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Why rotten apples are dangerous in corrections

These offenders not only tarnish the reputation of honest officers but also the agencies they represent


Corrupt staff members not only endanger honest colleagues, but they also erode the trust we hold with the public and impose significant costs on taxpayers.

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In every profession, some “rotten apples” inevitably evade detection during the recruiting, screening and hiring process. Corrections is no exception. However, it seems the media tends to focus more on the missteps within corrections and law enforcement compared to other occupations.

While the media does highlight positive stories about our uniformed heroes, they often seem disproportionately focused on the negative incidents. This spotlight raises a question: What about all the diligent, honest officers? What impact do these “rotten apples” have on them? These offenders not only tarnish the reputation of honest officers but also the agencies they represent. A single rotten apple can swiftly damage the image of the uniform.

Here are some examples of distinct types of “rotten apples” that we must either guide back onto the right path or permanently remove from our ranks.

The negative apple

Negative officers often arrive at work in a poor mood and frequently air their grievances about the job to anyone willing to listen. As the saying goes, “misery loves company,” and these officers seek to find followers in their discontent. Their poor attitudes can create an uncomfortable work environment for those officers who strive to perform their duties correctly and maintain a positive outlook. Negative officers may resort to aggressive behavior like intimidation, mockery, or criticism to gain an audience.

These individuals often work hard to undermine the agency and its supervisors, investing more effort in persuading others to share their negative views rather than developing team skills or promoting positive changes. In essence, they shirk their job responsibilities and become complacent. The lack of passion for their work leads them to let down their guard, disrupt routine operations and cause multiple security issues.

What can you do with a negative officer who pokes holes in everything on shift? Here are some strategies:

  • Engage the officer in conversation, allowing them to voice their concerns. Make it clear that continuous complaining is not productive or welcome.
  • Discuss the positive aspects of the job with the officer.
  • Explain how the negative atmosphere they’re fostering isn’t beneficial for anyone.
  • If the negativity persists, excuse yourself politely from the conversation, avoiding unnecessary arguments.
  • Maintain a healthy distance yourself from negative officers, but always respond if they need help.
  • Set a positive example by maintaining an upbeat attitude and acting appropriately.
  • When a negative individual realizes that their negativity isn’t gaining traction, they may cease such behavior and return to a more productive mindset.
  • Lastly, if all other approaches fail, it may be necessary for supervisors to intervene with appropriate guidance and counseling.

The corrupt apple

If you, as a prison employee, engage in illegal activities with an inmate, your actions may lead to harm befalling a fellow employee. When a prison staff member chooses to collaborate with an inmate by smuggling contraband or engaging in sexual activities, it can lead to dangerous incidents. Here are some examples of the risks that a corrupt staff member can impose on honest, hardworking colleagues.

Smuggled drugs impact everyone within the prison walls. An inmate under the influence of drugs poses a significant risk of initiating attacks on prison staff or other inmates. The consequences of these violent incidents can range from injury to loss of life. Another peril is the potential for drug overdoses among the inmate population. Not only are these overdoses costly for the agency, but they also expose prison staff to dangerous substances such as fentanyl and heroin. Contact with such illicit drugs can pose serious health risks to everyone working in the prison. A staff member who smuggles drugs into a prison demonstrates a disregard for their colleagues, allowing greed, selfishness and personal gain to dictate their actions.

Smuggled weapons, cell phones and escape paraphernalia pose another major threat, potentially leading to serious injuries or even the death of prison staff, inmates, and the general public. Inmates can use this type of contraband for escape attempts, orchestrating attacks on fellow inmates or prison staff, or running organized crime operations from within the prison walls. Escape attempts have resulted in the deaths of both prison staff and civilians.

Consider the 2015 Clinton Correctional escape where staff members aided two convicted murderers in a daring escape. This incident endangered numerous lives and cost taxpayers $23 million. Another example is the case of correctional officer Vicky White, who facilitated the escape of inmate Casey White from an Alabama jail. Officer White provided the funds, transportation, and plans for Casey White’s escape.

Other areas of concern include those “bad apples” who tarnish the reputation of honest officers by falsifying reports, using excessive force, committing employee theft, or using their official positions for personal gain or to secure benefits for family or friends. Unfortunately, these scenarios are part of a reality we must confront and manage due to the few individuals who infiltrate our systems, abusing their positions and disregarding their oath of office.

Removing the cancer

Corrupt staff members not only endanger honest colleagues, but they also erode the trust we hold with the public and impose significant costs on taxpayers. An old refrain often voiced by public relations officers to the media following the arrest of a corrupt officer typically goes something like this: “Of course, there are always a few rotten apples, but there is no fundamental problem.”

I recall a warden once telling me to investigate all I wanted, asserting that he had the contraband problem under control. By the end of that week, however, we had arrested two nurses and two food service employees for smuggling contraband. These were two separate cases, one involving marijuana and the other cocaine.

My point is that we can’t afford to bury our heads in the sand and pretend these problems don’t exist. Taking proactive measures against corruption doesn’t reflect poorly on our agency. On the contrary, it demonstrates to the public that we’re committed to maintaining a clean house. It’s imperative that we enforce strict ethical standards and investigate and eradicate any signs of corruption at the earliest indication.

Our local sheriff, while dealing with very few “bad apples,” takes a decisive approach when a deputy is arrested. He holds a press conference, presenting a large photo of the deputy for all to see on the evening news. During this, he thoroughly explains what the deputy did and outlines the impending criminal prosecution. He often concludes with the statement, “This deputy is in my jail right now.” I’ve seen the response from fellow deputies with whom I’ve worked, as well as from our community. The sheriff garners a great deal of respect for confronting the issue of corruption head-on, without attempting to minimize or conceal it. Swift action is key to combating corruption and earning respect for the agency.

To effectively combat corruption, administrators must adopt a zero-tolerance approach. The strategy must originate with the administrative staff and then permeate through the entire chain of command, reaching down to the front-line staff. Fighting corruption requires teamwork, and through education and training, we can raise awareness among our staff, building a robust foundation to combat corruption within the ranks.

I would like to extend a special thank you to all our hardworking, honest correctional officers who work tirelessly every day to protect our citizens and everyone within our prison walls.

Topics for discussion

  • What strategies can be employed to improve the recruitment and screening process in order to prevent “rotten apples” from entering the corrections profession?
  • How can we better support and protect our diligent, honest officers from the negative impacts of the actions of their less scrupulous colleagues?
  • How can we change the narrative and public perception around corrections and law enforcement, emphasizing the daily dedication and hard work of the majority while still acknowledging and addressing the misconduct of the few?

Three Action items for correctional leaders

1. Improve hiring and screening processes: Leaders should review their recruiting, screening and hiring processes to identify potential areas of improvement. This could involve adding more thorough background checks, implementing more rigorous psychological evaluations, or increasing the training period before an officer is fully hired. The goal is to catch any “rotten apples” before they become part of the team.

2. Implement training and counseling programs: To address the issue of “negative apples,” leaders should consider implementing training programs that promote positive work attitudes and effective communication. Additionally, counseling or mentoring programs could be useful for officers who are struggling with negativity or other issues. Supervisors should be trained to recognize signs of negative attitudes and provided with strategies to manage these individuals.

3. Establish a zero-tolerance policy for corruption: This policy should be communicated clearly to all staff members, emphasizing that corruption will not be tolerated at any level. Leaders should also ensure there is a safe and confidential means for employees to report suspicious behavior or corruption. This could involve a whistleblower program or an anonymous tip line. Swift and appropriate action should be taken against those found engaging in corrupt practices, demonstrating the organization’s commitment to maintaining a clean and ethical work environment.

Corrections1 is using generative AI to create some content that is edited and fact-checked by our editors.

NEXT: Keeping ‘bad apples’ out of the barrel: Early identification of correctional officers with bad intentions

Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.