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How do corrections leaders spot employees susceptible to corruption?

Corruption in prisons, jails and other facilities where people are incarcerated is not new, and yet leaders still struggle to ensure that staff retains high ethical standards


Let’s look closely at the elephant in the room – corruption among correctional employees. It has been a problem for all of human history that some incarcerated people work diligently to manipulate their captors into giving them everything from contraband to sex to freedom.

How do correctional leaders and administrators identify an employee who might be susceptible to becoming corrupted by an inmate? What are some of the tells? What are some of the indicators that you have staff – whether they are corrections officers or commissary workers or maintenance personnel – that are prone to being corrupted?

To glean some answers, I recently connected with Michael Pittaro, assistant professor of criminal justice at American Military University and CorrectionsOne contributor. Pittaro is also an expert on ethics in corrections.

Remind employees that they’re dealing every day with masters in manipulation. (Photo/Pixabay)
Remind employees that they’re dealing every day with masters in manipulation. (Photo/Pixabay)

It usually begins with the little things

Pittaro suggests that administrators watch for employees who seem to be a little too close with the inmates – those who tend to fraternize a little too much either with the prison population at large or with an individual inmate. At some point, they may cross a boundary from being respectful to being a little too friendly, he said.

Corrections leaders should keep an eye out for employees who tend to socialize with the prison population or give the inmates breaks, excuses, or let them slide on things.

“I think it’s learning that telltale sign where they kind of cross some boundaries early on by not knowing where they stand as officers or staff members and where the inmates stand,” Pittaro said.

In Pittaro’s 16 years of experience in corrections – most of it in prison administration – the process of becoming corrupt starts off very lightly, with things that aren’t necessarily defined as corrupt.

“It seems to start off very slowly and somewhat innocently. But once you kind of open the door, it invites in further opportunities. That slippery slope then definitely comes true,” Pittaro said.

Watch for the signs, and speak up

Pittaro said that administrators – and peers, for that matter – should watch for employees who give an inmate a little leeway on things like an extra phone call or extra time doing something. And he said that early intervention is the key. This is ideally done peer to peer in the proverbial “courageous conversation” but an administrator who notices this behavior and fails to act is inviting problems. This is because at the very earliest stages of corruption, the employee may not know they’re being manipulated and might even welcome the outside observation.

“I don’t think the employee recognizes the early signs that they’re being manipulated or groomed in a way, you know, for further incidences,” Pittaro said. “I’ve dealt with situations where officers were bringing in drugs, cigarettes, cell phones and of course, one of the worst ones is sexual contact with the inmates, which was pretty pronounced in my years.”

Pittaro emphasized that perhaps the most egregious examples of employee corruption is sexual contact. 

“I just think that’s the huge one,” Pittaro said. “That’s always been an issue, and we read about it constantly. I experienced it where I used to work and it’s just baffling why that in fact goes on. But in my experience – and this is not to stereotype – there seems to be more female staff members engaging in sexual acts with male inmates than male staff members with female inmates. And I found that to be quite intriguing and a little surprising too.”

According to a 2011 Department of Justice report, female corrections staff “perpetrated the majority of incidents of staff sexual misconduct, while males perpetrated the majority of incidents of staff sexual harassment.”

Pittaro said that one of the biggest reasons that peers fail to challenge a colleague who they perceive to be at risk of being corrupted by an inmate is retaliation. They fear being ostracized by colleagues if they do bring something forward. Pittaro added that this fear is especially pronounced if the employee is a newer or rookie officer, or rookie employee who wants to be accepted and liked. So, colleagues often just turn a blind eye to it.

“I don’t think that necessarily people are naïve to it occurring, I just don’t think people are taking that necessary step to try to curtail it early on,” Pittaro said. “So I think it has more to do with the culture – the prison culture. They go to ethics training. They know about manipulation, other officers noticing these behaviors. But the blockade, or the obstacle, is that no one is taking that next step then to address it. I think there are a lot of roadblocks that are preventing staff members from coming forward and addressing it either directly with that particular employee or bringing it to the administration.”

Make your facility an ethical one

Once an employee has been fully turned – has become truly corrupted – they have a very difficult time going back to their ethical origin. He says this is in part because a person who knowingly does something they previously thought was wrong is very likely using some sort of rationalization to justify their actions.

“Once you rationalize it in your mind, you make it acceptable and then it’s easier to go forward and do it again. You’re also kind of justifying your actions. So it’s kind of like creating your own rules,” Pittaro said.

If you are an employee, watch your own behaviors and those of your colleagues. If you are an administrator, make every effort to be frequently present in the facility – be proactive about talking with your employees and reminding them that this is an ethical facility and that no form of corruption will be tolerated.

Remind employees that they’re dealing every day with masters in manipulation – this is what they do.  Inmates have 24 hours a day, seven days a week to study the behaviors of correctional facility employees. They can tell if you’ve had a bad day. They pick up on all sorts of things and they’ll use that information to try and get inside an employee’s head.

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