5 steps to better ethics in corrections

How to make sure your staff understands what ethical behavior means and how to achieve it


Staff in correctional institutions behave every day based upon what they know to be right and wrong ways of reacting to the conditions of the moment. These are ethical choices based upon informal standards established by the work team within the facility.

Very often, these choices are not expressed in writing and, at times, can be contrary to written policy causing major challenges for correctional leadership. The impact on the correctional organization can be devastating.

This article provides recommendations for leadership strategies that support constructive ethical choices among corrections professionals.

Types of ethical violations

Most ethical violations in corrections have to do with the introduction of contraband, the use of drugs or alcohol during performance of the job, violation of security and safety procedures, substandard job performance, violation of rules, and conduct that is likely to interfere with the orderly operation of the institution or create a serious security risk.

In the last several years the introduction of contraband by staff has introduced a new twist to past behaviors. It remains puzzling that some would risk their careers to introduce a substance that can be easily obtained at local convenience stores. In the past few years we have seen some jurisdictions give greater meaning to effective relationships with inmates. We have seen the term “professionalism” transformed from an overused, empty term to very specific training and skill development in order to assist corrections staff in making better behavior choices professionally and at home.

That sort of training has been complimented by correctional “survival training” that focuses on staff making better behavior choices with the objective in mind of a healthy and successful career for each employee. The assumption behind all this is that as a result of better choices, the facility runs much more safely and effectively with the same resources as in the past.

There is no clear, objective formula to resolve specific problems in regards to staff ethics. Each case is unique and the differences call for a customized approach. However, often the most effective strategies involve those that develop the organization. The most important outcome of that effort is the power and leadership support among the culture of the organization to control and resolve problems with regard to inappropriate behavior.

It is important for violators to sense that it’s not just the boss who says no to inappropriate conduct. It is critical that the prohibition be supported by the values and commitment of staff throughout the organization. This condition is not easy to achieve. Most often, it takes periods of years and successive generations of staff. Some to the strategies that are important to that process are as follows:

Require staff to be transformational leaders at every level of the organization. It means fully engaged leadership performance, which includes helping staff shape a mission/vision for the future through effective relationships. This approach taps available resources that are typically not active.

Enable middle management to deal effectively with staff misconduct on an informal level by providing coaching and an invitation to grow as leaders by effectively managing staff behavior at their levels.

• Be open to self-assessment individually and as an organization. To get to that point, it must be shown that being open is the doorway to support and constructive information in order to improve performance. It must achieve a positive reputation in order to be helpful.

Corrective/Disciplinary systems related to staff conduct must be managed such that it is credible and effective in the eyes of all stakeholders. Harmful conduct must be effectively characterized in language everyone can understand. It must be described as it relates to the mission and the performance of the job of insuring safety and effective relationships with inmates. It is critical that the effect of the behavior on others be clearly described.

Policy must clearly describe the prohibited behavior and that information must be part of staff training, orientation, and continuous efforts to refresh everyone’s memory. Job descriptions and performance planning must also be equally clear.

When experienced in combination, these strategies develop the organization and provide opportunity to resolve critical staff behavior issues as an extremely positive performance outcome. Research suggests this kind of outcome on typical “hot button” staff performance issues can be achieved.

The rules that normally are within ethics policy in Departments of Corrections become meaningful and effective when they are supported by each member of the organization. These kinds of changes can transform the correctional workplace to an extremely positive, effective environment. 

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