Keep yourself safe: Setting boundaries with inmates

When caring for someone, it’s all too easy to mix personal with professional. Here’s why correctional health care staff (among others) need to set up boundaries with inmates.


Unfortunately, I see it again and again - correctional health staff crossing the boundary into sexual relationships, providing contraband, or drugs to inmate-patients. How does it happen? Boundaries are violated when a professional relationship moves to a social relationship. In a professional relationship, care and service is provided based on using expert knowledge. The relationship is therapeutic and focused on the needs of the patient. A social relationship shifts this focus to personal needs and desires, thus distorting goals and intentions of communication and actions. At a minimum, this can be confusing to the patient and undermine therapeutic efforts. At worst, this can be exploitative and personally dangerous.

Professional boundaries is a topic of discussion in health care practice that really applies to all of us working in corrections; whether an officer, instructor or medical staff member. We all must remain therapeutic in our dealings with inmates while not being drawn into an inappropriate relationship.

Why fences are needed
Professional boundaries separate therapeutic behavior from other behaviors that may be well-intentioned but are not therapeutic or part of professional practice. The National Council of State Boards of Nursing provides a helpful graphic of a continuum of relationship with boundaries for practice that are applicable for all professionals in the corrections specialty. Correctional staff must find ways to remain within the bounds of the Zone of Helpfulness in order to remain safe and provide appropriate service. Out-of-bounds relationship could include under-involvement or over-involvement in the relationship.

In every inmate relationship there is a power differential between the professional’s authority and the inmate’s vulnerability. The challenge comes in maintaining a core purpose of being therapeutic while remaining alert for those inmates who manipulate and take advantage of an authentic and caring perspective.

Straddling the fence: Boundary crossing
Boundary crossing in correctional practice can lead to over-involvement in an inmate relationship - moving toward a personal relationship that goes beyond the therapeutic role. Establishing a personal relationship with an inmate is inappropriate, at best. It can be dangerous and illegal as well.

Have any of these happened to you?

  • Frequently thinking of the person while away from work.
  • Planning your day around contact with the inmate.
  • Sharing personal information or work concerns with the inmate.
  • Favoring this inmate at the expense of others.
  • Keeping secrets with the inmate.
  • Selectively reporting the inmate’s behaviors (negative or positive).
  • Changing dress style for work when working with this inmate.
  • Acting or feeling possessive about the inmate.
  • Swapping assignments in order to be with the person.

These are the signs to look for in your own inmate relationships and those of your peers. Halt boundary crossing before it moves to boundary violation.

Broken fences: Boundary violations
The line between a boundary crossing and a boundary violation can be blurred. Boundary crossings are single events in a relationship that may occur by error or lack of awareness. A boundary violation, however, is a persistent relationship characterized by indulging in actions of a personal nature. In the correctional setting, this often involves affectionate communication – both verbal and written (love letters); sexual interaction – touch, oral sex, intercourse; or providing contraband – drugs, cell phones, alcohol.

Identifying inappropriate professional behavior
We serve ourselves, our colleagues, and the inmate population by being alert for and responding to any indication of professional boundary crossing or violation. The College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia provides a decision-making framework with questions to ask to determine if a behavior you are considering, or one you observe in a colleague, is within professional boundaries. I have modified these questions to apply to all correctional professionals.

  • Is the behavior consistent with your profession’s ethical code?
  • Is the behavior consistent with organizational policy?
  • Is the behavior consistent with your duty to always act in the best interest of the inmate and staff?
  • Is this a behavior you would want other people to know you have engaged in with an inmate?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘No’ – DON’T DO IT!!!

Mending fences
Even if there have not been any boundary crossings or violations, good fence mending is in order. We all need to keep our professional fences in good repair and encourage our peers to do the same. Here are some recommendations from a recent nursing article on the subject that I have, again, modified to apply to all correctional professionals.

  • Openly discuss the challenge of professional boundaries with correctional peers.
  • Make a pact with your peers to ‘watch their back’ when it comes to observed boundary crossing. Look out for each other.
  • Be particularly sensitive to stressful seasons in your personal life as this increases vulnerability to boundary violations.
  • Do not discuss intimate or personal issues with an inmate.
  • Do not keep secrets for, or with, inmates.
  • Treat all inmates with dignity and respect.
  • Speak, act, and dress professionally to inspire professional conduct in yourself and others.
  • Be firm, fair, and consistent with all inmates.
  • Do not engage in behavior that can be misinterpreted as flirting – touch, personal compliments, extra attention.

Have you seen indications of professional boundary violations in your correctional profession practice or the practice of your peers? Do you think these nursing professional boundary principles apply to your practice, too? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

This information comes from The Correctional Nurse Manifesto available in print and Kindle versions from Amazon.

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