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What to do when your inmate is a celebrity in the media

With a few exceptions, offenders of notoriety should be managed no differently than others


Jodi Arias, right, looks at her defense attorney Jennifer Wilmott during a hearing in Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix, Ariz. (AP Photo/The Arizona Republic, Tom Tingle, Pool,File)

Crime crosses all socio-economic boundaries, often involving prominent citizens and public icons who become wrapped up in illegal activity and ultimately are sentenced to prison. The media’s ability to communicate details about a celebrity’s criminal case and trial drives names and faces into the spotlight, as star status takes on new meaning, with bizarre twists. Convicted athletes, movie stars, television personalities, teachers, attorneys and physicians, plus government and political officials create unique challenges for correctional leaders responsible for managing them in prisons and jails, but remaining fair, firm and consistent, utilizing sound policies and procedures and staff training will reduce unwanted attention and help maintain the good order of the facility.

With a few exceptions, offenders of notoriety should be managed no differently than others. During in-processing, arriving inmates undergo a series of medical and mental health evaluations, academic testing, orientation, and classification; celebrity inmates are no different. It’s not unusual, however, for this group to be less than cooperative and appear stunned and in denial about their circumstances, believing they will be rescued soon.

Some have lived privileged lives, but grew accustomed to disregarding society’s norms and rules, and may initially resist institutional regulations, believing the rules don’t apply to them. While many are humbled by the experience, some portray an attitude of entitlement about everything from food, personal property, housing assignments, phone calls and mail, conducting business, clothing, to the visitation policy. Case managers, as well as wise defense attorneys, can help by explaining the importance of policy compliance and the need to work toward institutional adjustment, even when that means taking a not so glamorous job in the prison’s kitchen, or participating in programs or treatment.

It’s important for correctional leaders to be aware this group may be prone to victimization, plus face daily hassles from curiosity seekers among both staff and offenders. Ensuring star-struck staff have an understanding of ethic will go a long way in preventing incidents. Likewise, celebrity inmates may be the ones victimizing and manipulating others. Swift action is required when this offender holds court and develops a network of followers. Accurate classification is key to ensuring appropriate security placement and mitigating these situations, with use of punitive segregation supported by policy.

Prison administrators can expect a flutter of media inquiries and requests from family about these offenders. Inquiries should be handled as any other, without too much fuss or fanfare. Policies and procedures are decision-making blueprints when officials feel pressured about approving special privileges. There may be the dreaded call from the Governor’s office, but statutory authority allows the Warden to remain firm. Megastar inmates should be encouraged to utilize formal grievance procedures, and due process should be applied in the same manner as for any other offender.

A thorough analysis of risk regarding the placement of former law enforcement officers is absolutely necessary. Offender safety is part of any correctional system’s mission; therefore, options should be discussed, to include out of state placement, in order to minimize risk for both staff and inmates.

Population management requires being consistent, regardless of star status. Once a routine is established and hype is reduced, adjustment typically follows, and the novelty of this well-known offender’s presence wears off. Eventually, the public’s interest moves to the next front page headliner.

Cherrie Greco is a retired correctional administrator and consultant, having provided technical assistance to a number of criminal justice agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, and the states of Colorado, Texas, Florida, Maine, Alabama, Connecticut and Oklahoma on the topics of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Amendment Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act. During her career with the Colorado Department of Corrections, she served as Director of Administration, Warden, Legislative Liaison, and Director of Staff Training. In recent years, Greco served as a Senior Consultant for MGT of America and was the Director of Probation for Oklahoma County. She earned a B.A., Ed. from Northwestern Oklahoma State University and an M.A., Ed. from Lesley University, Cambridge, MA. Ms. Greco resides in Oklahoma. She has been a columnist for CORRECTIONSONE since 2011.