2011 study conducted by the Vera Institute of Justice found that inmates’ family members cited unreasonably long waits and unclear rules as reasons they wouldn’t visit again.

The physical distance between family and inmates coupled with the stringent nature of visitation procedures makes contact by phone all the more important. Greater access and an emphasis on adapting to evolving telecommunications will be the challenge for correctional facilities going forward.

But, as we’ve seen across multiple studies for decades, providing inmates the opportunity to maintain familial connections helps lower recidivism and aids successful rehabilitation.

Be in the know about corrections news by checking out our Paper.li!   

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Recidivism

The Importance of Consistent Communication

Anyone who has a family member or friend who is or has been incarcerated knows the struggle and the frustration associated with the behavior of the inmate.

Whether a short term stay or a lengthy sentence, those incarcerated are serving time for breaking the law. That behavior is a thorn in the side of every loved one—a thorn that can lead to a lack of empathy, a lack of patience and a lack of communication in their relationship with the inmate.

While those feelings aren’t uncommon and, in most cases, are justified, people who are incarcerated need consistent communication, empathy and patience, if their loved ones want to see them reenter society with lower recidivism rates than other inmates.

Communication Breakdown

In their research article on recidivism, Matthew A. Koschmann and Brittany L. Peterson argued that many reentry efforts focus primarily on traditional signs of reoffending, rather than on what is actually to blame for that recidivism. In other words, the focus is on continued criminal behavior, violations to parole and compliance with treatment requirements, but not on communication.

According to the pair, “the underlying cause is a communication breakdown of being cut off from networks and meaningful relationships that provide the necessary social capital needed for successful reintegration.”

A parent, spouse, sibling, other family member or good friend needs to continue offering consistent communication to the inmate throughout their sentence. Even better, a network of people who care for the incarcerated individual and want to see them succeed upon release need to work at consistent communication with the inmate to ensure their relationship with the individual stays strong. Deep ties to family and friends help an inmate to walk away from people and situations that don’t have their best interests in mind.

Prison staff should also strive for consistent communication with inmates. However, their style of communication must be different than the support offered by families. Staff have a responsibility to uphold an impartial, professional, and uncompromising relationship with the incarcerated population.

While staff want to see an inmate succeed in reentry and likely have some great advice to share with the inmate along the way, their relationship with any single inmate should be a sterile one.

This is important to remember, because, in some cases, staff relationships are all an inmate has for communication. Staff relationships do not offer the strong, deep ties to family and friends that will see them through difficult situations upon reentry.

Overall Importance of Relationships

According to an Evidence-Based Professionals Society article by Timothy Daty, “When examining recidivism, the study of family relationships is often a key component in predicting repeat criminal behavior among formerly incarcerated individuals. Research suggests that strong family ties produce lasting impacts among this population and often deter future incidents of crime (Bales and Mears, 2008).”

Consistent communication is an important factor in life, whether behind bars or not.

Kathy Miller, a caregiver coordinator who works with the elderly, wrote, “Our ability to communicate thoughts and feelings to those around us helps us to maintain our sense of identity, and is an integral part of maintaining our quality of life.”

She may have been referring to people suffering from Alzheimer’s, but the sentiment remains true to all facets of life. Communication is a key factor in our psychological well-being—something that can warp and disappear very quickly behind bars.

Keeping consistent communication with an incarcerated individual is easier said than done in many cases, as the pressures of prison can be extremely overwhelming, especially in the beginning.

The Roadblocks

There is pressure for inmates to find a group, to assert themselves or blend in, to maintain their independence or embrace the regulatory nature of prison. That pressure is a weight all inmates must carry, and it’s significant.

Inmates face strict regulations on items they can own, the amount of time spent out of their cell, and what they are allowed to eat, which can cause frustration. They also are surrounded by other inmates, some of whom have no desire to grow beyond their poor decisions and cultivate healthy relationships and success in life.

Break the rules, and the few privileges an inmate has will vanish. That includes phone time and in some cases receiving mail, depending on the severity of the infraction. Keeping those communication lines open is vital.

Being part of the support system for an inmate who regularly lands in trouble may put a damper on your relationship, but family members and friends should maintain consistent communication in spite of that, for the benefit of everyone.

According to a Prison Legal News article by Alex Friedmann, “studies have consistently found that prisoners who maintain close contact with their family members while incarcerated have better post-release outcomes and lower recidivism rates.”

While a family member or friend can’t be forced to have consistent communication with an inmate, the opportunity is always there. More and more jails today have various forms of telecommunication for inmates, whether it be video visitation, phones or secure email.

The fact is, making the choice to keep up with your incarcerated loved ones directly affects their likelihood of getting out of jail—and staying out.