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The Powerful Role of Ethics in Corrections
By Keith Martin, Assistant Editor
Published: 08/27/2001

By definition, prisons and jails are places full of unethical people who have made poor choices. They are also places of power where officers have authority over inmates and must choose not to abuse that power. Therefore, in order for an agency to run effectively, it must not only acknowledge the role of ethics in corrections, but encourage ethical behavior by all of those within its walls.

'Ethical behavior is absolutely essential for any correctional organization,' says Martin F. Horn, Secretary of Administration for the Governor's Office of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 'Any organization that does not make ethical behavior central to its mission is doomed to fail.'

At the American Correctional Association's (ACA) 131st Congress of Corrections held last week in Philadelphia, PA, the topic of ethics was a constant theme among workshops for correctional professionals. Among these workshops was one on modeling ethical behavior that included panelists who have worked both inside and outside prison walls.

Horn presented his views on ethics in corrections, drawing from his 32 years of experience in the field. The former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections recognized the many challenges that correctional leaders face, including workload, longer sentences and a different type of inmate than years ago.

He also discussed the changing nature of workforce in corrections and how that is essential in a conversation on ethics. Changes like this create both risk and opportunity, with the opportunity to lift the profession to a higher level, he said.

'We teach inmates to act lawfully, but we can't do that if we behave unlawfully,' said Horn. 'We can't teach inmates to obey the rules if we break the rules.'

One of the things every corrections professional should be aware of, he added, is that staff on all levels are the most powerful influence on inmates. Citing escapes, Horn said that this proves that inmates are always watching, whether it be a staff member or how often a fence's sensors are maintained. Not only are inmates watching staff for security breaches, but they are also doing so 
to see how they behave.

'Don't doubt for a moment that your inmates know what you say about your colleagues,' said Horn. 'Don't doubt for a moment that inmates know what each and every staff member thinks of a supervisor. Don't doubt for a moment that inmates knows what [a staff member] believes about race and how they act with respect to gender.'

Therefore, in order to teach inmates to have respect for themselves and others, staff must provide examples during their everyday behavior behind prison walls.

Elements of Ethics

While there are numerous definitions of ethics, Horn said that there are universal elements that can be applied in corrections. One of these elements for practitioners is performing their jobs with integrity, which can be accomplished in many ways including treating all inmates similarly.

'Indeed, for me, after 32 years, the most rewarding thing about this business is working with a group of people who behave by and large so generously towards the most reprehensible in our society,' said Horn. 'That is our strength.'

While recognizing strength, Horn also pointed out weakness in the field. One of the most critical mistakes he said that agencies make is creating an environment where it is not acceptable to make mistakes. This creates officers that feel they know all the answers and don't ask for help when it is needed. With the mentality of 'you are only as good as your last mistake,' officers tend to cover-up problem areas, which can have troubling consequences in the future.

Horn also recognized the gaping racial divide in prisons and jails and how that can affect relationships between not only staff and inmates, but also among staff.

'When our staff demonize inmates, they behave in ways that undermine their duty,' he said. 'When staff are divided among themselves, [it creates] a breeding ground for unethical behavior and inmates see it.'

With this and other situations presenting themselves in corrections agencies nationwide, Horn explored what organizations, and especially their leaders can do as a result. 

'Enforcement alone will not work,' he said. 'An ethical orientation and belief in the value of integrity must be central to the culture of an organization. The only correctional organizations that succeed are value-based. Corrections is not a value neutral enterprise. We have to have values and speak openly and often about them.'

In order to do this, Horn said having a set of values allows an agency to ask the following questions of itself:
*How should an organization that holds these values behave?
*How does our organization behave?
*If our actual behavior is out of alignment with the way an organization would behave, what can we do to align them?

A large part of the responsibility in asking these questions, he added, falls upon an organization's leaders. 

'If the top leaders in an organization don't talk about these things, no one will,' says Horn. 'Ethical issues, by their very nature, are difficult to talk about. They are threatening. It is threatening for us to talk about our own fears, our own values, issues of gender, race and personal behavior. Even if difficult, it is incumbent upon us to force the conversation.'

Furthermore, said Horn, the discussion of ethical issues must be integral to training. Because ethics has a place in every facet of an officer's behavior, there is not one single situation where it cannot be considered.

'We have to move beyond treating issues of diversity and race, gender, sexual harassment and inmate-staff relationships as distinct and separate constructs,' he said. 'They are all part of the ethical dimension of our work and should be addressed together and continuously throughout training. Ethics has to be interwoven in everyone of those subject areas.'

Preparing the Next Generation

M. Kay Harris, Associate Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University, has been involved in corrections for 30 years. As she told those in attendance at the workshop, one of the roles of any university educator is to work with future leaders in the field in preparing them to deal with ethical issues. To aid this process, Harris often takes students to correctional settings so they can better understand about ethical behavior within these institutions.

'Part of [learning about] ethical behavior has to do with the way these experiences play out,' she says. 'These interactions [between students and those in corrections] are as constructive and educational as possible.'

According to Harris, in dealing with ethics, many grapple with the meaning and value of their own lives. In trying to determine what kind of person they will be in the world, ethics largely boils down to the choices one makes in certain situations and in everyday life.

In corrections, there are many issues with ethical dimensions, or 'land mines' as Harris calls them. These land mines effect everyone in the prison, from inmate to staff. For example, as an inmate struggles whether to get involved with the drug trafficking in his block or report it instead, at the same time an administrator may be facing pressure from a politician to hire someone unqualified as a favor.

Building An Ethics Toolbox

Referring to Mark Henry's book, Making Ethical Choices (see this week's Book of the Week), Harris presented the major categories of unethical behavior seen in corrections. Among these categories were abuse of inmate, whether physical, emotional, sexual or mental), introduction of contraband, fiscal improprieties and on- and off-duty misconduct. 

In using scenarios that fall into these categories, Harris says there is great value in seeing how students as well as those in training sessions for corrections respond to given situations, but there is still a concern on her part.

'Talking about how they feel is an important process, but I wonder whether we are providing students and staff with enough hooks to hang their ethical hats on,' she says.

As a response, Harris has crafted an evolving series of ethical guideposts, or as she calls them, 'Kay's Keys to Ethical Ease.' When presented with certain situations, individuals should consider a list of words beginning with 'e' and ask themselves a series of questions.

One of Kay's Keys is 'exemplary,' meaning deserving duplication. Harris said that individuals in corrections should strive to exhibit exemplary behavior and expect the same from their staff and administrators. Questions one can ask are: Am I a good example? Is this a choice I would want my kids to emulate? If my behavior were to be on the front page of the newspaper tomorrow, would I look good? 

'Included in this is the concept of honesty,' says Harris. 'And I mean by honesty both self-honesty and honesty with others. Also, there are people who exhibit exemplary behavior that we can look to for a model and for guidance and they exist over time, nationally and locally.' 


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