Despite the presence of institutional rules that prohibit over familiarization between inmates and correctional employees, some staff members end their careers in disgrace by having an inappropriate relationship with a prisoner. These relationships, which are usually initiated by inmates, have been characterized as behaviors that are highly personal and usually sexual or economic in nature. Inappropriate relationships are illegal in virtually all 50 states and have the potential to jeopardize the security of a correctional institution. Newly emerging research in this area indicates that practiced inmate manipulators are often very adept at establishing relationships with staff members. These offenders will go to great lengths to compromise the integrity of a correctional employee. While researchers have only recently begun to examine prison relationships between staff and inmates, this problem has nevertheless plagued correctional institutions for many years.
Because the vast majority of prisoners within the United States are men, it is no surprise that most inmate manipulators who establish relationships with staff members tend to be males as well. Often these offenders prefer to target female employees in the hope of being able to have sexual encounters. However, inmates also establish inappropriate relationships with male staff members. There is a strong indication that this behavior also occurs in female facilities, though further research is warranted in this area.
There are many techniques that inmate manipulators use to establish relationships with correctional employees. They frequently try to appeal to an employee’s altruistic side when attempting to establish inappropriate relationships. For example, it is not uncommon for prisoners to concoct “sob” stories in the hope of garnering sympathy. Some prisoners also offer promises of protection in order to establish relationships with staff members. Inmates may offer to protect employees from other offenders or even the employee’s immediate supervisor. An inmate may also fill out paperwork or try to assume some of the staff member’s job-related responsibilities in an attempt to manipulate the employee. In some cases, inmate manipulators may even encourage staff members to break institutional rules. All of the above strategies are ways in which prisoners try to transform a professional relationship into a deviant one.
Factors That Motivate Inmates to Establish Relationships With Staff Members
Researchers have examined what motivates some inmates to establish relationships with correctional employees. It is likely that the underground prison economy provides a powerful incentive for prisoners to engage in this behavior. Not surprisingly, inmates crave creature comforts from the outside world. These do not necessarily have to be dangerous items, such as weapons, cell phones, or drugs. Rather, an inmate may forge a friendship with a staff member to acquire items that are simply unavailable through the commissary. For instance, incarcerated offenders tend to crave food from the outside world. Some inmates who are heavily addicted to nicotine may also attempt to persuade employees to smuggle in cigarettes. In fact, as more and more correctional facilities are outlawing tobacco products, cigarettes have quickly become one of the most highly coveted contraband items. There is a significant amount of money to be made, and many inmates conspire with correctional employees to provide a much sought-after commodity to their fellow prisoners.
Some inmates also establish inappropriate relationships for the purpose of having a romantic rendezvous with a staff member. It is highly debatable whether these “convict Romeos” have genuine affection for their captors. Nevertheless, some offenders have gone so far as to marry the prison employee with whom they had an inappropriate relationship.
Inmates who become romantically involved with staff members may often wait several weeks, or even months, before actually having sex. It is not uncommon for there to be a long courtship, which often involves the exchange of love letters between the employee and inmate. Researchers have found that inmates and officers may also bond over the topic of religion. In one case, a male inmate and a female kitchen sergeant exchanged Bible verses over an extended period of time. However, this ultimately culminated in a sexual relationship, which led to the employee’s termination from the prison agency. Inmates who are motivated to have romantic relations with staff members often show their interest by making carefully crafted sexual references.
Male prisoners also tend to touch female correctional employees. If an employee reacts unfavorably to being touched, the inmate will often attempt to make it appear as though the contact was completely accidental. However, unchecked behavior could very well escalate to a full-blown sexual relationship, especially if given enough time and the appropriate opportunity.
Inmate manipulators may also establish relationships with prison staff simply to disrupt the stability and order of the institution. Often, these particular prisoners are bored with the prison regime and enjoy the notoriety that comes with corrupting a correctional officer. Though these inmates are capable of forming relationships with security staff members, they may be especially likely to target nonsecurity employees. Some research indicates that this type of inmate manipulator may also be likely to target high-ranking civilian employees and even administrators. These inmates are engaged in a unique type of psychological warfare and genuinely enjoy creating chaos and havoc. While most inmates try to keep their relationships a secret, it is likely that these “rebels with a cause” may actually relish having their relationship exposed. There is evidence that suggests that it is not unusual for staff members who have relationships with these types of inmates to turn themselves in to the prison administration. It is possible that these employees are highly frustrated and looking for a way to free themselves of their personal entanglement with the problem inmate.
Characteristics of Employees who Have Relationships With Inmates
Research indicates that some types of correctional employees are more likely than others to engage in inappropriate relationships with the inmates they are paid to supervise. For instance, staff members who behave inappropriately with inmates tend to feel isolated from others in their personal lives. Inmate manipulators are particularly adept at identifying these individuals and will cater to the employee’s need to feel cared for or important. Also, staff members who have a string of relationship failures outside of the prison walls often make attractive targets for inmate manipulators. Correctional employees who are in abusive or adulterous relationships often have a high risk of becoming romantically involved with inmates. Additionally, staff members who are perceived by inmates to have wild social lives may also find themselves victims of inmate manipulators.
If an employee has significant financial problems, this, too, may increase the likelihood that he or she will conspire with an inmate. For instance, staff members who are financially down on their luck may be tempted to supplement their incomes by smuggling in tobacco. The literature also indicates that correctional employees who score significantly lower than other employees on their pre-employment applications may be at an increased risk of having relationships with prisoners. Also, staff members who involve themselves inappropriately with inmates have often had prior disciplinary problems with the prison agency. There is also evidence that suggests that they are more likely to have a general equivalency degree, as opposed to a high school diploma. High-risk employees are also much less likely to have served in the military than other staff members.
While it is plausible that an employee can have a relationship with an inmate at any point in his or her career, most staff members tend to commit these infractions early on, often within the first year of their employment with the prison agency.
There is research which indicates that inmates are often highly motivated to violate the subcultural norm of silence whenever they perceive their fellow prisoners are engaging in inappropriate relationships with correctional employees. This may be due to the fact that correctional supervisors urgently want to catch staff members who are personally involved with prisoners and may actively cultivate inmate informants; and there is no shortage of offenders who are willing to inform on prisoners or staff perceived to be having an inappropriate relationship. In addition to utilizing inmate informants, correctional administrators use sophisticated hidden surveillance equipment in an effort to capture evidence of inappropriate relationships.
Preventing Inappropriate Relationships
It is unlikely that prison administrators will be able to stop staff members and inmates from becoming personally involved with one another. Nevertheless, there are measures that correctional executives can implement in order to deter this behavior. First, researchers have argued that close cross-gender supervision between staff members and inmates should be restricted, if not altogether eliminated. While restricting cross-gender supervision will not prevent romantic rendezvous that are homosexual in nature, it will reduce the opportunities for male inmates to establish sexual relationships with female staff members.
There is also literature that suggests that relationships between prison employees and inmates would be reduced if administrators allowed tobacco in at least some parts of the facility. This would eliminate the lucrative black market and the temptation for employees to smuggle cigarettes into prison facilities.
Researchers have suggested that correctional executives should make more of an effort to provide inmates with tools to preserve any personal relationships they may have outside of prison. If inmates have more access to pay phones and conjugal visits with significant others, this might go a long way toward deterring them from establishing romantic relationships with prison staff.
There is also research that indicates that enhanced supervision might reduce the incidence of inappropriate relationships. For example, installing video cameras throughout an entire correctional facility could be effective. Correctional administrators who actively supervise the employees on their payroll are more likely to curtail inappropriate behavior.
In addition, it is imperative that prison executives implement clear and fully articulated policies that outline prohibited behaviors between inmates and employees. It is equally important that administrators establish procedures and punishments when infractions occur. Also, executives should consider whether to grant amnesty to staff members who have committed minor rule infractions involving poor judgment with inmates. Allowing staff who commit minor infractions to retain their jobs could possibly prevent inmates from gaining leverage and power over prison employees when an initial transgression occurs. While more research in this area is warranted, it is plausible that allowing employees to admit to and learn from their mistakes might very well prevent inmate manipulators from escalating their behaviors. Regular and repeated staff training, especially for new employees but with refreshers for all staff, might be beneficial as well.
The scientific investigation of inappropriate relationships is still a newly emerging issue in corrections. Therefore, it is imperative for researchers to continue examining the dynamics of relationships that occur between correctional staff and inmates. This may go a long way toward making correctional institutions safer and more secure places.
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