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When officers cross the line

Bottom line: Those who work in corrections need to be held to a higher standard

When I read the recent article about the Rikers Island Correctional Officer who was sentenced for having sex with an inmate and brokering deals for drugs and cigarettes, I wasn’t surprised. Those of us who have been in the business for more than minute know that this kind of inappropriate behavior is far too common. I am sorry to say, I’ve seen many a good officer “get caught up” with inmates and lose their jobs and their careers.

I spent several years on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Standards and Training Commission reading cases where police and corrections officers compromised their integrity and got into relationships with those in their care. The commission monitors the officers’ certificates and takes action for misconduct up to and including revocation of their standards.

Although not surprised at staff offender relationships, I am both saddened and frustrated with them. Those who work in corrections need to be held to a higher standard. They need to understand when they cross the line and form relationships with inmates; they put the safety and security of the institution and each other in jeopardy.

It is interesting to note, that most agencies have policies regarding staff/offender relationships. The National Institute of Corrections (NIC) has an aggressive campaign to eliminate sexual assault in prison including staff/offenders relationships. Through the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), NIC has developed excellent training materials to be used with staff outlining exactly why it is not acceptable to have a relationship with an offender. The curriculum stresses that all states have laws prohibiting staff sexual misconduct with inmates which include physical touching, using sexual language, sexual pressure, harassment or any sexual acts.

Staff sexual misconduct happens for a number of reasons, each probably as unique as the individuals involved. Some staff becomes involved as a misuse of power. They mistake their badge for a ticket to abuse the offenders in their care. Other staff feels they are the “exception” and that they have really developed a ‘love’ relationship. And some feel sorry for the inmates and use sexual behavior as a way to gain protection, favors or other inappropriate gains. The recent case at Rikers Island is text book. The officer was exchanging sex for money and brokering other items to gain cash rewards.

Regardless of the reason, or justification in some staffs minds, relationships with inmates are not allowed. Staff offender relationships pit staff against each other, inmates against staff and the community against the profession. For most of us working in the field, we conduct ourselves with professionalism and would never think of establishing an inappropriate relationship with an offender.

But for a few, this has become their modus operandi. We have an obligation the profession to weed out those who can not or will not abide by the law.

The PREA posters around my facility so aptly say, “No means No and Yes is not allowed.”

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.

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