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Unhealthy inmate relationships: 5 danger signs

By Lorry Schoenly

Prison and jail medical units are over-represented by female staff, creating a number of challenges to avoiding inappropriate inmate relationships. It is a common saying that the inmates go to medical to ‘enjoy the view’, and in one prison system in which I, we explicitly stated to all orientees that “You cannot have sex with an inmate.” As crass as that sounds, it was necessary to make it crystal clear that a sexual relationship with an inmate, no matter if it was consensual or not, was illegal in that state and would be prosecuted. In that same system former nursing staff were doing time for this very transgression.

Corrections professionals rarely start their careers expecting or desiring an intimate relationship with an inmate. So how does it happen? Here are some signs to watch for – not only for yourself, but for your team mates.

Sign #1: Personal life in disarray
When things are falling apart in your personal life you become emotionally vulnerable to an inmate relationship. Family conflict, divorce, discovery of infidelity or even children behaving badly can open you to an inmate relationship.


• Be on guard when your personal life is in upheaval
• Ask a trusted peer to help you stay in line by privately confronting you when wander out of bounds

Sign #2: Doing little favors
Having day-to-day contact with any individual makes it easy to begin identifying with their beliefs and sympathizing with their plight. We all struggle maintain a balance between the need to avoid identifying with our inmate charges and the need to maintain an awareness of their humanity.

Manipulative inmates will study your attitudes and actions, using them to their own benefit. If an inmate convinces you to do even a small favor, you have started down the path of obligation. Feelings of obligation are universally human, but obligation to inmates is the enemy of a secure workplace.


• Don’t do even the smallest ‘favor’ for an inmate if it is against regulation
• Create clear boundaries in your relationships with inmates -- firmness, fairness and consistent words, actions, and interactions protect you and others.

Sign #3: Looking for opportunities for contact
Do you find yourself looking for opportunities to be with a specific inmate? Watch carefully for this. This may be a subtle beginning to an unhealthy relationship.


• If you find yourself attracted to a particular inmate, ask for a re-assignment immediately
• When the inmate comes to mind, immediately change your mental channel --think about something positive and motivational, and change your location or activity to help in re-orienting your thoughts
• If you see this sign in another officer, have a serious talk about it in private

Sign #4: Correspondence with an inmate
Often, the first step to a more intimate relationship with an inmate involves written communication. A note, letter or email moves the relationship one step further down the road to ruin. Even when not sexually explicit, written communication has been used as evidence of an improper relationship with an inmate.


• Avoid ALL written communication involving inmates -- this includes mailing letters and passing notes from one inmate to another
• Do not tolerate these actions from another officer -- call them on it personally and suggest they turn themselves in

Sign #5: Falling off the cliff
Yep, this is the Full Monty – personal and physical contact. The thing is done. At this point many procedures have been violated, rules breached and laws broken. This point is only reached after many of the above sign posts have been passed. But it is still not too late to turn back.


• If you know of a staff member in this situation, do something about it
• First, confront the colleague and suggest they turn themselves in -- management and the courts are often more lenient with repentant transgressors
• If this is you, notify the inmate and turn yourself in -- suggest the inmate do the same
• If you know about this activity and the fellow officer refuses to report themselves, you must do it for them -- you protect your team, the officer, yourself, and the inmates by doing so
• Get help! Consider all your options including counseling, and legal or employee assistance.
• Seek a unit or facility transfer and take any accumulated time off to contemplate your future.

Take action now!
If you see yourself or a fellow staff member in any of the above descriptions, take action. Protect yourself and your peers. Unhealthy inmate relationships jeopardize not only the individual but also the security of other staff members. You are doing yourself and others a favor by intervening before it is too late.

What have we forgotten? Leave your strategies for avoiding inmate relationships in the comments section below.

Dr. Schoenly has been a nurse for 30 years and is currently specializing in correctional healthcare. She is an author and educator seeking to improve patient safety and professional nursing practice behind bars. Her web-presence, Correctional Nurse, provides information and support to those working in correctional health care. Her books, Essentials of Correctional Nursing and The Correctional Health Care Patient Safety Handbook are available in print and digital on Amazon.

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