Correctional Ethics

Although very little literature has systematically addressed the types of unethical behaviors in which correctional officers engage, at least a few studies have addressed these issues. One of the most common areas of ethical concern pertains to excessive uses of force that occur in penal facilities. Morris (1988) portrayed a classic depiction of abuse as he described the events that led up to the infamous 1980 New Mexico prison uprising. Morris gave a detailed account of the “goon squads” that were led by guards and designed to systematically abuse offenders as a means of achieving control. Ultimately, it was this informal control mechanism that was one of the major factors that led to one of the most devastating riots in American prison history.

It has been almost 30 years since the New Mexico prison uprising, yet there is still reason to believe that correctional officers use excessive force against inmates. In August 2005, for example, two female jail employees were arrested for conspiring with an offender to assault another inmate (Hales, 2005). In this incident, the guards were apprehended for utilizing offenders to punish a female inmate who was incarcerated for committing sex crimes against her son. The mistreatment of offenders by prison employees may occur in institutional settings besides state and local correctional facilities. For example, similar acts of brutality have been committed against Iraqi detainees by U.S. military prison personnel. In recent memoranda to the Armed Service Committee, one military employee stated, “We would give them [prisoners] blows to the head, chest, legs and stomach, pull them down, kick dirt on them. This happened every day” (Serrano, 2005, p. A-1).

In addition to physical brutality that is directed toward inmates, there have been cases in which male and female guards have acted unethically by sexually assaulting the inmates they are paid to protect. Welch (2004) described a well-documented 1998 incident in which three female prisoners were sold as “sex slaves” to male inmates at a federal penitentiary in Pleasanton, California. Ultimately, this led to a federal lawsuit, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons settled the suit for $500,000 (Lucas v. White, 1999). The prison agency also agreed to drastic changes in order to curtail the sexual abuse of female inmates.

While the preceding case represents one of the most horrific examples of sexual abuse directed at female inmates, there have been other examples in which it may seem less obvious as to whether a sexual assault even occurred. In State v. Cardus (1997), a male prison guard developed a rapport with a female inmate for whom he was performing favors. This led to a friendship, followed by a physical relationship. Sexual contact occurred, but only on one occasion, and was limited to oral sex. To complicate matters even further, court documents indicate that there were strong feelings of attraction on the part of the inmate (State v. Cardus, 1997). She later admitted in an official proceeding that her actions were voluntary. The inmate gave the following testimony: “I wanted to do it being incarcerated for about a month then, and prior to being incarcerated, I wasn’t having sex . . . I did want it” (State v. Cardus, 1997, p. 429). Despite this testimony, the Intermediate Court ofAppeals ruled that the “consent” of an incarcerated person was “ineffective consent,” and it affirmed the defendant’s conviction of second-degree sexual assault. In the Cardus case, the correctional officer was behaving in both a criminal and an unethical manner.

Inappropriate Relationships with Prison Inmates

Some of the more recent literature on unethical behaviors that occur in prison settings relate to the inappropriate relationships that can develop between inmates and staff members. Few studies have been conducted in this area, and this is still largely uncharted territory. An incident that one scholar might call an “inappropriate relationship” may be labeled by others as a form of economic exploitation, or even sexual abuse. One thing is certain, however: These behaviors are certainly unethical and should not be tolerated in a correctional environment. Worley, Marquart, and Mullings (2003) provided a definition of inappropriate relationships:

Personal relationships between employees and inmates/clients or with family members of inmates/clients. This behavior is usually sexual or economic in nature and has the potential to jeopardize the security of a prison institution or compromise the integrity of a correctional employee. (p. 179)

Although some research on the forbidden relationships between correctional staff and inmates focuses disproportionately on sexual situations involving male officers and female offenders, the majority of inappropriate relationships occur between male inmates and female correctional officers (Worley et al., 2003;Worley & Cheeseman, 2006). This makes sense when one considers that female inmates make up only 7.3% of the state prison population and 7.5% of the federal prison population (Clear, Cole, & Reisig, 2009).

There may be a perception that only low-ranking correctional employees are likely to have inappropriate relationships, but even prison administrators are not immune from behaving unscrupulously with inmates. Recently, for example, Christine Achenbach, an executive assistant and fourth in command at a federal prisbon in Colorado, was convicted of having sexual relations with a prison inmate (Hughes, 2002). During the course of her sexual relationship with two offenders, Achenbach was even believed to have warned her inmate “boyfriends” when their cells would be searched (Hughes, 2002). Both of these offenders were members of the infamous Crips gang (Hughes, 2002). One of Achenbach’s inmate lovers, during the trial, described how he wooed her into having a relationship and said: “I felt that [Achenbach] was vulnerable and that she could be compromised if a person were to be sensitive and take time with her” (Hughes, 2002). In 2002, a judge sentenced Achenbach to 4 years of probation; she was also required to register as a sex offender for life (Abbott, 2002). It is clear from this example that even upper echelon correctional administrators have the potential to engage in unethical behavior.

Contraband and the Prison Economy

It is important to note that in addition to having sex with inmates, correctional officers can also act unethically by providing offenders with contraband. According to some scholars, the recent anti-tobacco policies of many prison agencies have contributed to correctional officer misconduct (Silverman, 2001). Some employees may see nothing wrong with smuggling in tobacco, because it is not a mind-altering substance and has only recently become restricted, but Silverman (2001) argued this point:

Since the ban in Texas, tobacco has become the number one contraband item. Moreover, many [correctional officers] and other staff members are smokers, and some do not feel that bringing tobacco in is “really a violation,” because they disagree with the ban. For some, throwing a carton of cigarettes over the wall to make an extra $100 is more of a game than a law violation. It presents staff with an easy way to supplement their income without really feeling guilty that they are violating the law. (p. 240)

As this quote illustrates, some correctional officers may see an enormous opportunity to conspire with inmates in order to provide a much-needed commodity to the prison population. Vermont, the first state to outlaw smoking, had to lift its ban after offenders began soliciting staff members and even having sex with other inmates for cigarettes (Blood, 1996; Silverman, 2001). There is no question that a few officers have been tempted by inmates to smuggle contraband into penal facilities.

Unethical Behaviors and the Prison Guard Subculture

Although there is very little literature pertaining to the types of unethical behaviors in which correctional employees engage, much more research has examined and been published on prison guard subcultures. This literature may give invaluable insights into the unethical behaviors of correctional officers. The prison guard subculture, like the police subculture, manufactures negative images of the “client” (Kauffman, 1988). Irwin (2005) contended that the most crucial aspect of the guard subculture is the hatred and moral superiority that most keepers have toward the kept. Even though the guard workforce has become much more diverse, most correctional employees view inmates as “worthless, untrustworthy, manipulative, and disreputable deviants” (Irwin, 2005, p. 64).

Like the police subculture, the prison guard subculture may also provide officers with rationalizations for behaving unethically. Pollock (2007) contended that veteran guards initiate newer officers into the subculture. Kauffman (1988) argued that new officers quickly learn from other guards not to be a “rat” (a prison employee who informs on his or her coworkers). Prison custodians are taught by other staff members to never cooperate with superiors by participating in any activities that would be detrimental to another officer (Kauffman, 1988). Pollock (2007) also believes there are sanctions if an officer is viewed as a rat by his fellow employees. Some scholars have argued that because of this guard subculture a tremendous amount of employee misconduct, such as theft and brutality, tends to go unreported in prison agencies (Irwin, 2005; Souryal, 2006). Other research indicates that the tendency for officers not to “rat” also contributes to an enormous amount of sexual abuse that is prevalent in female institutions and committed by male guards (Human Rights Watch Women’s Rights Project, 1996).

There is clearly an abundance of literature devoted to the correctional officer subculture. By examining this, scholars may be able to better appreciate why some correctional officers behave unethically.

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