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Ethics in corrections: How to avoid unduly familiar behavior

Ethical behavior isn’t just about what is right vs. what is wrong, it is also about making decisions that keep both officers and inmates safe

Deputy talking with inmate in cell 2.jpg

Officers must always remain cautious of an inmate’s motives during any communications.


Ethics training is imperative to ensuring correctional officers remain professional, keep their integrity and treat all offenders equally, regardless of the crimes that have been committed. Emulating ethical behavior is more than knowing what is right and what is wrong; in the correctional setting, it is also about making decisions that keep everyone safe, whether that person is in a blue uniform or have an inmate number they are identified by.

Part of ethics training is learning the difference between undue familiarity and familiarity.

Familiarity means knowing the inmates’ habits, behavior, demeanor, and/or routine; it makes for better supervision and keeps everyone safe. Training officers to become familiar with an inmate’s habits or behavior could be the difference between life and death in a highly volatile or dangerous situation.

Undue familiarity is taking familiarity to an unhealthy level where a correctional officer is putting the safety of others at risk.

Examples of undue familiarity

Undue familiarity occurs when an inmate or several inmates know a correctional officer’s personal business. Assuming that an officer is married because they wear a ring on their left ring-finger is an observation. However, knowing the names and ages of an officer’s children is more than observation, it is a breakdown in the professional and ethical boundaries between the inmates and the officer.

Other examples of undue familiarity between an inmate and an officer would be favoring one inmate over another, sexual contact between an officer and an inmate, personal involvement in an inmate’s private or family matters outside of assigned professional duties, discussing security options of a facility with an inmate, and/or having any type of personal work done by an inmate.

Forging any type of undue relationship with an inmate puts the entire facility at risk and is unethical. Often, it might seem obvious what engaging in unethical behavior looks like, but not always. Let’s look at three examples.

1. A discarded newspaper

A correctional officer brings a newspaper into the unit to read at a later time when on break. Toward the end of the shift, an inmate sees the CO about to throw the newspaper out and politely asks the officer if they can have the newspaper.

The officer, thinking nothing of it, gives the inmate the newspaper. The next day, the officer is back in the unit and that same inmate stops the CO during the CO’s first tour. The inmate says, “Hey officer, I see you’re looking for a new house, I didn’t know officers made that much money.” Confused, the officer remembers circling a few houses in the “for sale” section in a nice neighborhood.

Was the officer purposely engaging in unethical behavior? It seems doubtful, but there are two issues here. First, the officer should have never given the inmate the newspaper because that action could be seen as favoring one inmate over another. Second, now the inmate knows the officer is looking for a new, expensive house. While this might seem far-fetched, it is often the small, less-than-obvious incidents that can cause a bad domino effect, putting the officer as well as others at risk.

2. A broken car

An inmate in the unit overhears a conversation between two officers. During a tour later in the day, the inmate stops the CO as the officer walks by the cell. The inmate says to the officer, “Hey officer, if you’re having car trouble, my cousin owns a mechanic shop. I can give you his number and tell him to “hook” you up, you know give you a real good deal.” Instead of questioning the inmate, the officer sees the opportunity to save money and takes down the number for the cousin’s mechanic shop.

Again, was the officer purposely engaging in unethical behavior? It seems doubtful, but the scenario brings up two important issues:

  • Officers must be mindful when engaging in conversation with each other while working in a unit or whenever they are around the inmate population. It is not uncommon for inmates to use what they overhear to later engage in manipulative conversation with an officer.
  • It is unethical to have any personal work done by an inmate or a relative/friend of an inmate. Those lines should never be crossed, regardless of the reason.

3. A shoulder to cry on

An officer comes to work and is visibly upset about something. During the officer’s first tour, an inmate says, “Hey officer, you look like something is bothering you. I know you have a long shift coming up, but just so you know I’m a real good listener.” The officer thanks the inmate and continues on the tour. The next day, the CO comes in for their shift and is again visibly upset. The same inmate stops the CO and says, “It looks like you are still upset. You sure you don’t want someone to listen? I’m a real good listener.”

This time, the officer stays at the cell and tells the inmate all about the CO’s relationship issues. The officer remains cognizant of the fact that they are on camera, so they keep the discussion short, but for the rest of their shift, stops at this inmate’s cell when touring the unit to tell him more about the CO’s relationship issues.

There are several things unethical about this scenario:

  • It is extremely important for officer safety that they do not bring their personal life or issues into work. This can be dangerous as it can cause lines to blur without an intention to do so.
  • The officer should have never allowed the inmate to feel he could continue to ask the CO why they were upset. At the beginning of the scenario, when the inmate said he was a “good listener,” instead of saying thank you, the officer should have said it was inappropriate for the inmate to offer such help. This would have sent a clear signal, hopefully stopping him from asking again.
  • The second time the inmate stopped the officer to ask about the situation, the officer should have again sent a clear statement that regardless of how things might look, it was inappropriate for the inmate to offer such help. By not being able to keep boundaries, the CO divulged personal information that could lead to the inmate using the information as leverage to be treated better than the other inmates.

Unethical behavior is not just bringing contraband into the facility for an inmate or having a sexual relationship with an inmate. It is engaging in any type of behavior that does not follow directive or policy in providing a safe, secure and humane environment for all inmates, regardless of their crime or how much time they have to serve. Officers, new and tenured, must remain cautious of an inmate’s motive because once they see an officer engage in unethical behavior, they never forget it and they will most certainly use it to their advantage.

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Jenna Curren, Ed.D., is an assistant professor in criminal justice studies. As chair of a CJ advisory board, Jenna actively partners with members of the community to integrate current students into internships and prospective law enforcement careers. Prior to working in academics, Jenna held various custody and treatment positions and was a lieutenant for the Connecticut Department of Correction. Throughout her tenure, she supervised men, women, youth and mental health offenders. A C.E.R.T and honor guard member, as well as a training officer, Jenna has 10 years of experience in the criminal justice and human services fields.