Why are some correctional employees corrupt?

If administrators can understand why people become corrupt, they can better implement measures to deter unethical or illegal behavior


By Dr. Michael Pittaro, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice at American Military University

Those of us who work in corrections can likely recall incidents when a correctional employee engaged in an unethical or illegal act. While this may be the case, corrections should not be singled out as being any more corrupt than any other profession. However, it’s important for administrators to understand why people become corrupt and what measures can be taken to deter unethical or illegal behavior.

As a corrections administrator and briefly an internal affairs investigator, I can attest to the fact that corruption is not limited to correctional officers. Corruption can exist among all prison employees including administrators, officers, teachers, counselors, law librarians, maintenance workers and other staff members. For this reason, I choose to use the term “employee” rather than “officer,” because the problem encompasses everyone in the corrections profession.

External or internal pressures cause some employees to cross the proverbial line from being law-abiding individuals to violators of the law. (Photo/iStock)
External or internal pressures cause some employees to cross the proverbial line from being law-abiding individuals to violators of the law. (Photo/iStock)

What Leads to Corrupt and Unethical Behavior in Corrections?

External or internal pressures cause some employees to cross the proverbial line from being law-abiding individuals to violators of the law. Acts of corruption are predominantly influenced by negative environmental factors, such as coping with the constant threat of physical harm, working with negative or disgruntled staff members, or feeling unappreciated by administrators.

Corrupt behavior also results from the breakdown of a correctional employee’s internal ethical barometer and his or her ability (or desire) to distinguish between right and wrong, legal and illegal. When individuals engage in corrupt behavior, they often override their personal values such as morality, adhering to high ethical standards and abiding by the law.

In my criminal justice courses, I often ask students about what keeps someone from becoming a criminal. Their responses usually hone in on strong religious values and beliefs, solid parental upbringing, the genuine fear of going to prison, our internal moral code in knowing right from wrong, and personal resilience.

These characteristics are the inherent and the learned social and psychological values, norms and beliefs. They keep us grounded and on the “right” side of the law.

Who Is Likely to Be Corrupt?

There are many theoretical explanations why some correctional employees become corrupt. American sociologists Gresham Sykes and David Matza’s Techniques of Neutralization Theory offer the most practical reasoning. Neutralization in this case refers to how individuals neutralize certain learned values within themselves.

In the simplest terms, techniques of neutralization are a psychological process to explain how individuals “turn off” their inner moral compass when they are about to do something they have previously perceived as being wrong, unjust or illegal. Individuals must rationalize their actions in their own minds to convince themselves that their behavior is acceptable. In their skewed perception, correctional employees often convince themselves they are somehow owed, excused or free from responsibility and accountability when they cross that legal/illegal line.

The neutralization theory was originally formulated to explain rising juvenile delinquency rates. More specifically, it was intended to explain how and why some juveniles go from being law-abiding youngsters to law-violating offenders.

Society has various expectations as to how people are supposed to act. These norms, values and beliefs about which actions are “right” and which are “wrong” are instilled in us from an early age and are continuously reinforced throughout childhood and adolescence.

How Individuals Rationalize Corrupt Behavior

Sykes and Matza identified five techniques of neutralization that individuals use to justify their illegitimate actions. The theory has since been applied to explain all manner of crimes from white-collar crime to substance use, pedophilia, violence/aggression and other non-conforming behaviors. These techniques can also be applied to explain corruption among correctional employees:

  • Denial of responsibility: The correctional employee will suggest he or she was the victim of circumstance or forced into situations beyond his control, thereby mitigating personal accountability.
  • Denial of injury: The correctional employee will insist that his or her actions did not cause any harm or damage.
  • Denial of victim: The correctional employee believes that the victim (i.e. the prisoner) deserved whatever was happened to him or her.
  • Condemnation of the condemners: The correctional employee maintains that those who condemn his or her offense are doing so purely out of spite or are shifting blame unfairly away from themselves.
  • Appeal to higher loyalties: The correctional employee proposes that the offense was committed for the greater good with long-term consequences that will justify his or her actions, such as the protection of a colleague.

How to Deter Corrupt Behavior

According to Gary York’s article, Why COs and Leaders Need to Take a Stand Against Corruption, fear of retaliation is the main reason why correctional employees often do not report staff misconduct. Employees fear potential retaliation from administrators who could deny promotions, make lateral transfers to other positions, reassign an employee to another location or change an employee’s shift.

As the author of Corruption Behind Bars and Inside the Inner Circle, York has written extensively about corruption in corrections and suggests that in order to combat corruption, administrators should adopt a zero-tolerance approach. This strategy must originate with the administration staff, who must then work in cooperation with the entire chain of command down to the front-line staff.

This effort to engage all levels of correctional employees is the only way to remove the cancer of corruption from our ranks. Agencies must implement additional and in-depth training programs on ethics with topics including the dangers of possessing contraband and strategies to avoid inmate manipulation, as well as the consequences of staff-inmate relationships.

Eliminating corrupt behavior goes beyond the walls of a correctional facility. Lawmakers also have a responsibility to conduct inspections of facilities, tour its buildings and question employees about corrupt activity. Such action will help increase accountability and ensure that correctional administrators uphold the most stringent ethical standards and are not retaliating against staff members who report misconduct.

It is critical for everyone within the corrections field to be vigilant about identifying and eliminating corruption. All employees and administrators should personally work to ensure their own behavior upholds the highest level of ethical conduct.


About the Author: Dr. Michael Pittaro, assistant professor within the School of Security and Global Studies at American Military University, is a 28-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. He has lectured in higher education for the past 15 years while also serving as an author, editor and subject matter expert. Dr. Pittaro is a regular contributor to In Public Safety. To contact the author, please email IPSauthor@apus.edu.

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