When Can a Correctional Officer Use Force Against an Inmate?

Updated on 2/9/2023

One of the most common worries most people have when a loved one is sentenced to jail or prison is that they won’t be safe while locked away.

While we’ve talked before about the rights an individual retains while imprisoned , as well as what you can do if you discover your loved one is being abused in prison, the fact of the matter is that correctional officers certainly are licensed to use force whenever a situation warrants it.

However, this is not to say COs have full rein to do whatever they want; this definitely isn’t the case. Needless to say, there have been a ton of stories in the news in recent years regarding police brutality and abuse of inmates. Correctional officers’ excessive use of force is something we want to eliminate. Contact your loved one  and ask if they have a story to share.

But, it’s important that you and your loved one recognize that these stories deal with instances in which police officers and COs used excessive force. That is to say, incarcerated individuals should not expect to be treated in a hands-off manner regardless of their own actions.

The purpose of this article, then, is to explain when, why, and how correctional officers  are permitted to use force against an inmate. In doing so, our hope is to help you understand the difference between justified and unjustified use of force – and to help your loved one avoid such altercations altogether.

Use of Force: A Spur-of-the-Moment Judgment Call

As we’ll discuss in a moment, correctional officers need to be able to justify the use of force whenever they actually utilize it.

However, this justification occurs after the fact while the instance is being reviewed. In other words, COs don’t need to wait for the “go-ahead” before they take action in a given situation.

And that makes sense; obviously, the purpose of using force in the first place is to quickly bring an end to a violent or otherwise dangerous situation. When these instances arise, there’s absolutely no time to waste – the CO needs to jump into action as soon as they detect a threat.

Now, COs definitely are trained to quickly assess situations “on the fly” – but they’re also only human, too. As we’ll discuss a bit later on in this article, this essentially means that, while COs are expected to approach dangerous situations professionally and strategically, they’re also typically given the benefit of the doubt if a situation gets a little out of hand.

Still, as the loved one of an incarcerated individual, it’s beneficial to understand when, why, and how COs can apply the use of force, so that you understand whether or not you have a reason to take legal action should your loved one face such a situation.

At any rate, let’s first go over how correctional officers assess an inmate’s behavior during moments in which the use of force may become necessary.

Assessing an Inmate’s Behavior

With regard to noncompliance, an inmate’s behavior can be classified in one of five ways – each more severe than the previous classification.

In this section, we’ll define and explain each level of noncompliance, starting with the least severe. Correctional officers are trained on how to handle inmates. This will give you a look into their instruction.

 Later in this article, we’ll circle back to these classifications in explaining the appropriate level of force to be used at each level.

Psychological Intimidation

Psychological intimidation refers to any time an inmate intentionally uses body language or nonverbal cues to frighten – or even make uncomfortable – another inmate or a staff member.

As such cues are seen as warning signs that an individual may lash out in violence in the coming moments, COs typically won’t wait until the inmate actively makes a move to take action. Rather, if they notice even the slightest bit of “off” behavior from an inmate, they’re likely to put an end to it right then and there.

Now, the way in which a CO approaches an inmate who appears to be acting in a psychologically intimidating manner also relates to the CO’s knowledge of that individual, as well as their understanding of the current environment. For example, if the CO knows that two inmates don’t exactly get along, they’re much more likely to jump into action when they notice intimidating behavior.

At this level, physical force may be necessary – but other methods of curbing the behavior (such as verbal warnings, or a hands-off approach) will likely do to keep things in order.

Verbal Resistance

At this level, an inmate has vocally expressed an unwillingness to comply with a correctional officer’s orders.

While, at this stage, the inmate has remained non-violent and otherwise inactive, their verbal aggression is seen as an attempt to intimidate the CO and others within the area. Additionally, COs will also see such behavior as an attempt to escalate the situation, perhaps in an effort to provoke violent behavior from others.

When an inmate continues to be verbally resistant and otherwise non-compliant, their goal is typically to try to confuse the other individuals involved, and to distort the reality of the situation. In other words, they’re essentially trying to take control away from the staff members without resorting to actual violence.

At this point, COs will likely use a low level of physical force to end the situation before the potential for further danger arises.

Passive Resistance

Passive resistance actually refers to inaction on the part of the inmate, in that they refuse to act upon a given directive from a CO.

(Note that psychological intimidation and verbal resistance can be a part of passive resistance, as well.)

Inmates showing passive resistance refuse to move from their current location, don’t show their hands when asked, and remain “statue-Esque” for an elongated period of time. Passive resistance also usually includes a refusal to comply with an order or directive – no matter how reasonable.

Despite the fact that individuals exhibiting passive resistance, by definition, aren’t doing anything, such behavior is typically seen as a precursor to active disobedience, and possibly to violent behavior. Because of this, correctional officers are typically justified in using a low level of physical force if the inmate continues to disobey orders.

Defensive Resistance

In contrast to passive resistance, defensive resistance occurs when an inmate uses physical force of any kind against a correctional officer’s use of force.

While actions such as punching, kicking, shoving, or grappling with a CO are obvious examples of defensive resistance, an inmate’s actions don’t necessarily need to be violent in order to be classified in this manner. For example, physically evading a CO’s attempt to maintain control (for example, running away from the CO) can also be considered defensive resistance, as well.

When this behavior occurs, the definition of “reasonable force” a correctional officer is allowed to use, escalates pretty quickly. In other words, at this point, COs are typically allowed to use as much force as necessary to subdue the offending inmate and ensure the safety of everyone involved.

Active Aggression

Active aggression refers to any act of violence – or even any threat of violence – made by an inmate in an intentional and blatant manner.

Active aggression typically involves instances of physical assault, as well as the use of weaponry (or using nearby objects as weapons).

Actions can be considered active aggression even when preceded by other actions, too. For example, while unprovoked acts of violence are, of course, considered active aggression, the act of blocking a door to prevent a CO from entering a room while other inmates commit violent acts also can be considered active aggression, as well.

As this is the highest classification for violent behavior, COs are absolutely justified in using whatever force is necessary at this point to subdue the offending inmates and maintain control of the environment.

As we’ll discuss in the next section, COs and other prison staff members will need to identify the above whenever they use any amount of force against an inmate.

Still, it’s worth noting that even low levels of defiance are legally allowed to be met with physical force of some sort – meaning your loved one should be sure to follow the rules of their institution to the letter in order to avoid such from happening.

Post-Use of Force Assessment

After a situation in which a correctional officer uses physical force has ended, the CO in question will need to complete an incident report.

During this report, they’ll need to provide information regarding the following:

  • Precursor: Essentially, the CO must explain what was happening before the situation escalated. This includes the date, time, and location of the incident, as well as the names of other individuals – prison staff or inmates – who witnessed the incident. Additionally, this should include information about what caused the CO to even begin thinking that the use of force would be needed.
  • Early Warning Signs: Going along with that last point, the CO must provide deeper insight into what had occurred that made them jump into physical action. As we said earlier, this likely will have a lot to do with the CO’s knowledge of the inmate (or inmates) involved (for example, if they saw two inmates who have a reputation for violent behavior beginning to taunt each other).
  • Situational Evaluation: Additionally, the CO will be asked to provide information regarding their evaluation of the specific scenario in which the incident occurred. Along with the example from the previous point, other factors – such as close quarters, the availability of objects that could be used as weapons, etc. – could have caused the CO’s awareness to have elevated quickly.
  • Level of Resistance: As we discussed above, the CO will need to explain exactly what the inmate did and/or how they were acting during the incident. At this point, the CO will need to be extremely detailed in their explanation in order to ensure the proper use of force was used.
  • Tactical Approach and Rationale: Similar to the above point, the CO will need to explain how they approached the situation in a professional and strategic manner. This explanation also needs to be extensively detailed, so as to ensure that proper protocol was followed on the part of the CO.
  • Goal for Use of Force: The CO will then need to explain – again, in detail – the manner in which they engaged the offending inmate. This includes the technique they used when applying physical force, their use of restraints (such as handcuffs), their attempts to minimize and/or mitigate the risk of injury to themselves, the inmate, and others around them, and the manner in which they removed the individual from the situation.
  • Inmate’s Reaction to Use of Force: The final point the CO will need to cover is how the inmate reacted once physical force was used in order to neutralize the situation. If the inmate reacted with additional violent behavior, the CO will also need to explain what else they did to maintain the safety of everyone involved.

After the correctional officer has provided all of the necessary information, their report will be assessed by prison administration.

Assessment of a CO’s Use of Force

Prison administrators will go over the incident report as provided by the CO in question, and will determine whether the CO’s actions were legally justifiable.

Administration will discuss the following questions in detail:

  • Was the use of force legal and justified?
  • Was the intensity of force used justifiable considering the inmate’s level of resistance?
  • Was the absolute minimum necessary use of force utilized?
  • Was use of force needed as immediately as it was used?
  • Did the CO use restraints and other tools correctly and justifiably?
  • Was the totality of the CO’s actions reasonable and justifiable?
  • Were the CO’s actions professional and appropriate?
  • Did the CO’s actions follow protocol?

While, of course, prison administrators are sworn to answer these questions from an objective and impartial standpoint, it isn’t exactly guaranteed that this will be the case. That said, it’s important for you and your loved one to know exactly what information prison administration looks at when assessing a use-of-force incident; the more you know about it, the more power you’ll have should you discover an abuse of power.

Wrapping Up

As we just alluded to, the purpose of explaining exactly what CO’s are – and are not – allowed to do in terms of using physical force, and explaining the process they must go through when reporting use-of-force incidents, is to help you understand whether or not your loved one’s rights are being violated.

Simply put: if a correctional officer or other prison staff member uses physical force of any kind against your loved one, it’s essential that your loved one remember as much as possible about the incident (including their own actions before, during, and after the fact).

While the best course of action is to “stay under the radar” and comply with directives as best as possible, your loved one should also keep in mind the possibility that certain CO’s might try to overstep their bounds. If something like this should happen, your loved one needs to know that they definitely have the right to speak up and share their side of the story.