Recently I wrote a column for my blog “Tales from the Local Jail” titled “Does
Your Jail Pass the Smell Test”? I discussed certain aspects of jail life and services
that if not handled properly will make your jail “stink”. These aspects necessary
to escape liability under the Eighth Amendment that guards against cruel and
unusual punishment, per the U.S. Supreme Court, are: food, clothing, sanitation,
shelter, medical care, personal safety and recreation. If not afforded properly to
inmates in accordance with established case law, the jail can be held liable in a
Now it is time for Part II: staff. Let’s talk about what staff can do to cause a
figurative odor in the facility. Problem staff members may display “red flags”-
warnings that you may see; giving you a chance to correct effectively deal with
the problem. Others may explode without warning and all of a sudden there is a
According to Jeffrey Ian Ross, Associate Professor of Criminology at the University
of Baltimore, there are twelve primary types of correctional staff deviance. Some
are more severe than others, but they all can contribute to a climate of staff
incompetence and bad publicity (Ross, 2008).
Let’s look at each in detail (Ross, 2008):
Oh-and let’s not forget this category: “Glued to the chair”: Jail inmates will take advantage of staff laziness. Does your jail have officers that do their required checks in a lazy, halfhearted manner? Does it appear that they are “glued” to their post chair? Inmates will take such opportunities of staff laziness to do several things, none that put the jail in a good light: manufacture/smuggling of contraband, sexual and physical assault on other inmates, work on escaping and unfortunately, suicide.
- Improper Use/Misuse of Agency Equipment and Property: This can range from photocopying personal material to using agency vehicles for
- Mishandling/Theft of Inmate Property: While officers must search inmate property in the battle against contraband, officers who steal inmate property or intentionally mishandle or damage it must be disciplined.
- Drinking and drug abuse on the job: Being hung over, drunk, or under
the effects of abusing drugs can negatively affect the job. Not only is the officer less safe and alert, the staff and inmates who depend on him for safety are in danger also.
- Accepting gifts: Correctional staff must be able to say “no” and not
accept favors and gifts from inmates and any businesses. This shows favoritism and weakness-staff can be “bought”.
- Discrimination: This can appear ugly. Tax paying citizens will be upset when they hear reports of correctional staff being members of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan or the Aryan Brotherhood. If inmates are mistreated, are injured or die because of bigoted, racist staff, how can
anyone view the jail as safely and professionally run?
- Abuse of authority: Correctional staff members are in positions of power, and cannot let that “go to their heads”. If jail staff members verbally harass inmates, embarrass them, humiliate them, and grant favors to certain inmates and mistreat others, this will result in a negative jail climate and ill feelings among the inmate population.
- General boundary violations: Jail staff must be able to resist manipulation by inmates. This must be part of a comprehensive training program for sworn and non-sworn staff. Inmates are great schemers and have lived their lives by using people. Staff must be aware of this and learn techniques to resist manipulation.
- Sexual harassment of colleagues: Sexual harassment means a hostile work environment. A jail should be a professional place to work without staff making unwanted sexual advances, date requests, sexual jokes, etc.
- Smuggling contraband: Contraband in the hands of inmates is dangerous for all. Staff who smuggle in drugs, weapons, cell phones, etc. should be fired.
- Theft of facility property: If staff is stealing office supplies, food, etc. this sends a bad image to the public-it says that such officers are not any better than the inmates.
- Sexual misconduct: It is hard to understand why staff becomes intimately involved with inmates for two reasons: first, it is against the law as most if not all states have criminal statutes against carnal knowledge of offenders in custody. Second, considering the lifestyle and the physical and mental health problems of inmates (intravenous drug use, alcohol abuse, mental health problems, communicable diseases, poor hygiene, etc.) why would any correctional staff member risk his or her health and well-being? There are some red flags that can clearly indicate that a staff member is heading down the “slippery slope” of sexual misconduct including: flirting with inmates, neglecting duties to socialize with inmates, absences off post for long periods of time, accepting and sending notes to inmates, accepting gifts from inmates, coming in on days off to see an inmate, calling inmates by nicknames, inmates using the staff member’s first name, getting overly “made up”, or being seen in out of the way areas with an inmate. I am sure that you can think of others. It is important to have blunt, plain talks to staff about sexual misconduct, combined with a warning about criminal charges, disciplinary action and termination from the job. In other words-a zero tolerance policy must be in place.
- Violence Against Inmates: This “smell” will arise when the public reads about jail officers injuring inmates through physical beatings and misuse of restraints. According to Ross-and it makes sense-most violent acts against inmates by correctional staff are psychological. These include: tearing up mail, searching more often than necessary, denying privileges, etc., all showing the inmates “who is in charge”. When this attitude turns physical-trouble results. In class, I discuss
examples of jail officers being criminally convicted and losing their careers and their freedom because of physically abusing inmates. One example is the Oklahoma jail officer who in 2012 pleaded guilty in federal court to excessive force, violating the civil rights of an inmate, falsifying records and making false statements to the FBI. The officer was 26 years old-and his law enforcement career is over (Muskogeephoenix.com, 2012).
Is anyone in your jail paying attention to what staff is doing? Do we see warning signs of some staff behaving in the ways I just described? Are supervisors counseling officers, taking disciplinary action and communicating to staff what will happen when they behave in such negative ways? If you are a jail staff member and see the bad behaviors that have been discussed in this article, you must let your supervisors know. Is the smell going to get worse? Are you going to eliminate the source of the smell, or just ignore it? If you ignore it, it will not go away.
Corrections.com author, Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. He conducts corrections in service training sessions and has taught corrections classes at George Mason University since 1986. Gary’s books include The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition (2009) from the American Correctional Association and The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, Second Edition (2010) from Carolina Academic Press.
- Former jailer pleads guilty to assault of inmate. May 17, 2012. Phoenix Staff Reports. Muskogeephoenix.com. http://muskogeephoenix.com (Accessed May 19, 2012).
- Ross, Jeffrey Ian Ph.D. (2008). Special Problems in Corrections. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall.
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