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The Dating Game - Part I
By Ruby J. Joyner LMSW, CJM
Published: 03/26/2012

Lovetrap Some of us remember the build-up to the ultimate act that consummated the relationship between ourselves and the object of our affections. The first time our eyes met, the subtle touching of the hand, the exchange of numbers, and even those phone conversations that seemed to go on for hours into the night. The culmination or the end of the matter is not always immediately about sex. The period of play is stimulating, vitalizing, and often addictive. This build-up can be characterized as the emotional relationship that often precedes the physical or tangible one. Emotional relationships are powerful or at best relevant and warrant serious consideration. Officers who work around inmates can benefit from gaining an understanding of what psychologically occurs before policy violations become apparent and in some cases, before criminal charges are levied.

Here at the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office, we spend countless hours training officers and staff on how to avoid becoming entangled with inmates in ways that violate policy or in ways that can be construed to be “non-professional.” I think our Sheriff, Daron Hall, characterizes it best. When he addresses new cadet classes, he opens with this sentiment: “around here, we don’t date inmates.” Often you can see the brows of the future officers’ furrow as they ponder: ‘what in the world does dating inmates mean?’ This article will attempt to answer that question.

Dating an inmate involves any action that blurs the professional boundary that should exist between an officer and an inmate. When that boundary is blurred, the relationship begins to develop. Think about an officer who comes to work. What does the job entail? There are quite a few tasks or actions required of officers. However, there are quite a few more actions that have nothing to do with the functions of a correctional officer. Some of those non job related actions include:
  • asking inmates personal questions
  • allowing inmates to ask them personal questions
  • commenting on an inmate’s physical appearance
  • ignoring established agency policies to advance the staff/inmate relationship
  • sharing personal information with inmates about weekend activities or even about ‘problems’ at home
  • calling inmates by nick names or by first names
  • allowing inmates to call them by a first name or by a nick name

A relationship exists whenever two people meet or communicate. This relationship can have a wide variety of characteristics. The relationship between officers and inmates should be purely professional in nature. Amongst peers, there is an expected professional relationship. Many agencies refer to this as an ‘effective working relationship.’ When the professional boundary between an officer and an inmate begins to blur, conversely the relationship begins to take shape. This relationship “involves emotional availability and responding to and affecting each other’s state. Reciprocity is observed.” In other words, each party gets something out of the encounter. “Relationships are based on reciprocity – mutual exchange”. More often than not, what the inmate gets out of the relationship is the fulfillment of an immediate need (e.g. sex, money on the books, the induction of cigarettes in the facility, or even cell phones). What the officer gets out of the relationship is the termination of employment, the loss of income, the ruination of a good name or of a good reputation, negative fall-out at home which may include divorce, and in extreme cases even criminal charges and incarceration. One party clearly ends up in a better state than the other. The officer loses and the inmate ultimately moves on to the next vulnerable officer.

To name a few, we have natural emotional needs to feel: accepted, acknowledged, admired, appreciated, believed in, cared about, recognized, respected, supported, valued, needed, and understood (www.eqi.org). Where do we go to get those needs met? Ideally, those needs should be met by our significant others, our families, or sometimes even our employers. When those needs are not met there, it is not surprising that officers seek fulfillment by any other means necessary – even if those means are morally wrong or even illegal. “In Maslow’s hierarchy, most of the needs are actually emotional needs. Our physical needs are at the bottom. Once those physical needs are met, our emotional needs become more important to us”. “When an emotional need is met, it leaves a feeling of happiness and contentment. When unmet, it leaves a feeling of unhappiness and frustration”.

Most jails and prisons have pretty stringent criteria that must be met before officers are hired. There are reference and criminal background checks. There are drug tests and pre-hire psychological tests. We have no way of knowing who has what unmet need - early on. If you meet some basic benchmarks, you are in the door. It is important to note here that all officers have emotional needs. This is important to note because we now know that new officers and more seasoned officers can fall victim to the games that inmates play. Officers who have been in the corrections business for years have fallen into the same traps. Thus, we must broaden our thinking on this subject if we ever hope to develop ways to lessen the number of officers who find themselves in relationships with inmates.

Most officers who have ended up in disciplinary hearings for violating a staff/inmate relations policy have talked about how they had no intention of becoming involved with an inmate at the onset. When it was far too late, they could reflect upon how their encounters progressed. As far as contributors go, they talked about having problems at home. They talked about the inmates presenting a listening ear when they needed it the most. Were these officers making excuses for their misbehavior? Some likely were. Some were simply abusing or misusing their authority and crossed over to the dark side willingly. These latter officers operated under the misguided notion that “what administration does not know will not hurt me.” What they failed to factor in is that 99% of the time, misdeeds are eventually exposed. In this article, these officers are not the focus so much as are the officers who genuinely miss cues that would alert them to the fact that their professional boundaries are slowly being compromised.

Prior research posits that there is some validity to the existence of emotional needs and I believe it will behoove jails and prisons to invest a significant amount of training time on the concept of ‘dating’ inmates. The process is subtle in the beginning and usually occurs in advance of actions that constitute policy or criminal violations. We know that officers are falling prey to unscrupulous inmates for a variety of reasons. Some find themselves emotionally or financially vulnerable and in need of a quick fix. Rather than ask for help, these officers seek easier, more risky ways to fill the void and the inmates are willing participants. In Part II, I’d like to present ideas regarding where we go from here and introduce possible training strategies that may help jails and prisons enhance awareness for officers who have direct contact with inmates.

Click here for Part II

Editor's Note: Corrections.com Author Ruby J. Joyner is the Training Director for the Davidson County Sheriff's Office.

Other articles by Joyner


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  8. sayjack on 03/28/2012:

    In the article you state that a lot of time is spent on training staff about the dangers of crossing the line. Is there any training material that you could share?

  9. jamestown0509 on 03/26/2012:

    Interesting part one to a concern that all departments and facilities should have a SOP for. Fraternization with inmates is not only unethical its in violation of practically all SOPs and regulations of the facility. You certainly cannot effectively supervise inmates if you are "dating" them for whatever reason you think is valid. Its part of what LE calls the slippery slope of falling into a hole that the officer can't get out of. I have seen officers get dismissed and criminally charged because they got involved with inmates, falling into their plots and getting caught. Inmates just love to get officers on "their" side and to feel sorry for them. The one comment you made in the article, "officers who have been in the corrections business for years have fallen into the same traps." I don't think that senior COs often fall into those types of relationships because they are professionals. If I witnessed as a supervisor one of my officers acting in such manner he or she would be called in, interviewed and the Superintendent would be involved.

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