|Crossing the line|
|By Ann Coppola, News Reporter|
According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics report released this month, correctional authorities reported more than 6,000 allegations of sexual violence involving inmates in prisons and jails during 2006. Thirty-six percent of the allegations involved staff sexual misconduct, which is any act of a sexual nature directed toward an inmate, either consensual or nonconsensual.
The report is the third of its kind and an annual data collection mandated by the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) of 2003. Now, one consistent finding is turning heads and triggering a new dialogue in the corrections world.
For three straight years, the majority of perpetrators of staff sexual misconduct with an inmate in state or federal prison have been women. In 2006, fifty-eight percent of the perpetrators of staff misconduct with an inmate in state and federal prisons were female. Conversely, in local jails, 79 percent of the perpetrators were male employees.
Adding to this discrepancy is the fact that for the last two years, more than two-thirds of staff incidents with inmates in prisons were characterized as “romantic” or “willing” relationships.
“It seems there’s a gender difference behind these statistics,” says psychologist Caterina Spinaris Tudor. Tudor, who founded Desert Waters Correctional Outreach, has been counseling corrections professionals for seven years.
“While more men might be getting involved with an inmate just for the purpose of sex, it seems more women are falling in love and wanting to have a relationship with an inmate,” she adds.
Tudor believes that psychological differences between men and women may explain why women are the majority of perpetrators in prisons and men are the majority of perpetrators in jails.
“Women have a nurturing side that is stronger than most men have,” she says. “Getting in a sustained relationship with an inmate can become more of a rescuing, care giving, or even mothering behavior. They’re all good things, they just are in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The prolonged exposure employees have to inmates in a prison setting compared to a jail may also be contributing to the large number of “willing” relationships.
“People are more cooped up in prison and are forced to share more of their lives with others,” Tudor explains. “Being around the same people for eight hours a day, day in and day out, it’s easy to start bringing your personal needs into the professional workplace, when they should be left outside the gate.”
A key difference between correctional staff sexual misconduct and any other workplace incident is what Tudor calls the “power differential.”
“The staffs are the people with the control,” Tudor says. “The inmate’s future can be in the employee’s hands, so when staff members, male or female, get involved with an inmate they are exploiting that power differential.”
The ability to maintain that power can quickly erode, however.
“Whenever a staff member crosses the line with an inmate, that’s when the inmate can start blackmailing them,” Tudor says. “Inmates can try to make the officer bring drugs, alcohol, money, other contraband, or even intelligence and information to them. They’ll threaten to tell the officer’s supervisor if their demands aren’t met.”
The consequences for sexual misconduct with an inmate are extremely serious. According to Tudor, COs can get fired, be faced with other criminal charges and prison time, or be registered as a sex offender.
According to the BJS report, seventy-seven percent of staff involved in substantiated incidents in 2006 resigned or were discharged. Fifty-six percent of staff involved were arrested or referred for prosecution, compared to 45 percent in 2005. Tudor believes these consequences are becoming more common partly because of the culture of working in corrections.
“Given the nature of the job, people don’t have the sense that it’s safe to talk to someone and say, ‘I’m having feelings for this inmate, I know it’s not right, and I know it’s unprofessional.’ Instead, most will keep what they’re going through to themselves, let the pressure build and then give in to temptation.”.
Coming forward, though, is easier said than done.
“A female correctional officer in Kansas City told her supervisor she was having feelings for an inmate,” Tudor recalls. “She worked through it, but ten years later the staff still acts like she’s an unreliable employee, even though she got help and did the right thing. Regardless, she was labeled a risk, a liability, and weak.”
Tudor says things will only change if people are willing to be more open about the issue.
“We need to change the way we’re looking at it,” she explains. “In general, it is not unusual to have sexual or romantic thoughts about somebody, this is the human condition. We need more training for supervisors to know how to handle this, so they can become a safe place for employees to turn to.”
Tudor emphasizes the fact that if an incident does occur, the responsibility always rests with the staff member.
“With these incidents, the employee is 100 percent responsible. I don’t care what people say about the inmate, they may be manipulating people all day long, but the employee has to step back and ask, ‘What is causing me to buy into this and forget all my training?’”
Tudor advocates a combination of talking to one’s supervisor and outside counseling to help stop an inappropriate situation before it starts.
“I think it takes a lot of professional inner strength and maturity to address these issues,” she says. “We need to facilitate just a brutally honest conversation.”
A conversation that could drastically improve the record of correctional staff conduct, one “coming forward” at a time.
Read the full BJS report
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