|Seduction’s Slippery Slope|
|By Caterina Spinaris|
One of the greatest sources of demoralization for corrections and detention staff is “losing” one of their own to inmates. What I am referring to is the crossing of professional boundaries by staff in ways that violate policy and 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 inmates. This “overfamiliarity” may or may not lead to sexual/romantic involvement, the introduction of contraband into facilities (tobacco and other drugs, weapons, etc.), or staff acting as messengers between inmates and people on the outside.
In discussions of professional boundaries, psychologists talk about the slippery slope, the boundary erosion between therapists and clients. This term refers to ethical or criminal violations which are initially small, but which may eventually progress to major infractions.
How might the slippery slope process play out in corrections?
Corrections staff do not start out their careers intending to cross professional lines with inmates. The early stages of professional boundary erosion may seem quite innocent. “I just said ‘Thank you’ for the compliment he gave me and smiled. What’s wrong with that?” Or, “Oh, I’ll go ahead and give him a cigarette. What can that hurt? It’s just a cigarette.” Or, “I’ll mail her letter to her kids, like she’s begging me to. Nobody has to know about it.”
Baby steps down the slippery slope are usually taken without stopping to consider potential implications and consequences, and without consulting with peers and supervisors. Even worse, sometimes these first steps down are taken willfully, in spite of dire warnings by co-workers.
Inmates, stripped of power due to their incarceration, seek to devise ways to get leverage in the “system.” An obvious way for them to do that is to tap into the staff’s authority. To achieve that goal, inmates 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 co-workers.
How do inmates manage to work the staff’s vulnerabilities against them?
In the case of sexual/romantic seduction, for example, an inmate might initially offer a personal compliment to a female staff member. On its own, the comment appears to be harmless. Unless one is vigilant, the flattering statement does not raise red flags. The inmate, on the other hand, is observing the staff member’s reaction to his comment. If she responds to the ego stroke with even a hint of positive emotion—such as blushing, a smile, or a giggle—the inmate knows he “scored”, he “got to” that staff member.
By that I mean that the inmate’s carefully guided “missile” has managed to burrow beneath the staff member’s professional armor and struck her on a personal level.
That is the level where our needs for acceptance and worth reside. At that place in our soul people are not classified as inmates 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 to alienate them, because, after all, they are “feeding” us emotionally.
When staff members allow themselves to receive ego strokes from inmates, they have stepped onto the slippery slope. They have been seduced. They may end up becoming lenient and friendly with these inmates, favoring them over the rest of the offender population in their facility.
As the pattern of seduction advances, professionalism unravels accordingly. Staff members will begin to feel emotionally closer to the inmates 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 and excitement from interactions with them, and actively seek to be in their presence.
Unless staff ask for help at this critical time, they run the risk of becoming correctional statistics. They may become sexually involved with inmates, bring in contraband for them, or even try to help them escape.
Alternately, inmates 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, inmates 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 inmates might stir up staff’s sense of entitlement. “You work so hard and you make so little money. This is a way for you to get a little extra cash.”
In other cases staff members may give into seemingly insignificant inmate demands either to get them off their backs, or to gain the inmates’ cooperation or even protection in violent settings. When the door gets opened a crack, however, the inmates make sure that it stays propped open. Getting inmates extra packets of even salt can progress to providing them with toothpaste, which later advances to cigarettes, and eventually can culminate to bringing them drugs. Inmates have time to wear down staff’s resolve.
Inmates might also target staff members who seem to be lone wolves rejected by the rest of the pack of staff. The inmate game would again involve flattery—”You’re the best. You’re the only one who’s fair/smart/understanding.” 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 inmates, and end up feeling obligated to do them favors in return.
The key to keeping staff away from the slippery slope has several components.
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!
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