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Deviance and Corruption
By Tracy E. Barnhart
Published: 02/15/2010

Policephoto Corrections and law enforcement work by its very nature involves the slippery slope or the potential for gradual deterioration of social-moral inhibitions and perceived sense of permissibility for deviant conduct. In fact, the whole unspoken “dark” side of criminal justice work involves putting up with conditions that are at less than usual comfort levels.

Correctional deviance is a much broader term than corruption. It includes all activities which are inconsistent with norms, values, or ethics from a societal standpoint or even from the police standpoint. The following definitions may be helpful:
  • Deviance — behavior inconsistent with norms, values, or ethics
  • Corruption — forbidden acts involving misuse of office for gain
  • Misconduct — wrongdoing violations of departmental procedures
  • Favoritism — unfair “breaks” to friends or relatives (nepotism)


According to the Knapp Commission, which blew the whistle on the standard police explanation for corruption, he/she’s a rotten apple in an otherwise clean barrel. I am going to apply the same theory from the Knapp Commission to a correctional institution. “Rotten apples” are either weak individuals who have slipped through the screening process or succumbed to the temptations inherent in correctional work or deviant individuals who continue their deviance in an environment that gives them ample opportunity. Corrections agencies tend to use the rotten apple theory or some variation of the “Rogue Officer” story to minimize the public backlash against policing after every exposed act of corruption.

A functional explanation may be closer to the truth, and is indeed supported by almost every scholarly observer on the subject. A functional explanation is that corruption is inherent in society’s attempt to enforce unenforceable laws. Another approach is the “occupational socialization” explanation, the polar opposite of rotten apple theory that is sometimes called “rotten barrel” theory. According to this view, the very structure of corrections exposes officers to unsavory criminal characters, forgetting what you learned in the academy, brazen, overzealous, and misguided approaches to inmate control provides plenty of opportunities to learn the entrenched patterns of deviant conduct that have been passed down through generations.



A gratuity is the receipt of free meals, services, or discounts. These are considered fringe benefits of the job. Nevertheless, they violate the Code of Ethics because they involve financial reward or gain, and they are corruption because the officer has been placed in a compromising position where favors or a “fix” can be reasonably expected in the future. When there is an implied favor a “wink and nod”, it’s called “mooching”. When the officer is quite blatant about demanding free services, it’s called “chiseling”.

Gratuities often lead to things like kickbacks, bribery, for inmates to get special favors or abilities. Further up the scale comes pilfering, or stealing any supplies for personal use. At the extreme, opportunistic theft takes place, with officers skimming items of value that won’t be missed from room searches, property rooms, warehouses, or any place they have access to. Theft of items from institutions while on duty is sometimes called “shopping”.


This is usually a means to affect an act of corruption, leaving out certain pertinent pieces of information in order to “fix” a criminal prosecution. “Dropsy” evidence is typical, where the officer testifies untruthfully that he/she saw the offender drop some narcotics or contraband. Lies in reports or incident summaries lead down the slippery slope of criminality.

Other actors in the system, supervisors and even judges, are often aware of the perjury. They pretend to believe officers who they know are lying. Everybody’s happy with the system. The officer gets credit for a good bust; the supervisor’s statistics look good; the prosecutor racks up another win; the judge gets to give his little lecture without endangering his reelection prospects, the defense lawyer gets his fee in dirty money, and the public is thrilled that another criminal remains in prison. Most perjury is committed by decent officers who honestly believe a guilty defendant will go free unless they lie about something.


Corrections brutality has been defined as excessive force, name calling, sarcasm, ridicule, and disrespect. Other definitions have simply used a vague definition as “any violation of due process”. Excessive Force definition is “excessive violence, to an extreme degree, which does not support a legitimate police function.” When an inmate charges brutality, they may be referring to a number of things.

Corrections perjury and brutality go hand in hand, as officers who commit brutality will most likely lie on the stand to prevent the possibility of a lawsuit or departmental charges. The reasons why an officer might engage in this kind of conduct are many:
  • A small percentage may have been attracted to corrections work for the opportunity to enjoy physically abusing and hurting somebody.
  • an officer may come to believe “it’s a jungle in there”
  • an officer may be provoked and pushed beyond their mental endurance

The most common reason is occupational socialization and peer support. One common belief is that it’s necessary to come down hard on those who resist authority because they may kill the next officer who tries to discipline them so you have to “teach ‘em a lesson.”

Criminal justice experts are divided over whether racial differences exist with respect to use of force. On the one hand, the Christopher Commission stated that white officers were somewhat more likely to use excessive force against African-Americans, and watchdog groups like the ACLU, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have stated a pattern exists, but on the other hand, respected researchers like Adams and Tonry as well as the U.S. government itself have never unveiled a pattern.


There are many reasons why a correctional officer would use obscene and profane language. Effective use of verbal communication is one of the skills expected in corrections work. Concepts such as “command voice” and “command presence” are routinely taught at correctional training academies. The FCC specifically condemns certain words on radio and television that are “patently offensive”, but there’s no such mechanism for determining what’s offensive with interpersonal communication. The following topology exists:
  • words having religious connotations (e.g., hell, goddamn)
  • words indicating excretory functions (e.g., shit, piss)
  • words connected with sexual functions (e.g., fuck, prick)

Generally, words with religious connotations are considered the least offensive and words connected with sexual functions are considered the most offensive. It’s commonly the case, however, that use of such language by correctional officers is purposive and not a loss of control or command.
  • to gain the attention of inmates who may be less than cooperative
  • to discredit somebody or something, like an alibi defense
  • to establish a dominant-submissive relationship
  • to identify with an in-group, the offender or correctional subculture
  • to label or degrade an out-group

Of these, the last is of the most concern, since it may reflect the transition of prejudice to discrimination, especially if racial slurs or epithets are involved. On the other hand, profanity for innocuous purposes may very well be something that it is unrealistic to expect will go away in policing or many other contexts.


Contacts with promiscuous females and male inmates and minimal supervision are part of the job. Sooner or later, every officer will be propositioned. There are a number of women or men who are attracted to inmates incarcerated independent of their convictions. Every officer will be able to tell you stories about officers or staff whom was removed for sexual contact. These are women or men who make the contact with the inmates, getting them to stop or converse, and then set up meetings to have sex with them, or sometimes right then and there. An officer such as this typically has sex with whole unit or many inmates before getting caught. Other situations involve the following corrections combined activities.

On occasion, one hears about “rogue” inmate who coerces staff into having sex on duty, officers involved with juvenile inmates, such instances are rare but not uncommon because of the penalties involved. When corrections sex cases come to the public attention, the department reaction is usually to reemphasize the code of ethics. Such was the case in the 1985 Rathskellar incident in San Francisco, where at a police academy graduation party, one bashful recruit was handcuffed to a chair, and a prostitute was brought in to perform oral sex on him.


On the night shift, the unit desk chair is sometimes referred to as the “leaning bedroom”. In a institutional hiding place or “hole” or “coop” is where sleeping takes place, typically the back room of someplace the officer has a key to and can engage in safe “cooping”. Officers who attend college during the day or moonlight at other jobs in order to make a decent living are often involved in this kind of conduct. Numerous court appearances during the day or abundance of mandatory overtime can also be a factor, along with the toll of shift work. Sleeping on duty, of course, is just an extreme example of goldbricking, the avoidance of work or performing only the amount minimally necessary to satisfy superiors. Goldbricking can take many forms: from ignoring radio calls passing them to someone else; overlooking suspicious behavior; or engaging in personal business while on duty.


There are endless opportunities to drink or take drugs while on duty (e.g., inmate interviews, shakedowns, contraband disposal), and the reasons for it are many: to get high, addiction, stress, burnout, or alienation from the job. However, even in cases of recreational usage, which doesn’t exist, since officers are never truly off-duty or have any of their “own time,” the potential is there for corruption. The officer must obtain the drugs from some intermediary, involve others in transactions, and open the door to blackmail, shakedowns, rip-offs, and cover-ups. It sets a bad example for public relations. It will affect judgment, and lead to the greater likelihood of deadly force or traffic accidents. Alcohol and drug use tends to become a systemic problem; others become involved, either supporting or condemning the user. Alcohol and drugs tend to be mixed by officers because there’s more sub cultural support for alcoholism; thus the abuser covers up the drug use with alcoholism.

More intriguing is when the correctional officer becomes sellers or dealers of drugs. One occasionally hears stories of officers selling drugs on their units. The motivation here appears to be monetary gain and greed, although there have been some attempts to claim stress or undercover assignment as a defense. In cases were such officers have been disciplined, plea bargained, or arbitrated, the courts have not upheld a job stress/drug connection, although there is some precedent in rulings that job assignment may be a factor in alcoholism.


This normally involves jeopardizing ongoing investigations by “leaking” information to friends, relatives, the public, the press, or in some cases, directly to the criminal suspects or members of their gang. The officer may be unaware that they are even engaging in this kind of conduct which may involve “pillow talk” in some instances. Failed raids, for example, are often due to a leak in the agency. In other cases, department resources, such as computer systems, may be used to produce criminal history reports for “friends” of the department such as inmates whom are considered your favorite. Passwords can also slip out, granting access to computer network information. In rare cases, correctional resources are put to use in blackmailing other officers or inmates.


Every criminal justice profession and association has “codes” of ethics, “canons” of professional responsibility, “statements” of values, “principles” of conduct, “standards” of practice, and “oaths” of office, along with “pledges”, “vows”, “maxims”, “credos”, “prayers”, “tenets”, and “declarations”. Some are directed to God; others to superiors or the profession; and still others to society as a whole. They all make promises that people commit to keeping as a standard of performance. A code of ethics, if it is to be used for occupational purposes, must set a standard above ordinary morality. Otherwise, there’s no need for a code of ethics at all. This is especially relevant to police work, where it’s going to take more than just a commitment to being an ordinary, decent human being.


The ethically ideal correctional system would be one with integrity and nothing puzzling about it, there would be neither corruption nor misconduct. There would be no us-against-them and no disrespect for the limits of the law or how it’s enforced. Everything done in private would be just as if it was done in public. Mistakes would be treated as learning opportunities, but there would be less of them because of widespread adherence to the values of probity, propriety, restraint, reasonableness, and caution. Recruitment, selection, and training mechanisms would be flawless, with promotion on the basis of merit, no one being without ample supervision, and the organization giving its personnel whatever resources they need to perform their work better. There would be “open door” policies to the public, academics, and the media. Nothing correctional officers do or how they do it would come as a surprise to anyone.

The commitment to a code of ethics is unconditional. You don’t lower your ideals or revise your mission statement just because circumstances in the environment have changed. The true test of character is keeping your faith in the face of adversity.


There are few professions that demand so much moral fiber as policing. Corrections officers stand in “harm’s way” not so much against enemies with bullets, but against enemies skilled in every form of trickery, deceit, feigned ignorance, and deception. That’s why the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, edited for correctional employees stands as a spirited reminder to the higher order of this calling:
  • As a Correctional Officer, my fundamental duty is to serve mankind; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the Constitutional rights of all men to liberty, equality and justice.
  • I will keep my private life unsullied as an example to all; maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn, or ridicule; develop self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare or others. Honest in thought and deed in both my personal and official life, I will be exemplary in obeying the laws of the land and the regulations of my department.
  • Whatever I see or hear of a confidential nature or that is confided to me in my official capacity will be kept ever secret unless revelation is necessary in the performance of my duty.
  • I will never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, animosities or friendships to influence my decisions. With no compromise for crime and with relentless prosecution of criminals, I will enforce the institutional rules as well as the law courteously and appropriately without fear or favor, malice or ill will, never employing unnecessary force or violence and never accepting gratuities.
  • I recognize the badge of my office as a symbol of public faith, and I accept it as a public trust to be held so long as I am true to the ethics of the police service. I will constantly strive to achieve these objectives and ideals, dedicating myself before God to my chosen profession…law enforcement

Visit the Tracy Barnhart page


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  60. Gunfighter on 02/17/2010:

    Thank you Kieth, I have found that explaining what actually corruption is employees, better understand your policies. We can NEVER assume that just because employees made it through our academies that they understand the do's and don'ts of our career. If you instruct, model, and teach your employees they are better equiped to excell behind the fences. However, some bad apples slip through the cracks and therefore must be rooted out of the ranks. I look forward to assisting you in any way I can, just contact me and I will be available. Tracy E. Barnhart

  61. keithprice on 02/17/2010:

    Tracy, Excellent job in describing deviance and corruption in the prison. I intend to copy your article and use it as a handout for my Ethics in Criminal Justice class. Keith Price, Ph.D. Retired Prison Warden Associate Professor of Criminal Justice/Sociology West Texas A&M University

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