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

Out of the nearly 700 correctional officers surveyed, approximately 6% indicated they had nefarious or disconcerting reasons for working in corrections

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Correctional officers perform one of the most challenging occupations in society. Not only do officers face threats to their physical well-being through an increased risk of physical assaults and infectious disease, [1,2] but they also endure various mental health challenges. It is estimated that American correctional officers experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at rates higher than public safety personnel who responded to the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. [3]

Due to the grueling physical and psychological challenges associated with this occupation, a key question becomes: “Why do individuals go into this line of work?”

Several researchers have shed light on this question. For the majority of people, the pay and the benefits associated with a government job and the opportunity to help people appear to be the driving forces to serve in this role. [4] These factors are so important that states across the nation have begun using this information in their recruitment and retention efforts. For example, leveraging the notion that people are drawn to the job for the money and benefits, states have been offering large sign-on bonuses and thousands of dollars designated to increase salaries to address vacant positions. [5]

However, pay and the chance to help people are not the only reasons people seek out correctional officer positions. Thus, another question becomes: What other factors draw people to the occupation?

Given the media’s consistent reporting of regular misconduct among correctional officers, [6] we wondered if some individuals choose to become correctional officers for nefarious or disconcerting reasons (i.e., reasons that are negative, disturbing, or problematic). After all, the correctional officer position is afforded a great deal of power and control over those serving time in prisons.

Below we discuss the results of a recent study we conducted to examine if some individuals come to the correctional officer occupation for less than desirable reasons and, if they did, what those reasons were.

Our study

To determine if some people are drawn to this line of work for problematic reasons, we surveyed nearly 700 newly hired correctional officers from three states. Prior to starting academy training, we asked the officers, “What interests you most about the position you applied for?” Upon reviewing our results, we were surprised (and concerned) to read some of the answers officers reported.

Approximately 6% of the newly hired officers admitted that they did, in fact, come to the occupation for nefarious reasons. Although 6% might seem like a small number, it becomes significant when considered at scale. With over 400,000 correctional officers employed in the United States, [7] 6% means that nearly every prison in America could have at least one officer who was nefariously motivated to come to the occupation.

Research from numerous occupations has shown the devastating impacts of having even one toxic employee or “bad apple” in the workplace. [8] These consequences include lowering team morale and effectiveness, as well as the possibility of spreading their negativity to other employees, all of which could significantly harm the correctional workforce in a prison. [9]

Nefarious/disconcerting reasons: Four themes

We not only sought to uncover if people came to correctional officer work with bad intentions, but we also wanted to understand what specifically motivated these individuals. In other words, we wished to understand the types of nefarious or disconcerting reasons officers reported when asked what interested them about the position.

We observed four themes in the responses:

  • Use of force
  • General punitiveness
  • Power and control
  • Personal gain.

Below we list each theme and provide examples of officers’ answers that fit within them.
Use of force

Several officers reported that they were most interested in correctional officer work for the opportunity to use force or weapons. Respondents who identified something on the use of force continuum or mentioned weapons or physical control tactics were placed into this category. Examples of these responses included interest in using “pepper spray,” “defensive tactics,” “defensive tactics and carrying a shotgun” and participating in “tactics teams.” Thus, for these newly hired correctional officers, the ability to exert force over inmates within the prison, potentially with weapons, was a main motivation for the job.

General punitiveness

The opportunity to punish and sanction inmates was another theme observed in several officers’ interests in taking a correctional officer position. These responses included, “teaching inmates a lesson,” “moral objection to offender treatment,” “training dogs (offenders),” “treating them like the animals they act like,” “discipline offenders” and “teaching inmates a lesson.” As a result, for a small subset of those hired as correctional officers, the desire to serve as an enforcer of punishment drew them to the occupation.

Power and control

Several of the officers wrote on our surveys that they were interested in working as a correctional officer for the power and control they would have over inmates.

Examples of these responses included, “Power over offenders,” “Power over prisoners,” “being in charge” and “advancement and authority over offenders.” Consequently, for these officers, having authority and control over inmates was an important reason to engage in this line of work.

Personal gain

Finally, some officers wrote answers that indicate they entered the occupation for their own personal gain. Some examples of these responses include “helping me keep sobriety,” “good for my mental health,” “finding contraband,” “helping evil people,” “can’t get fired,” “my brother is in this institution” and “making friends with crims.” Hence, some people come to this job not for the work to be done but rather for the access the job affords them.

Addressing this issue

The reason why someone chooses an occupation is an important piece of information. Research consistently finds that this “why” question is linked to a variety of outcomes, such as attitudes the employee will bring and the behaviors they will exhibit on the job, and even their likelihood of quitting. [10] Due to this fact, state departments of correction administrators and hiring managers should seek to determine the motivations of those applying for their vacant positions. Here’s how this can be done:

  1. We recommend including questions in the application process to gather this information. A simple question such as “Why have you chosen to pursue a career in corrections?” might go a long way. Additionally, interviewers are advised to ask probing questions to assess motivations for coming to this complex occupation. Are officers motivated by the prospect of helping those in prisons turn their lives around? Or, do they view the correctional officer position as a way to exert power and control over prisoners or achieve some personal gain?
  2. Beyond trying to screen out individuals who come to corrections for nefarious reasons in the front end of the hiring process, a backend procedure should also be in place. This is because some individuals may lie during the interview process and be deceptive about their intentions and motivations. [11] We recommend that departments have a systematic way of anonymously surveying correctional officers, administrators, and even inmates to uncover officers who may be acting in nefarious ways. This practice has already begun overseas and will likely come to America in the near future. [12]

Conclusion

The corrections workforce is currently facing many challenges, most notably, a critical staffing shortage. This has caused many departments of correction to cast wider nets to recruit more applicants to fill thousands of vacant positions. Despite this issue, states must still be cognizant of who they are hiring. Why are people applying to work in corrections? What will their attitudes and behaviors be once they take the job? Taking the time to discover applicants’ career motivations can begin to shed light on these questions. To not understand who these people are and why they have applied for the positions runs the risk of hiring someone who might contribute to the detriment of the organization, such as a rogue correctional officer. [13] However, by weeding these people out in the hiring process, a safer correctional environment for all could be achieved.

References

1. Lahm KF. (2021). An exploration of correctional officer victimization. In “Invisible Victims and the Pursuit of Justice: Analyzing Frequently Victimized Yet Rarely Discussed Populations” (pp. 63–86). IGI Global.

2. Maruschak L, Berzofsky M, Unangst J. (2016). Medical problems of state and federal prison & jail inmates, 2011–2012. United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.

3. Perrin MA, DiGrande L, Wheeler K, Thorpe L, Farfel M, Brackbill R. (2007). Differences in PTSD prevalence and associated risk factors among World Trade Center disaster rescue and recovery professionals. American Journal of Psychiatry, 164(9):1385–1394.

4. Burton AL, Jonson CL, Miller WT, Petrich DM, Burton VS. (2022). Understanding who is hired to work in U.S. prisons and why it matters: A call for research. Corrections. Advance online publication.

5. Burton AL, Jonson CL. (October 12, 2022). Jailers need more than money. Dallas Morning News.

6. Vickovic S, Griffin M, Fradella H. (2013). Depictions of correctional officers in newspaper media: An ethnographic content analysis. Criminal Justice Studies, 26(4):455–377.

7. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022). Occupational employment and wage statistics: Correctional officers and jailers.

8. de Jong JP, Curseu PL, Leenders RTAJ. (2014). When do bad apples not spoil the barrel? Negative relationships in teams, team performance, and buffering mechanisms. Journal of Applied Psychology, 99(3):514-522.

9. Felps W, Mitchell TR, Byington E. (2006). How, when, and why bad apples spoil the barrel: Negative group members and dysfunctional groups. Research in Organizational Behavior: An Annual Series of Analytical Essays and Critical Reviews, 27:175-222.

10. Sinek S. (2017). Find your why: A practical guide for discovering purpose for you and your team. Penguin.

11. Weiss B, Feldman RS. (2006). Looking good and lying to do it: Deception as an impression management strategy in job interviews. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(4):1070-1086.

12. Rogan M. (2021). Prison inspection and monitoring: The need to reform European law and policy. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 27(2):285-305.

13. Cornelius G. (2021). Identifying and managing the rogue corrections officer. Lexipol.

Alexander L. Burton, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Criminology and Criminal Justice Program at The University of Texas at Dallas. Dr. Burton has performed multiple statewide evaluations of issues related to recruitment, training and turnover of correctional officers. Moreover, he serves on several advisory boards intended to improve prison staffing and training outcomes nationally. He regularly provides consulting services to local and state agencies that are experiencing staffing issues. If you would like to hear more about his work or possibly work with him, please send an email to alexander.burton@utdallas.edu.
Cheryl Lero Jonson, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. Contact the author about her research at jonsonc@xavier.edu.
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