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Prison Guard vs. Corrections Officer - What’s the Difference??

Language and terminology hold an immense amount of power, especially when considering job titles in the corrections industry. But for job titles like guard and officer to gain the respect that they deserve, there needs to be a shift outside of the industry. By enhancing societal perceptions of different jobs in corrections, we can foster a more humanizing work environment for corrections staff and overall, a safer facility for all.
Kenzie Koch
Kenzie Koch

In a world where we’ve learned to tread lightly with the terminology we use, the corrections profession is no exception. In reality, the corrections industry is under heavier scrutiny than most other professions due to its role in law enforcement. Anyone who works in corrections has learned to be mindful of their every move as they’re constantly being watched under a magnifying glass held by the media; one wrong step and their career could be over. This blog explores the powerful influence of the language we use and its potential to shape outside perceptions and cultivate a more compassionate view surrounding the corrections profession.

The Power of Terminology 

Knowingly being under intense surveillance, corrections professionals are trained to fulfill their daily tasks without bias, regardless of the severity of the crimes committed by the offenders they engage with. Correctional staff are trained to focus on the care, custody, and control of their offenders and not to be distracted by the reasons why the offenders were court-ordered to their facility in the first place. Hypothetically, if staff allowed their emotions to interfere with their job and got caught up in the reasons why the offenders are in their custody, staff could easily start viewing the inmates in the same light as the crime that was committed. But instead of addressing offenders with terms such as “thieves,” “pedophiles, and “murderers”, staff must remain professional with the unified terms of “inmates” or “offenders,” depending on the terminology their facility supports and encourages.

However, some would argue that those titles aren’t good enough, and need to be updated. There are people in society who believe that the title “inmate” is impersonal and carries a negative connotation that contributes to the stigmatization of incarcerated individuals. Just as some people think the term “homeless” should be changed to “individuals who are experiencing homelessness,” there are some people who believe that the word “inmate” should be changed to “incarcerated individual” as it’s a title that promotes a more respectful and humanizing language. 

Regardless of the debate on whether these proposed language changes are politically correct or justified, this topic raises the question of how we should address the professionals who weren’t court-ordered to serve time but rather uphold the custody of those who were. If those who fight for a more empathetic language geared toward offenders can see a massive differentiation between the labels “inmates” and  “incarcerated individuals,” it begs the question of whether they are also able to grasp the difference between the titles “prison guard” or “jailer” and “corrections officer.” If we use more neutral language towards offenders that doesn’t inadvertently contribute to dehumanization, we should be able to do the same with the professionals who work to keep those incarcerated safe.

Shaping Perspectives

The labels, titles, and words we use, either intentionally or not, shape our perspective of those we are referring to. When we use the word “inmate,” we may automatically think of a tatted-up male in a bright orange jumpsuit. Is this a fair assumption? Of course not - this image is a stigmatization and doesn’t apply to most offenders. But it can’t be argued that the same mind-wandering imagination doesn’t happen when we first think of a “prison guard.” We automatically think of the last prison-related movie we watched and remember the tall, muscular men wearing all-black uniforms, helmets, and holding batons. No matter what you imagine - most can agree that the term “prison guard” leads the mind to imagine a more masculine, controlling, rough-around-the-edges type of authoritative figure. Just like how the first image to come to mind when thinking of an “inmate” isn’t completely accurate, neither is the first ideation of a prison guard. 

Now, if you think of an “incarcerated individual,” maybe you first imagine someone in a dayroom reading a book or attending a rehabilitative class. The term sounds less threatening. The same goes for thinking of what a “corrections officer” is like. While we may still stir up thoughts of someone with power and strength, the title “corrections officer” doesn’t provide the same grittiness of imagination. The title “corrections officers” implies a more professional, compassionate, and responsible figure. While any title including the word “guard” shifts the mind to think of a controlling figure, the word “correction” in a title leans a bit more positively.

Rehabilitation Takes a Team

Historically, correctional facilities were viewed as a punitive approach to stripping the rights and privacy away from those who broke the law. Being sentenced to jail or prison was a way of punishment: to be confined away from the real world. This era was when the title “prison guard” was accepted as the norm, and it fit the bill nicely as it didn’t convey a very positive connotation. However, times have since changed. Our understanding of the criminal justice system has vastly evolved, as well as our approach to incarceration. 

In today’s age, many correctional facilities host classes, programs, and resources to help offenders correct and reform their behaviors before reentering society. Instead of being an institution solely for punishment, jails, prisons, and juvenile detention centers across the country have adapted the shift in the philosophy of incarceration: changing “punishment” to “rehabilitation”, with the end goal of lowering recidivism and preparing individuals for re-entering society. 

Hence the word “correction” in “corrections officer,” staff are trained to have a sense of responsibility for the rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders. While learning from their mistakes and preparing for a productive life outside of the bars is up to each offender, staff are available to help teach skills and provide a commitment to the idea that incarceration should serve as a means to correct and reform, rather than punish. 

Transitioning the title “prison guard” to  “corrections officer” reflects the ever-developing expectations of those who work within the walls. To become a corrections officer, there are several different series of comprehensive training that go far beyond security measures. From conflict resolution and de-escalation techniques to counseling practices and reformative efforts, the title “corrections officer” better encapsulates the diverse skill set of those who are expected to help “correct.” The shift in terminology emphasizes the staff’s efforts in supporting offenders’ growth and development rather than just “guard” them. 

Promoting Professional Synergy 

The media has historically framed correctional environments to have an extreme “officer versus offender” atmosphere, but this typically isn’t the case. While some facilities are more in control than others depending on the agency policies and offender behaviors, most facilities have a common ground between the staff and offenders - and that’s mutual respect.

As a quote pulled from the blog, How to Remind Disrespectful Inmates of Your Authority, states:

A correctional officer’s authority (and mental sanity) will be tested every single shift. Getting inmates to fully comply with officer directives is a tale as old as time. Some days are easy while other days are nearly impossible. On the days you contemplated walking out, you probably asked yourself how you could possibly reinforce rules and have them stick without losing your temper. But as we all know, long-term compliance doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that is built on trust and respect over time. The clearer the communication an officer can direct toward inmates, the stronger the foundation of respect is to build on. Remember, as much as officers want inmates to be respectful, inmates expect officers to be respectful.

If officers and offenders practice more humanizing language with each other, they can start to build a foundation of respect for each other, no matter the inherent barriers fenced between them. An offender who is referred to by either their name or the title “offender” will likely have more respect for an officer rather than another officer who refers to the offender by the number written on their uniform. The same goes for officers. An officer who is referred to as “Sergeant Smith” will likely have more respect for an offender rather than another offender who refers to the officer as “guard,” or otherwise has a colorful vocabulary of vulgar names directed toward staff members.

Speaking from experience at my previous facility, I know that being called a ‘guard’ would infuriate the officers. It was a big sign of disrespect from the offenders as they knew to refer to the officers as ‘Officers.’ Being referred to as a ‘guard’ was a subtle way of calling the officers unintelligent babysitters.

Stormy VanCleve, GUARDIAN RFID Project Manager
8 years corrections experience

Not only do the officers themselves benefit from the title shift “prison guard” to “corrections officer” as it promotes a much more professional and responsible position, but offenders also synergically benefit from the transition. To have a title influenced by legal and ethical practices, “corrections officer” reinforces the idea that there are professionals in the industry who are working to make a difference in the offenders' lives and are committed to upholding the law while simultaneously promoting positive change. So, whether or not people agree with the argument of changing the names of offenders or officers, most could agree that, in general, adopting respectful language inside any correctional setting can contribute to a more rehabilitative and restorative approach for everyone involved.

During the many years I worked within the walls, I made the conscious decision to address offenders by their names in hopes of giving them a sense of feeling as ‘human’ as possible. In return, I would expect the same respect from an offender when addressing myself or a fellow brother and sister in uniform as their rank and last name. Knowing how to effectively communicate with offenders, especially by utilizing humanizing titles, helped ensure natural respect between those on each side of the bars, not to mention provide a key tool in changing the offenders’ cognitive thinking in their rehabilitation process.

Tim Higgins II, GUARDIAN RFID Account Executive
18 years corrections experience

A job title isn’t just a matter of semantics; it reflects how a role is viewed from the outside looking in. Whether it evokes a positive or negative sentiment, the name of a professional role provides a glimpse into the world of what that position is responsible for. By actively shaping public perception, emphasizing professionalism, highlighting the commitment to rehabilitation, and recognizing the legal and ethical obligations within the corrections system, the title upgrade from “prison guard” to “corrections officer” symbolizes the transformation of how attitudes and practices (inside and outside of facility walls) can foster a more respectful work environment, ultimately contributing to a safer facility for all.