Professional boundaries in corrections: How to set and keep them

ACA session told boundaries allow COs to screen input from the world and know what input to ward against

By Erin Hicks
Corrections1 Associate Editor

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — You probably set boundaries in your personal life, but did you know how important boundaries are in a corrections setting?

Mark Fleming, Ph.D., Director of Behavioral Health, Correctional Medical Services told session attendees at the American Correctional Association's (ACA) conference in Kissimmee, Fla., how important it is to understand the psychological components of why employees cross professional boundaries, and how to screen potential officers to make sure they possess the skill set to keep inmates at a professional distance.

"It is part of our job to decide how our employees are and whether or not they are a good fit for corrections," he said. "We don't want to set people up to fail. We want to make sure we're putting the right person in the right position."

Boundaries allow us to screen input from the world, to know what input to let in, and what input to protect ourselves against, Fleming said.

The need for setting boundaries is especially important in a corrections setting because of the innate power imbalance. Not only is there a power imbalance between employees and staff, but there is also a power hierarchy among inmates, and of course, between any correctional staff member and the inmate.

"You have power and authority over offenders," Fleming said. "When you choose not to own your power, that's when boundaries get crossed and problems occur."

According to Fleming, here are the characteristics of collapsed boundaries for a CO:

• Unable to say no due to fear or rejection
• Exhibits a high tolerance for abuse or disrespect
• Absorbs the feelings of others
• Shares too much information before establishing mutual trust in a relationship
• Avoids conflict at all costs
• Possesses no clear identity or sense of self

"This is the definition of a dependent person and they can be very dangerous in a correctional setting," said Fleming.

While it's common for people to have a down day, COs must be especially careful not to let boundaries slip with inmates. Vulnerabilities like low self-esteem, job dissatisfaction, personal problems at home and/or personal isolation can lead to a CO getting too personal with an inmate.

Boundary violations for COs can include:
• Deviation from the traditional
• Self-disclosure
• Bending the rules
• Taking gifts from inmates
• Giving information to inmates
• Joking around
• Receiving help or information for self-gain

"A boundary violation occurs when you place your needs above the needs of an inmate and gain emotionally or personally at their expense," said Fleming. "Saying ‘here are two Benadryls' at night can turn into something bigger down the road."

He said predator inmates tend to fit a certain profile and would be more than happy to exploit you if they see any vulnerabilities. "Inmates know how to hone into staff with vulnerabilities. They can pick them out like a bad apple," he said.

"As an inmate every ounce of power has been taken away. Sometimes they'll engage in this behavior to gain some bit of control," he said.

To end his talk, Fleming reiterated it's the CO's responsibility to maintain boundaries and take responsibility for their actions. Understand inmates will try to manipulate you using psychological methods. And if you ever find yourself in an inappropriate situation with an inmate, immediately discuss the situation with your supervisor.

"We have to keep our inmates and our employees safe. No matter what they did to end up in prison, that is our job."

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