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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

Gratitude is the Best Medicine

With Thanksgiving only a day away, gratitude is sure to be on the minds of many. As I reflect on the importance of the holiday, I’ve become painfully aware of the comforts and luxuries I fail to appreciate the other 364 days a year.

Unfortunately, this is something we’re all guilty of to some degree. We live in a fast-paced, consumer society, often far removed from the troubles of the less fortunate.

Amid the holiday cheer, Thanksgiving serves as a reminder that gratitude should be practiced year-round—not simply on the fourth Thursday of every November.

Gratitude gives us perspective; it opens our eyes to all the helping hands we’ve received along the way. More than that, it’s a stabilizing force in our lives when we’re engulfed by frustration, isolation and despondency.

Perhaps nowhere are those feelings more pervasive than in our nation’s jails and prisons.

Confined and cut off from loved ones, it’s not difficult to understand why inmates struggle emotionally and mentally this time of year. But even for those spending this Thanksgiving on the inside, showing gratitude can boost mental and emotional wellness.

Take it from Keri Blakinger. A former-inmate-turned-journalist, she thinks back fondly to one particular Thanksgiving she spent in incarceration.

That day, the officer assigned to her unit wanted everyone to experience the closest possible thing to a traditional Thanksgiving meal. He made sure it happened.

With his permission, the women pooled their commissary items and prepared an enviable feast. In her personal narrative for The Marshall Project, she writes, “It was only one day, and then everything went back to how it was. But this is how change happens, one day at a time.”

For inmates, the incremental change Blakinger refers to is what it takes for—pardon the cliché—an attitude of gratitude to blossom. Such moments can act as a catalyst for practicing gratitude now and in the future.

Now, it’s not as simple as flipping a switch and voilà, you have gratitude! Rather, it’s about making the effort to practice it on a frequent basis.

A growing body of research suggests that one of the best ways to do that is by putting your blessings on paper. Consider a study published in Greater Good Magazine.

Three hundred participants were divided into three groups. One group wrote about negative experiences they’d had, another wrote gratitude letters and the third wrote nothing at all.

Interestingly, the group that wrote gratitude letters to people in their lives self-reported discernible improvements in their emotional well-being. Researchers Joshua Brown and Joel Wong theorize that when “negative emotion words” were avoided, the toxic emotional weight the words carry was as well.

Another study worth highlighting examined the effects of “gratitude training” on juveniles in detention who exhibited depressive behaviors. Participants were asked to put expressions of gratitude in writing. In addition, researchers introduced gratitude-themed games for the participants to play in a group environment.

The results?

The participants had not only become more aware of what it meant to be grateful, but they scored lower on depression tests.

Having once worked in youth corrections myself, I saw displays of gratitude around Thanksgiving a few times. But instead of through letters, it was written on the juveniles’ faces.

As we drew closer to the big day, the kids would rush to the wall where meal menus were posted. Some of them would even read the Thanksgiving menu items aloud.

And at dinnertime on that fourth Thursday of November, they were offered seconds—a rare treat when we had few unfilled beds. Their faces beaming, they’d thank us enthusiastically.

Like the food, there was enough gratitude in the facility to go around.

This Thanksgiving, I’ll remember those kids and the gratitude they felt for something those of us on the outside take for granted.

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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.

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Correctional Insights

Why Prison Libraries Are Important to Inmates and Staff

Prison libraries, and their counterparts in other correctional facilities, are absolutely vital to fostering better outcomes for their users. Inmates rely on them for a number of reasons, including learning, entertainment, legal research and empathy-building.

For those reasons, prison libraries are hugely important to the inmates they serve. According to this paper by Vibeke Lehmann: “incarcerated persons have a large number of unmet needs, which translate into a high demand for information, learning materials, and self-improvement resources.” This high demand isn’t always self-evident, especially to those on the outside.

Some detractors may try to argue that resources shouldn’t be spent on prison libraries, and that they don’t actually make a difference for inmates or communities. But when you consider that digital options exist for many of the traditionally paper-bound library services, those arguments lose their weight.

In fact, prison libraries affect more than just inmates. According to this paper by Jayne Finlay and Jessica Bates: “The library offers a ‘positive socialization experience’, where bonds are created with other prisoners, staff members and family members.”

These positive socialization experiences are one of the most valuable outcomes a prison library can produce. Everyone benefits when connections can be formed in safe, meaningful ways. That is why prison libraries benefit inmates as well as correctional staff.

In the future, as new technologies and methods emerge, and digital libraries become increasingly common, it will be important for us all to remember the key roles that prison libraries play in the corrections environment. In doing so, we can emulate the best practices and continue to raise people to new heights.

Encartele believes that people need to hear messages like this, so we regularly produce free rehabilitative materials for public use.

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Articles Recidivism

Former Inmates are Critical to Reforming Criminal Justice

“Within 3 years of release, 2 out of 3 people are rearrested and more than 50% are reincarcerated,” as noted by healthypeople.gov. This troubling statistic is evidence that our criminal justice system is broken, and while the causes for this are many, the input and participation of former inmates could be the key to unlocking better outcomes for inmates in the US.

Those inmates who legally escape the corrections system have something to offer: Perspective. They’ve seen the system from the inside-out, and they’re among the best to offer opinions to solve its problems. After a lengthy stint of incarceration, a former inmate has already lived through what’s right and wrong with the system, which should be invaluable material for policy-makers.

Former inmates can also do a wealth of good for the people who are still incarcerated in their former institution. Take for example, the story of Pastor Ron Smith. He was incarcerated for 6 and a half years before eventually turning his life around to become a preacher. Now, he returns to offer counseling and guidance to the young men who are in the same place where he used to be.

However, Ron can only visit so many correctional facilities. Former inmates may have valuable insights for the currently incarcerated, but they need a metaphorical megaphone for their message to truly have an effect. That’s where a technology like digital signage comes in. With digital signage, many facilities can easily disperse content to their inmates on a regular basis.

Imagine if this message from former inmate Tim Hurley was broadcast across jails nationwide: “The No. 1 ingredient required to make it is humility. When humble, I am teachable.” These are the kinds of messages that need to be amplified, and we can get more of them if we just listened to former inmates more often.

Encartele believes that inmates need to hear messages like this, so we regularly produce free rehabilitative materials for public use.

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