Warning signs a corrections officer may be compromised

If we can predict that some staff may fall victim to manipulation or corruption, then we can put measures in place to help to prevent it


By Mark Chamberlain

One of the saddest things I’ve witnessed over the course of my career were those occasions where a correctional officer became compromised by an inmate or inmates. It’s highly unlikely anyone enters the correctional field with the goal of being terminated or charged with a crime, or moving from officer to inmate – yet, it happens. Maybe our 24/7 news cycle is amplifying the effect, but it seems to happen more and more frequently.

As in any profession, there are people in corrections who should not be working in our field, or who probably shouldn’t have been hired at all. For the most part, however, we are good at screening the people who will be working in our jails. We run background investigations, check criminal history databases and fingerprint our applicants. We may require polygraphs and psychological or medical screenings to determine an applicant’s suitability to work with and be trusted around inmates. Sure, some “slip through the cracks,” but they’re usually weeded out during an academy or field training setting.

In this April 16, 2018, file photo, a guard tower stands above the Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in Bishopville, S.C., where a number of South Carolina corrections employees faced federal charges related to bribery and bringing contraband into the state's institutions a week after a deadly riot. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford, File)
In this April 16, 2018, file photo, a guard tower stands above the Lee Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison in Bishopville, S.C., where a number of South Carolina corrections employees faced federal charges related to bribery and bringing contraband into the state's institutions a week after a deadly riot. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford, File)

How is it that people who have passed all the hiring standards, rigorous academy training and a field training program, with so much of their time and energy invested, can still fall prey to being manipulated and compromised by an inmate? While this article isn’t a missive on human psychology, it usually comes down to three factors: low self-esteem, sex/relationships and money.

A quick example: A year after I retired from a large jail system in South Florida, I was hired as a shift commander by a privately operated male prison. Like any new employee, I went through orientation along with two other new hires. One of the new hires was a young woman who had just graduated from the 350+-hour corrections academy. During orientation, many of the female instructors were particularly hard on her when it came to blocks of instruction on inmate manipulation and how to avoid becoming compromised by an inmate.

A few months after I was hired, I transitioned to the facility investigator position, where I received information that this officer may have been compromised by an inmate. The investigation revealed the allegation was true; the inmate had the officer’s cell phone number and her home address. I intercepted mail and phone calls between the two as well as the inmate’s phone calls to his friends and family describing how he was manipulating her.

Despite strong admonishments from her trainers and her adamant denials that she would ever fall victim to inmate manipulation, she did. Fortunately, this situation was caught early, before any laws were broken, such as sexual contact with the inmate or introducing contraband.

Warning Sign #1: A Dramatic Changes in an Officer’s Appearance

In the above example, the culprit that allowed the (now former) officer to be compromised was her low self-esteem. She was rather plain and from a small town; the inmate in question was young, in great shape, good-looking and very “street smart.”

It’s common knowledge inmates will often prey on members of the opposite sex when trying to compromise a staff member. As one of my old bosses used to say, “To the male inmates, every female officer is Angelina Jolie and to the female inmates, every male officer is Brad Pitt.” He’s right: Inmates will play on an officer’s self-esteem and some staff may feel attractive to a member of the opposite sex for the first time in their adult lives.

A dramatic change in an officer’s appearance can indicate such manipulation is at hand. The female officer who never wore makeup or did anything special with her hair at work is now coming in looking ready for a night on the town. Or maybe the male officer who never shined his boots or pressed his uniform is now inspection-ready – and not at his sergeant’s request. While most of us would like to lose some weight and look good in our uniforms, it can be a warning sign when an officer suddenly starts taking a new interest in how he or she looks and begins dropping weight, dieting and exercising. It might not always be for the health benefits. Too often, a change in appearance is in response to an inmate’s sexual advances and words and deeds of admiration.

Warning Sign #2: Living Beyond One’s Means

Nobody gets into the correctional field to get rich. For most of us, the stability, good wages, benefits with the promise of a pension and the opportunity to help people are what draw us to and keep us working in jails or prisons. Some agencies pay better than others but it’s likely that whatever we earn in this profession is commensurate with the local economic conditions. We should earn enough to support ourselves and our families and provide for small luxuries from time to time, but certainly nothing lavish.

That’s why appearing to live beyond one’s means is a sign of possible correctional officer corruption. Officer Soandso is the guy on your shift who always brown-bagged it to work and sometimes would ask to borrow a few dollars for gas money. Over the last few months, he shows up to in-service training wearing a designer sweat suit and $150 sneakers. On shift, he’s now sporting an expensive watch and gold jewelry and in the parking lot his six-year-old car has been replaced by a brand new one. He didn’t win the lottery or inherit from his rich uncle, nor is he putting in any overtime and his wife is a stay-at-home mom. Chances are, his newfound financial boon is because he’s been compromised and is earning extra cash by “doing favors” for inmates or their associates.

With today’s electronic economy, it has become far too easy to conduct anonymous or illicit fund transfers that are harder than ever to trace. The chances of not getting caught are better than they were 15 to 20 years ago. For some correctional officers, either due to financial hardships or the promise of easy money, the temptation is too great. Add to the mix that some inmates are rather wealthy, and we can see how officers fall victim.

Warning Sign #3: Being Overly Familiar with Certain Inmates

Many of us took an oath of office to always uphold the law when we started our careers and “Corrections 101” tells us we should always be fair, firm and consistent when dealing with the inmates under our charge. It’s human nature to prefer dealing with some inmates more than others, but that doesn’t mean we should show favoritism toward one inmate or group of inmates over others.

When a staff member is overly familiar with or overly protective of certain inmates, it can be a warning sign of compromise. Officer Doe worked in the housing unit where you’re now assigned during the last post rotation and it’s been a week since you took over. For some reason, Officer Doe pays one of your assigned inmates a daily visit, “just to check on things.”

Or maybe Officer Doe consistently advocates for a particular inmate when it comes to disciplinary actions or job or housing assignments. What about those instances when inmates are heard calling an officer by his or her first name or a nickname? An officer who seems to take too much of an interest in an inmate or group of inmates is a sign of trouble.

A compromised officer will have a vested interest in keeping the inmate who compromised him or her happy and out of trouble. After all, once the officer is compromised, the inmate holds all the cards. “Special favors” granted to an inmate often can escalate in frequency, scope and levels of danger.

Heed the Warning Signs

There’s no surefire way to know when an officer has been compromised. More often than not, it takes getting caught in the act to reveal correctional officer corruption and by then it’s too late – the sexual act has already taken place or the contraband has already been introduced.

Even if an officer displays the warning signs noted here, there’s no guarantee he or she has been compromised. However, it does mean line staff, supervisors and administrators should start paying closer attention by checking logs, video footage, phone calls and other evidence to corroborate or eliminate suspicion. Post rotations, unpredictable supervisor rounds, periodic unannounced staff searches and spot checks of things like incoming and outgoing mail and phone calls are all good preventive measures that should be considered.

Corrections will always involve interaction between people; it’s the core nature of our jobs. If we can predict that some staff may fall victim to manipulation or corruption, then we can put measures in place to help to prevent it.


About the author

Mark Chamberlain served as the first chief deputy of corrections for the Garland County Sheriff’s Office in Hot Springs, Ark., from 2014 to 2016. Prior to his selection, Mark worked for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office in West Palm Beach, Fla., for over 26 years, starting off as a corrections deputy and retiring as a captain/division commander. Mark holds a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Northwood University and a master’s degree in Public Administration from Barry University. He is a graduate of Class #10 of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Senior Leadership Program and holds instructor certifications in Florida and Arkansas. Mark joined the Lexipol team as a training coordinator in August 2016.

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