8 ways to destroy your correctional officer career

When we see a fellow staff member – sworn or civilian – start down a slippery slope, we should try to get them back on the right path

As a trainer, author and retired jail deputy sheriff, I come across a lot of material and opinions about correctional officers (COs) losing their jobs. But bills have to be paid and families fed, so why do some COs lose their jobs?

In “Special Problems in Corrections,” author Jeffrey Ian Ross describes the primary types of deviance that cost correctional officers their jobs. It is a pretty clear list and all involve a choice made by the CO.

I have always believed that the men and women who enter corrections facilities each day and put their lives on the line are our greatest resource. We depend on each other and should look out for each other. When we see a fellow staff member – sworn or civilian – start down a slippery slope, we should try to talk to them and get them back on the right path. Unfortunately, sometimes that approach does not work or it is too late.

As professionals, we must do what we can, whenever we can, to prevent fellow officers and staff from falling into the pitfalls of deviance.
As professionals, we must do what we can, whenever we can, to prevent fellow officers and staff from falling into the pitfalls of deviance. (Getty Images/David Madison)

Let’s review eight pitfalls of deviance that can derail a career in corrections:

1. Theft, improper use or misuse of agency equipment or property

This could be something minor such as photocopying something for personal use, or more significant like using a department vehicle for personal use or stealing office supplies or food.

2. Mishandling or theft of inmate property

Most likely, this is very rare, but if the CO steals from an inmate – let’s say, money or jewelry at booking – he lowers himself down to the criminal offender level.

3. Substance abuse

The corrections field requires COs to be at their best both physically and mentally. If a CO abuses alcohol or drugs, it can impair judgment, alertness and how well he performs his duties. Often drinking is a way to unwind, whether as a social activity with other COs or to relieve stress. But when a CO clearly has a problem with the bottle, should his peers tell a supervisor? Do we try to help him or her? If a CO is involved with illegal drugs, then he may be a ripe set up for smuggling contraband, leading to corruption charges.

4. Accepting gifts from both inmates and contractors

Inmate manipulation schemes often start with a CO or staff member accepting notes, cards or gifts (homemade or acquired) from inmates. Contractors or vendors conducting business with the facility may give gifts to acquire preferential treatment or favors. If accepted, the CO shows that he may bend the rules or play favorites.

5. Discrimination

COs and staff should be objective and fair. If they discriminate based on age, race, ethnicity, sexual preference and national origin, this appears ugly, unprofessional and will result in bad feelings from both inmates and staff.

6. Abuse of authority

Examples of COs abusing authority include harassing inmates and “pushing their buttons” to get a reaction, playing favorites and getting “payoffs” for protecting illegal inmate activities. One of the most recent egregious examples was at the Baltimore City Detention Center where the Black Guerilla Family ran the jail. Sex with inmates, contraband smuggling and gang activity were all traced back to inmates taking advantage of COs who abused their authority.

7. General boundary violations

These actions blur professional boundaries between correctional staff and inmates. The line is crossed, either through manipulation by the inmates or a staff member making a bad decision (or a combination of both). The fallout can range from smuggling contraband, aiding an escape or having sex with inmates. In recent years, such violations surfaced in the 2015 Clinton prison escape, the 2013 scandals involving the Baltimore City Detention Center, and inmates having firearms and drugs inside the New Orleans jail. Boundary violations also include COs engaging in sexual harassment against staff members such as asking for dates, stalking and inappropriate touching.

8. Violence or excessive force against inmates

In my career, I have come across cases where correctional officers have used excessive force on inmates and have paid for it with loss of jobs, criminal convictions and incarceration. For example, a jail deputy in Mississippi received a life sentence in the beating death of an inmate in 2006. Nine other jail officers received prison sentences for federal crimes of abusing inmates between 2002 and 2006. More recently, several COs at New York City’s Rikers Island were convicted in the beating of a jail inmate and sentenced to prison. One was a former assistant head of security, one was a captain and four were correctional officers. The sentences in that case ranged from four-and-a-half to six-and-a-half years.

What correctional leaders need to remember

The vast majority of correctional officers, institutional staff and jail deputies I have met in my travels are professional, well trained and decent people. They enter a hostile environment every day putting their lives on the line to keep the public safe. There is no guarantee they will return home safely at the end of their shift.

I also believe that most correctional officers who take the wrong fork in the road are salvageable, if they have not gone too far. By watching out for each other, supervisors and colleagues can pull stray COs back from the brink of the slippery slope.

While reports of thefts, mishandling property or substance abuse among correctional officers are, in my view, rare, incidents of excessive force, sex with inmates and corruption are unfortunate frequent embarrassments to our field. If a correctional officer makes a bad choice and is fired, charged criminally or sued (and found liable in denying inmates’ constitutional rights), it reflects on all of us.

As professionals, we must do what we can, whenever we can, to prevent fellow officers and staff from falling into the pitfalls of deviance.

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