Sensemaking and the Stereotype of the Brutal Guard

Sensemaking and the Stereotype of the Brutal Guard

John Riley

"Sensemaking and the Stereotype of the Brutal Guard" by John Riley. Alaska Justice Forum 14(4): 2-3 (Winter 1998). This article reports on observational research conducted during the winter of 1993 at Spring Creek Correctional Center, a maximum security prison in Seward, Alaska. It analyzes the informal conversational patterns of correctional officers working in prison to show how practices of cultural interpretation common to all work groups may pose particular public relations challenges to correctional officers and those who supervise them.

Observers of prison life often come away from correctional facilities with the sense that many correctional officers share an authoritarian and punitive orientation to their work, an image conforming to the popular stereotype of the brutal and sadistic guard attracted to prison work because of emotional conflicts involving power and control. While research suggests that these assumptions about the motivation of corrections professionals lack empirical foundation, they persist.

The stereotype is sustained, in part, by an historical legacy of brutality and by actual incidents of violence and psychological abuse that do still occur. However, decades of research make it clear that the tendency to stereotype correctional officers cannot be explained by recruitment of unsuitable applicants or by the actual misconduct of correctional officers. Nevertheless, it is equally clear that even sympathetic visitors to our prisons often find it hard to understand the behavior of the officers.

Correctional officers are themselves troubled when they see medical providers, members of the clergy, teachers, and others come away from the prison feeling a greater affinity for the inmates than for the individuals on whom the safety and success of their visit depends. Reactions to this persistent stereotyping are undoubtedly implicated in work-related stress and job dissatisfaction.

An adequate understanding of correctional work requires an appreciation of the dynamics of occupational culture. Like workers in any profession, correctional officers participate in the continuing reproduction of an occupational culture consisting of norms, values, and understandings not easily appreciated by outsiders. The subculture of correctional officers allows them to make sense of a complex social environment. Examining the ways in which correctional officers work to make sense of the prison experience can provide an opportunity to move beyond stereotypes.

One of the chief sensemaking accomplishments of correctional officers is the establishment of a group understanding of inmate identity. Many, though certainly not all, officers routinely participate in an almost ritualistic devaluation of inmate identity, which involves maintaining a set of unflattering working assumptions about inmate character. This tends to reinforce the idea that individual officers share a punitive and authoritarian orientation .

This article reports on observational research conducted during the winter of 1993 at Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, Alaska. It analyzes the informal conversational practices of correctional officers working in the maximum security prison to show how practices of cultural interpretation common to all work groups may pose particular public relations challenges to correctional officers and those who supervise them. In 1993, at the Spring Creek prison, 150 correctional officers supervised approximately 426 inmates. The data discussed here represent approximately 125 hours of on-site observation and an equal number of hours spent outside the institution talking and socializing with members of the institutional staff. While studies focusing on single institutions cannot provide a foundation for extensive generalization, such studies provide an important starting point for analysis of occupational culture.

Three Occasions for Sensemaking

With any group, the activities that sustain an organizational culture become most apparent when dominant assumptions about identity, behavior, and the nature of the environment are questioned. Hence, sensemaking activity is most amenable to study where routine patterns of activity are called into question. In most organizations, opportunities for sensemaking present themselves with the appearance of new members or inquisitive visitors, individuals who require socialization if they are to share the work group's understanding of behavioral norms and occupational realities.

In many correctional settings, one of the chief accomplishments of sensemaking is the development of a working understanding of the inmate as untrustworthy, manipulative, and dangerous . Correctional officers share a working understanding of inmates that can be described as a form of categorical devaluation. It is important to understand that acceptance of a working understanding does not necessarily imply that individual officers accept this view as an accurate description of individual inmate identity. Rather, a working understanding is akin to a legal fiction, or a safety maxim that we learn to accept for its utility even while maintaining reservations about its factual content. Correctional officers learn to regard all inmates as potentially dangerous for the same reason that firearms enthusiasts are taught to treat all guns as loaded and dentists are taught to see all patients as potential carriers of infection—a universal precaution. And like universal precautions in medicine and dentistry, this one may serve as a touchstone of professional competency.

At Spring Creek Correctional Center three kinds of events routinely call into question this working sense of inmate identity which guides custodial staff.

Reading the Record

In a well-managed institution, visitors may interact with inmates in a variety of settings. Such interactions may conform to the expectations that govern life outside the institution. Visitors thus often conclude that inmates are essentially normal. However, when an outsider remarks favorably on the behavior of a particular inmate, it may call into question the working understanding of experienced correctional staff. This then commonly gives rise to a sensemaking activity that may be referred to as reading the record.

Officers at Spring Creek have access to a computer-generated Confidential Register which provides information on each inmate. Other than noting an institutional work assignment, these records contain little favorable information about an individual. Rather, they provide a portrait of the inmate as an offender, describing his criminal history, sentence, release date, security classification, and housing assignment. When outsiders refer to a particular inmate's success in program participation, his cooperative demeanor, or his work ethic, the correctional officer often resorts to reading the record, i.e., he finds an occasion to present the outsider with the facts about an individual inmate as an offender.

Because Spring Creek is a maximum security prison, the criminal histories of the inmates involve extremely serious offenses. Revealing the homicide, rape, or assault in the inmate's past to a visitor who has commented favorably on the inmate reinforces the working understanding of inmates held by experienced correctional staff.

The following are typical of remarks by visitors, treatment staff, or new officers that prompt a reading of the confidential record:

He seems like a reasonable inmate.

I enjoyed talking with him. I imagine inmates like him make your job easier.

It is a shame to see a guy like him end up here.

Not all such remarks are addressed by a reading of the record. When they are, the response does not typically suggest a sense of urgency; the response may be immediate or it may be delayed, even for several days. Reading the record generally occurs seamlessly in a moment of casual interaction, filling the time when things are slow. But while those who participate in such activities probably do so with the sense that not very much is happening, these are clearly moments of considerable importance in the sensemaking process. Officers typically respond to favorable or even neutral comments on inmates with remarks such as these:

Well, let's look him up and see.

I don't know [John Doe] yet. Open that print-out to the "D's" and we'll see why he's here.

Remember that convict you asked me about yesterday? Take a look at this.

The informality of such responses masks the serious nature of the sensemaking work accomplished. The homicides, rapes, and assaults referenced in the Confidential Register remind officers and those who question their working understanding of the inmate that appearances may be deceiving and that common sense dictates the need for caution and distance when dealing with inmates.

The "facts" in the record are, of course, an incomplete and one-sided account of an inmate's life, but they have a compelling official quality. Presenting them permits officers a way to provide skeptical outsiders with an apparently objective confirmation of the working view of inmate character.

Justifying Acts of Tolerance

For correctional officers who work directly with inmates, events often require individual discretion in enforcing institutional rules. Even minor events can challenge officers to find creative solutions to the many human relations problems associated with managing inmates. Like their law enforcement counterparts, correctional officers cannot respond to every instance of rule-breaking with formal sanctions. To do so would be time-consuming, inefficient, and counter-productive. Hence, officers rely heavily on informal strategies, overseeing the production of order through continuous negotiation with the individuals they encounter.

Contrary to stereotype, the officers observed during the course of the project showed patience, tact, tolerance, and creativity in dealing with inmates. Officers frequently ignore, at least temporarily, obvious violations of minor institutional rules. Sometimes the violations are ignored until an inmate can be isolated from potential sources of support and reprimanded in private or until an inmate who is obviously very angry has a chance to "cool off." For example, although it is illegal to smoke in any building on the Spring Creek compound, a prudent officer might ignore an inmate caught smoking in a doorway on a cold day if he or she is aware that the inmate just received news of the death of a family member or the loss of an important appeal.

Such tolerance makes good sense. Officers at Spring Creek supervise large groups of inmates either alone or with minimal assistance from other officers. It is not uncommon for individual officers to work with 40 to 50 inmates. Given the dynamics of supervision in contemporary institutions, no officer would fault another for reluctance to turn a minor problem into a possible confrontation. But this exercise of tolerance can seem to present a contradiction to the ideological orientation of correctional officers.

When officers find themselves in situations where tolerance may be interpreted in ways that are inconsistent with their common sense notions of inmate identity, they may exercise a variety of sensemaking options. Typically, acts of tolerance are reframed as maneuvers in the ongoing struggle to maintain control. Officers frequently recount stories of minor confrontations that escalated into major events. According to one version of the Attica, New York uprising in 1971, the riots were sparked when a guard tackled an inmate who refused to leave his cell for a disciplinary hearing.

Such pragmatic justification is a sensemaking strategy that allows staff to exercise tolerance without undermining the working understanding of inmate character that informs their professional decision making. By linking excessive intolerance for minor infractions with serious trouble, officers demonstrate their commitment to control even while it might appear that they are failing to exercise complete control in the present.

Tough Talk and Institutional Due Process

The third example of sensemaking involves the offensive speech sometimes termed ritual insubordination: the complaining, swearing, griping, or bitching which often characterizes a collective response to occupational stress. The meaning of the term is partly captured in the common sense notion of "blowing off steam." Erving Goffman defined ritual insubordination in his well known work, Asylums (Anchor Books, 1961). The term applies where insubordinate behavior "is not realistically expected to bring about change." Goffman views ritual insubordination as a largely expressive act, lacking in practical utility, but an important aspect in the identity work of individuals experiencing conflict between role expectations and personal identity.

For Goffman, ritual insubordination is a form of symbolic "leave taking". It allows individuals to momentarily distance themselves from those requirements of participation in complex organizations that have the strongest implications for personal identity by affording participants a sense of personal autonomy at times when the demands of institutional participation seem most compelling. Because shared ritual insubordination serves to promote solidarity among participants, it plays a role in the promotion of job satisfaction and the reduction of employee turnover—major issues in the field of corrections. At Spring Creek Correctional Center, ritual insubordination can include profane or disparaging remarks or jokes about inmates, comments that call into question the legitimacy of institutional due process, and narratives that challenge the credibility and competence of inmates.

Ritual insubordination was observed during meetings of the institution's disciplinary committee. Known in the institution as the "D-Board," this committee of correctional officers provides inmates with the first elements of due process required by law when individuals are charged with consequential violations of institutional rules.

Disciplinary hearings at Spring Creek were conducted before a senior officer, who served as chairperson, and three other officers, who served as committee members. Service on the disciplinary committee depends upon availability, shift assignments, and the discretion of the officers in charge. The committee hears testimony from the accused inmate, from the officer making the charge and, when relevant, from other officers, inmates, or staff.

Although hearings have elements of a courtroom trial, they differ from trials in fundamental ways. Because of the need to maintain institutional security, including protecting witnesses from retaliation, inmates do not enjoy the right to confront witnesses or even to be present when testimony is offered against them. Disciplinary committees may elect to withhold information from the prisoner if security concerns are an issue. Both testimony and committee deliberations may take place with only the officers assigned to the committee present.

The routine is such that the disciplinary committee is frequently alone, waiting for witnesses, deliberating the facts of the case, or considering punishment options. While a tape recorder is used to produce a record of each case, when inmates were asked to leave to facilitate private discussion, recording was often suspended.

During free moments, "D-Board" committee members typically engage in gossip, storytelling, jokes, and the "griping or bitching" that Goffman called ritual insubordination. Committee members frequently commented on the character of both particular prisoners with whom they interacted and the "typical" prisoner incarcerated at Spring Creek. In the 36 disciplinary hearings observed during the course of the study, derogatory remarks and stories about inmates and cynical remarks about the disciplinary process were commonplace. Officers referred to individuals about to be heard as "the next victim." They sometimes engaged in tongue-in-cheek discussion of punishment options before the facts of the case were heard. In one instance, an officer inquiring about a pending case asked, "What's this one guilty of?" An inmate who refused to attend his hearing was said to have "PMS today" (an interesting remark in an environment where few things are taken to be more offensive than remarks that call into question someone's masculinity). At times, inmates were described as "stupid," denigrated for their sexual preferences, and compared to animals.

If the informal conversation that accompanies disciplinary hearings is presented out of its larger context, it can be a source for moral outrage. For while the worst remarks came from a relatively small group of officers, and at no time were offensive remarks noted in the presence of inmates, these exchanges reflect and reinforce a derogatory conception of inmate identity. The working consensus emerges: inmates are immature, untrustworthy, unpredictable, weak, perverse, and a potential source of trouble for staff.

Of course, context is important. Offensive remarks also can be heard in conversations where teachers talk about students and administrators, where physicians talk about nurses and patients, and where people discuss the shortcomings of their own relatives. But this is sometimes forgotten by those who visit correctional institutions and overhear expression of ritual insubordination. To the institutional visitor, unprofessional remarks call into question the integrity and the moral values of those who make them.

None of this should be surprising. Institutional visitors do not share the correctional officer's context for discussion of this sort. They may assume that such remarks reflect a level of bias that makes fair dealing with inmates impossible. In reality, ritual insubordination may be a way of saving face when inmates win relatively favorable outcomes in disciplinary cases. The toughest talk observed during the 36 disciplinary hearings observed at Spring Creek Correctional Center consistently occurred in cases where inmates received outcomes more favorable than some correctional officers thought fair. Lacking this information, visitors to the institution might assume that such language reflects systematic mistreatment of prisoners. In fact, in the cases observed, it was more common in situations where officers showed commendable self-restraint in dealing with difficult inmates.

Disciplinary boards are required to choose between the version of events offered by the officer who made the initial charge and the version offered by an inmate. In situations where the board finds that punishment of an inmate is unjustified, board members are, in a sense, breaking ranks. This was understood by the majority of the officers involved in the cases observed, and it was particularly clear to the officer in charge of the hearings. When interviewed, he described his role as leader of the disciplinary committee by saying "I'm here to make sure the officer doesn't get stepped on out there."

In addition to being put in a position where it may seem that they are siding with an inmate, correctional officers who show too much concern for an inmate's rights also call into question the working understanding of inmate identity, a hallmark of professional competence and an important expression of group loyalty. While this can be justified pragmatically, like any expression of tolerance, it still creates high levels of cognitive dissonance for those involved. It is exactly the sort of situation in which one would expect conscientious officers to experience stress, with a need to reaffirm their commitment to colleagues and the occupational culture. In the context of disciplinary hearings, ritual insubordination may affirm loyalty and professional identity.


Sensemaking activity is inevitable, and the sensemaking activity of correctional officers may inevitably be somewhat oppositional. Given their professional responsibilities, this is probably appropriate. A working definition of the inmate that discourages trust and encourages vigilance is a requirement of correctional work. Without such assumptions, it is hard to understand how the job could be done. It is for good reason that a working understanding of inmate identity which encourages officers to view inmates with suspicion is viewed by many as a hallmark of competent correctional practice.

If officers dramatize their commitment to the norms and understandings of their profession in their informal conversational routines, this too seems understandable. In all professions people take a certain trouble to express their commitment. Such conversation socializes newcomers, serves to identify strangers, offers opportunities for the expression of loyalty and helps group members make sense of apparent inconsistencies in their own behavior. It teaches, and it brings people together. These are ritual moments in the life of the group, moments when individuals who work in considerable isolation may join with others to build mutual trust, understanding, and respect.

While conversational routines that disparage inmates are to be expected in corrections, problems may arise when the denigration of inmates is taken too far, or when institutional newcomers are exposed to these routines without first learning to appreciate their significance. It is unlikely that new employees or prison visitors could discern the difference between an overly enthusiastic expression of loyalty and words that express a genuine contempt for the human rights of inmates. In the end, even with considerable experience and understanding, it may not always be possible to distinguish between words spoken by a decent officer who is tired, provoked, or wants to be one of the guys, and the language of an officer whose orientation to the job is such that he or she is likely to abuse the rights of inmates.

Data collected in one institution cannot allow us to speak with confidence about all officers or all facilities. This work does suggest that the organization of correctional work may provide predictable opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict. Correctional officers must treat inmates humanely. At the same time, they must be prepared for the worst from even the best inmates they supervise. Like physicians, they must be prepared to help all those who come into their care, while remaining aware that any professional encounter may result in tragedy. Even the most apparently cooperative inmate may pose a serious threat to the safety of others. Training sessions that stress the need for a correctional equivalent to the medical concept of Universal Precautions may help correctional officers to reconcile the conflicting imperatives that structure their work. Offering medical practice as a model, trainers should encourage officers to develop an operational understanding of inmate identity that encourages caution while allowing compassion. By instructing officers in the dynamics of sensemaking, and by encouraging reflection on the informal conversational practices of the group, correctional trainers can help officers to distinguish between appropriate commitment to custody and control and the sort of punitive and authoritarian attitudes that undermine commitment to the rule of law, threaten the security of correctional institutions, and ultimately contribute to the persistence of the stereotype of the brutal guard.

The author wishes to thank Superintendent Larry Kincheloe and the staff at Spring Creek Correctional Center for their cooperation and assistance.

John Riley is an assistant professor with the Justice Center.