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How inmates manipulate correctional officers (and what can be done to stop it)

Inmates watch every move we make; they see our strengths, but they also see our weaknesses

correctional officer with inmate

Staff with tremendous potential can fall victim to an inmate’s con game.

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In 2013, news broke of corruption in the Baltimore correctional system as it was disclosed that the leader of the Black Guerrilla Family was manipulating staff and managing his gang operation from behind the walls.

Not only was he was running his criminal enterprise (selling drugs, smuggling in cell phones and racketeering), but he was able to manipulate staff and impregnate four female officers. Two of the officers had his name tattooed on them.

How do staff members “fall” for this? What can correctional officers do to stop this corruption?

How inmates manipulate correctional officers

Throughout my career, I have seen inmates manipulate staff. I’ve seen staff with tremendous potential fall victim to an inmate’s con game. Inmates have a process they use to manipulate staff to get them to do what they want. It’s similar everywhere. Authors Bud Allen and Diana Bosta refer to this as “downing a duck.” The “duck” refers to staff who are easily manipulated or fooled.

First inmates groom a staff member. They say things like, “You’re the only one who has made a difference in my life,” “I can tell you are a better officer than all the others,” or “You should have heard what Officer Smith said about you.” These kind words make staff feel good about themselves and what they are doing, and provide them with a sense of purpose.

Next the inmate gets the staff member to lower their guard. They get them to share information they shouldn’t. Some seemingly benign detail about their life can become a reason for extortion.

For example, a staff member shares with an inmate that he or she is having a relationship with another staff member. The inmate takes that ball and runs with it. He blackmails the staff member into first doing something simple: looking the other way when misconduct occurs, mailing a letter, permitting a bunk move or allowing the inmate to get a pass he shouldn’t have.

The simple requests a staff member complies with are the hook. Once hooked the inmate uses these as bargaining chips to get the officer to do bigger and better things: bring in cell phones, drugs or get involved in a sexual relationship. He gets the staff member to over-identify with the inmates and under-identify with his professional peers.

Sometimes, by virtue of a staff member’s job, they can over-identify with the inmate population. They begin to see the inmates as peers, not people under their care, custody and control. You see this in non-security positions as well. For example, a maintenance staff member who has been working with an inmate welder for months begins to see him more as a co-worker and less as a convict. This opens the door for the “duck to be downed.”

Inmates watch every move we make; they see our strengths, but they also see our weaknesses. They prey on those weak points. They learn our personalities and they squeeze us when they can. As corrections officers, we need to take steps to stop the downing of ducks and to make sure our co-workers are always practicing integrity.

How to address inmate manipulation of correctional officers

  1. Report everything. I’d rather have staff over-report. If it quacks, it’s probably a duck. If you notice a staff member spending extra time with a particular inmate, report it. Remember, all inmates don’t lie all the time. If they tell you something, you have a duty to look into the issue.
  2. The administration of the facility must be visible. You can’t run a prison from behind a desk. Walk and talk daily, visit all shifts, know your staff and know your inmates. When you discover wrong doing, take swift action when holding people accountable. If administrators let things slide, that will become the culture at your facility.
  3. Pre-screen employees. Screen for gang affiliation, self-esteem and reliability. Provide clear and direct pre-service training. Teach staff to identify games criminals play. Advocate for staff cohesiveness. We want to prevent staff from over-identifying with the inmates and make sure they see their peers as important.
  4. Be clear in what your expectations are in both the inmate population and your corrections professionals. Although we will never totally get rid of staff misconduct, the blatant and criminal behavior displayed by those working in the Baltimore prison system was unacceptable. It flies in the face of professionalism and its puts the public’s safety at risk. Shame on those people for disgracing our profession.

This article, originally published July 2013, has been updated.

Laura E. Bedard began her work in corrections as a jail administrator in 1984. During her tenure as administrative faculty for the College of Criminology at Florida State University, she ran a study-abroad program in the Czech Republic lecturing on crime topics in an emerging democracy. In 2005, she became the first female Deputy Secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections. There she was responsible for 27,000 state employees and over 200,000 offenders in the third largest correctional system in the country. Dr. Bedard has published and lectured on a number of corrections-related topics including women in prison, mental health issues and correctional leadership. Dr. Bedard is currently serving as the Chief of Corrections for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Sanford, Florida.