How to catch corrupted staff members

Correctional facility leaders must be as astute at spotting corruptible prison staff as inmates are

One of the worst feelings in corrections is when we discover that one of our own is bringing contraband into a facility or otherwise assisting inmates in criminal acts.

Over the years, I have seen several staff members accused of some horrible things. Unfortunately, once those accusations were made, they often turned out to be true.

In this article, I’d like to discuss signs correctional leaders should look for to identify corrupt staff. Though they are generally few and far between, these people are out there. They represent a continuing threat to our safety, our facilities and our profession as a whole.

There is always going to be someone helping inmates get access to contraband.
There is always going to be someone helping inmates get access to contraband. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

To begin, let’s look at some types of staff members that make common targets for inmate corruption:

1. "The outcast"

There are always going to be staff members that, for whatever reason, do not fit in with everyone else.

Smart inmates pick up on this and offer isolated staff members comfort and solace. They’ll say things like, “Man, those cops shouldn’t treat you like that.”

Through conversing with inmates in this way, it’s possible that the staff member will begin to confide in the inmate with some of their work-related problems.

Then the leveraging begins: the inmate will likely ask the staff member to overlook some small violations. From there on out, it’s a short jump to bigger violations. 

2. "The Mistaken"

This popular setup is based on a staff member’s mistake.

Let’s say a new staff member makes an error. We all know it happens. Most often it can be corrected and will be forgiven. However, if an inmate finds out about a mistake – and knows it was never reported or documented – he will likely try to take advantage of it.

Again, the leveraging begins, starting with small violations and working up to bigger issues.

3. "The Compromised"

We see this type of setup more frequently in women’s prisons. Inmates will offer their bodies in exchange for small favors.

Sometimes, inmates will convince the staff member they are in love. The violations and complications that come out of this arrangement are volatile.

4. "The Sympathizer"

There are also some staff members who feel inmates are treated unfairly. Rather than try to resolve their feelings through proper channels, they become susceptible to manipulation. Corruption soon follows.

There are many more types of setups that are much more complicated, but these are the easiest to watch for.

How to spot a corrupted staffer

What signs present themselves as a person falls into these types of traps?

As an inmate manipulates his or her prey, a commonly noticed sign is the sense of disconnection. For example, the staff member will start speaking to his colleagues less, will withdraw from social situations, and often slip into depression.

The corrupted staff member may know what they are doing is wrong, but feel completely trapped.

Another indicator is violence in areas the staff member is responsible for. A lot of times the other inmates around the “corrupted” staffer will feel they are entitled to a piece of the action too. This can result in violence, often against the perpetrator of the crime.

The worst case scenario is that the person being manipulated can themselves be targeted for violence based on their willingness to “help” one inmate but not another.

If you notice a staff member is spending a disparate amount of time with one inmate, this is also a sign that something is wrong. The problem is that sometimes an assignment like kitchen duty will force the staff member to spend a lot of time with an inmate anyway. Therefore, this can be hard to track.

Stop corruption before it starts

The best thing correctional leaders can do is try to prevent corruption from developing in the first place. Security and compassion must be used to accomplish this task. Here are some key steps to take:

  1. Make sure your institution searches all people who come inside the perimeter, either by checking their bags or by other means. This will depend on what your jurisdiction allows. For the most part, anyone on prison grounds is subject to search. This alone can stop a lot of problems from developing.
  2. Educate new staff members on the traps they could fall prey to. Explain to them that if they begin to fall into this trap of manipulation, it is best to raise their proverbial hand and tell someone. The punishment for whatever small violations they have committed will be considerably less than the punishments for bringing in serious contraband. Explain to new employees that manipulation is multi-faceted. It can happen to anyone. Make sure to give some examples of past cases for them to draw from.
  3. Keep the lines of communication open. Employee morale is very important. When morale is high, corruptions is less likely to happen. Compassion and respect for all employees is critical to make sure that few people feel disconnected from the group. Any inmate can manipulate a staff member given time and skills, but very few, if any, could manipulate a group of three or four at the same time.

The criminal element

There is always going to be someone out there who is helping inmates get access to contraband – criminally, intentionally and without remorse – no matter what.

These people will find ways around security measures while simultaneously making sure they are well liked. Often, when we find out about these people, the contraband is already inside and the damage has been done.

Good background checks and interviews can eliminate most of these people, but it behooves all correctional staff to keep an eye out for problems.

Using the system

Cell searches are critical to finding contraband. You are not going to find anything if you are not looking. Monitoring mail is another way to keep an eye on what is happening. Often the person who is manipulated will start to communicate with the inmate by writing letters or notes. The inmate will often keep items like this in his cell to use against the person later, should something happen that gives away his plot.

The worst part is that the inmate will probably get cut a great deal in exchange for full disclosure. The inmate already knows this and he has prepared himself.

The inmate also knows that eventually they will be discovered. He is working at damage control from the minute he gets his mark.

Further research

Games Criminals Play” by Bud Allen is a great text that breaks down in detail how staff memberscan be compromised.

As always, be safe out there. Please add your personal stories below, or some other tips for finding corrupt staff members.

This article, originally published March 2012, has been updated.

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