How to avoid seduction’s slippery slope
One of the greatest sources of demoralization for corrections staff of all disciplines is “losing” one of their own to justice-involved individuals
A dramatic jail break occurred in Alabama a couple of months ago, when a murder suspect escaped with the help of the jail’s assistant director. How could that happen? We will never know what transpired to lead to the relationship between these two individuals and the escape. However, the article below presents some general thoughts about such a process.
One of the greatest sources of demoralization for corrections staff of all disciplines is “losing” one of their own to justice-involved individuals. What I am referring to is the crossing of professional boundaries by staff in ways that violate policy and/or break the law.
Why and how do these violations happen? And what can be done to help render staff immune to them?
A common boundary violation in corrections is staff befriending justice-involved individuals. This “overfamiliarity” may or may not involve sexual/romantic involvement. It may result in staff turning a blind eye to incarcerated individuals’ rule violations, the introduction of contraband into facilities (tobacco and other drugs, cell phones, weapons, etc.), or staff acting as messengers between incarcerated individuals and people on the outside.
In discussions of professional boundaries, psychologists talk about the slippery slope, the boundary erosion between psychotherapists and their clients. This term refers to ethical or criminal violations that may initially be small, but might eventually progress to major infractions.
How might the process of sliding down the slippery slope play out in corrections settings, including prisons, probation and parole?
Corrections staff do not start out their careers intending to cross professional lines with justice-involved individuals. The early stages of professional boundary erosion may seem quite harmless:
- “I just said, ‘Thank you when he complimented me about my haircut, and I smiled. What’s wrong with that?”
- “Oh, I’ll go ahead and give him an extra piece of chicken. It’s just food. He’s been so helpful to me. And he looks like he can use some extra food.”
- “I’ll mail her letter to her kids like she’s begging me to. It’s harmless, and nobody has to know about it.”
- “I’ll bring him the piece of religious literature he asked for. He seems so sincere in his new faith.”
Baby steps down the slippery slope are usually taken without stopping to consider potential consequences, and without consulting with peers and supervisors. Even worse, sometimes these first steps are taken willfully in spite of dire warnings by coworkers.
Justice-involved individuals, stripped of power due to their incarceration status, may seek to devise ways to get leverage in the “system.” (Seeking some control in one’s circumstances is not at all unusual. Most of us, if not all of us, do that regularly.) An obvious way for justice-involved individuals to gain some power is to tap into the staff’s authority. To achieve that goal, justice-involved individuals continuously study and inquire about staff, always looking for “chinks” in everyone’s armor. These “chinks” may be feelings of insecurity and unworthiness, anxiety about finances, loneliness, or a sense of lack of appreciation by coworkers, among others.
How might some justice-involved individuals manage to work the staff’s vulnerabilities against them?
In the case of sexual/romantic seduction, for example, justice-involved individuals might initially offer a low-key, “Oh, by the way,” personal compliment to a staff member. On its own, the comment appears to be innocent. Unless one is vigilant, the flattering statement does not raise red flags. The justice-involved individuals, on the other hand, are observing the staff member’s reactions to their comments. If staff members respond to the ego stroke with even a hint of positive emotion – such as blushing, a smile, or a giggle – the justice-involved individuals know they “got to” these staff members and “penetrated” their emotional shield.
By that I mean that the justice-involved individuals’ carefully guided “missiles” have managed to burrow beneath the staff member’s professional armor and struck them on a personal level, satisfying a personal emotional need and longing. That is the level where our needs for acceptance and worth reside. At that place in our soul people are not classified as justice-involved individuals vs. staff, but rather as people who satisfy our needs vs. people who don’t. And the persons who gratify us are granted preferential treatment. We are motivated to try to get along with them and not alienate them, because, after all, they are “feeding” us emotionally.
When staff members allow themselves to receive ego strokes from justice-involved individuals, they have stepped onto the slippery slope. They are starting to be seduced. They may end up becoming lenient and friendly with these incarcerated individuals, favoring them over the rest of the incarcerated population in their facility.
As the pattern of seduction advances, professionalism unravels accordingly. Staff members may begin to feel emotionally closer to the justice-involved individuals in question – more understood, valued or admired by them – than to coworkers or loved ones at home. They might develop romantic feelings for them, derive pleasure from interactions with them, and actively seek to be in their presence. They may be drawn to the excitement involved in finding ways to secretly communicate with them.
Unless staff ask for help at this critical time, they run the risk of becoming correctional statistics. They may become sexually involved with justice-involved individuals, and/or bring in contraband for them, and/or even try to help them escape.
Alternately, justice-involved individuals may “read” staff members by, for example, making comments about money and observing what the staff’s response is. If a staff member shows signs of anxiety or other emotion when money is mentioned, justice-involved individuals may have identified a potential victim. Carefully placed comments plant seeds in the staff member’s mind about possible “safe” avenues for extra income “for just one time.” Or justice-involved individuals might stir up staff’s sense of entitlement: “You work so hard, and yet you make so little money. This is a way for you to get a little extra cash to help your family with extra expenses.”
In other cases, staff members may give into seemingly insignificant demands by justice-involved individuals’ either to get them to go away and stop asking for things or to gain their cooperation or even protection in violent settings. When the door gets opened a crack, however, the justice-involved individuals make sure that it stays propped open. Getting the incarcerated even something as seemingly insignificant as an extra packet of salt can progress to providing them with fruit, which later advances to cigarettes, and eventually can culminate in bringing them drugs.
Justice-involved individuals might also target staff members who seem to be “lone wolves” who are rejected by the rest of the pack of staff. The manipulation efforts would again involve flattery: “You’re the best. You’re the only one who’s fair/smart/understanding/professional.” The goal is to offer lonely and disgruntled staff members the semblance of friendship. Vulnerable staff could soon be on a steady diet of ego gratification by justice-involved individuals and end up feeling obligated to do them favors in return.
How do we keep staff away from the slippery slope?
Here are some suggestions:
- Supervisory staff must ensure that all correctional employees are repeatedly reminded of the stark realities of seduction and manipulation by justice-involved individuals. In conjunction with that, staff need to be able to openly discuss this issue during supervision times, in-services, and continuing education trainings. Sharing with one another about ways staff members identified, exposed and countered potential justice-involved individual manipulation, would help keep staff away from the slippery slope.
- Staff need to be alerted against complacency which makes staff believe that “it would not happen to me.” Anyone can be seduced, and justice-involved individuals have time to wear down staff’s resolve. (As the saying goes, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”) No one is exempt, unless they continually hold themselves accountable for their behavior and even for their thoughts.
- Staff need a safety net to fall back on when they realize that they are contemplating committing policy violations. Several options, such as confidential counseling with professionals educated in the corrections culture or confidential peer support, must be in place for them to get preventative help without jeopardizing their careers.
- Staff are responsible for ensuring that they seal “chinks” in their armor as they become aware of them. This may require a variety of interventions, ranging from asking trusted coworkers to give them feedback about their conduct to seeking counseling to address personal insecurities and psychological needs.
- Staff are responsible for looking out for one another. If they sense that one of their team is starting to compromise their professionalism, they need to approach that employee with their concerns and support. If the pattern persists, they have to take it to a higher level, as boundary violations obviously undermine the safety of the entire institution.
How can staff tell if they are approaching the slippery slope in their dealings with justice-involved individuals?
The easiest diagnostic test is to ask themselves if whatever they contemplate doing with justice-involved individuals is something they would be comfortable discussing with their supervisors or significant others. If they intend to keep their activities secret, then that is sure-fire proof that they have left the solid professional ground and are about to slide downhill.
Corrections work can be like swimming through shark-infested waters. Staff need to be vigilant and honest with themselves and others. They also need courage and the ability to think on their feet. And they need to keep from being overconfident. If you think you’re beyond temptation, watch out!
And one more thing to remember: staff need to also be on the lookout for manipulation and seduction by other staff. This is a sad reality, and the subject of a future article.
2022 © Caterina Spinaris, PhD, LPC