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Professional Ethics and Corrections, a Professional Responsibility
By Gary York
Published: 09/14/2015

County jail This is the first of a series of ethical situations I will be writing about that correctional professionals must deal with on a daily basis.

An officer catches inmate Smith, in the dormitory, stealing property from inmate Jones while everyone else was on the compound. Inmate Smith begs and pleads with the officer that this is his first time doing this and his prison term ends in just two weeks. Inmate Smith puts the property back and asks the officer to let him go. The officer lets his sympathetic feelings take over and he fails to use ethics in this situation. The officer verbally counsels inmate Smith and lets him go without a disciplinary report or a transfer to administrative confinement pending investigation. The officer’s shift ends and he did not brief the incoming shift about the incident.

Later that evening, inmate Smith steals the same property, only this time he is caught by inmate Jones who owns the property. Inmate Jones beats inmate Smith to within one inch of his life. As a direct consequence of improper adherence of ethics by the corrections officer, the agency is faced with an emergency situation requiring outside medical transport, a criminal investigation, an aggravated battery, and a crime scene. All of which could have resulted in a homicide. Now you can see how not making the right decision can place everyone in danger. Corruption can occur even when an officer has the best of intentions. In this scenario we would refer to it as “Noble cause corruption”, when an officer intends to do the right thing and it leads to a very bad thing.

So, exactly what are “ethics”? Merriam Webster defines ethics as “rules of behavior based on ideas about what is morally good and bad.” It is my opinion that most people would assume (and rightfully so) that all correctional officers should already know what it means to carry out their duties in an ethical manner.

However, is it the reality that most, if not all, correctional officers actually need more training in ethics? Is it a correctional officer’s professional responsibility to keep ethics in check in every single situation they encounter?

One only has to watch the news to know that we, as correctional officers, owe it to our profession to maintain good standards of conduct and are able to make good decisions that will reflect positively upon our agency, as well as to the court system, the public and the media.

At any given prison facility, the responsibility of ensuring all officers receive proper training in ethics falls squarely on the shoulders of prison management. Without ethics training, officers have no guidelines to build upon. Today, with all the media focus regarding those corrections officers who have not adhered to a professional and ethical path, we need this training more than ever. Given the problems that exist, it begs the question: Why is it we still have agencies throughout the country that are barely utilizing ethics training in their curriculum or, worse yet, not teaching it at all?

To provide working guidelines for officers and employees, every agency must have:
  • A code of conduct
  • Ethics training
  • A mission statement
  • A vision statement
  • A core of values
If your agency does not have these guidelines, it is time to implement these crucial policies and procedures in order to educate and inform your staff what is expected of them. Each employee has a professional responsibility to themselves, the agency and the community to act in an honorable manner that reflects integrity. We represent our agency twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. It is our responsibility to uphold the public’s trust and not fall victim to inmates’ manipulative games or to allow inmates to push us to the end of our rope, resulting in excessive use of force or other costly mistakes.

In my book “Corruption Behind Bars” I tell a true story of how ten officers were federally indicted and lost their jobs after beating an inmate over a five day period. Inmate Edwards lay there on a metal bunk, fully exposed, in four point leather restraints and bruised from head to toe for twelve hours. Inmate Edwards was no angel, five days earlier he bit a piece of meat out of an officers face and was transferred 190 miles away to another prison where the abuse took place as orchestrated by two captains, one from each prison. Falsified “Use of Force” and medical reports were generated. The media had a blast with this story for over a year and a half making all corrections officers look like “Hit men”. This was not a happy ending for anyone involved, but we as officers cannot take the law into our own hands. Honest officers not involved in the beatings also lost their jobs for “Failure to Report” the incident.

As correctional officers we must make many decisions every day. Do we look the other way and pretend not to see or do we get involved; do we use force or not; do we accept an inmate’s bribe or report the inmate on a disciplinary report? Each officer has the duty and responsibility to provide care, custody and control of hundreds of inmates while at the same time protecting him or her and employees of the prison. The discretion of which correction officers have in making decisions and the power of authority they are given can create a very fragile situation. If used properly, an officer’s authority works very well. If used for personal benefit or if their ego gets in the way, an abuse of power places everyone in harm’s way.

From day one correctional officers must have integrity, high morals and good values as character traits in order to stand firm in their convictions to avoid inmate manipulation and avert the many scams inmates use to attempt to take advantage of a naïve or weak officer.

How can we teach officers what to look for in order to avoid being on the front page of a newspaper with negative media? For starters, make sure you provide continuous ethics training at your agency. I do not mean just taking an online unsupervised class in ethics. While taking an introductory ethics course is a good first step, an agency must continuously train officers regarding the consequences of unethical behavior, both by officers and inmates.

Training must also be conducted face to face with the officers in a classroom setting at your training center, so everyone can learn from each other’s experiences. The instructor should be familiar with the prison compound and know what to look for regarding inmate traps and setups, having experience with resolving ethical dilemmas.

Training would include showcasing examples of these dilemmas with PowerPoint presentations that fit the correctional setting. The instructor will ask questions to enlist officer participation. Role playing is a very effective teaching tool. The instructor would provide scenarios that could occur in the prison which requires the officer to choose between right and wrong. Role play would be conducted with the officer making the wrong decision and again making the correct decision. Encouraging the class to critique and discuss the scenarios will serve as further training for the entire class.

These strategies teach officers to learn how to use critical thinking skills and look beyond routine thinking during the course of their shift. Other ideas for training would be to have the class break into groups and each group think of a scenario that could turn bad quickly. Each group would then role play the situation and end the training with a roundtable discussion of what should have been done and decide if the final decision was the proper solution.

The goal of ethics training is to make officers aware of the dangers and situations they face and how to react to those dangers. It is critical for correction officers to learn the cunning thought processes of inmates and the circumstances that can and do arise from making the wrong decision.

We must teach officers to make the right decision, to open their minds and see the bigger picture and to be able to dismiss the urge to rely on short sighted tunnel vision. Officers must also feel comfortable with calling supervisors and asking for advice concerning an unfamiliar incident. This means supervisors need to always be willing to verbally assist or respond to an incident and guide staff in the right direction.

The worst feeling a young officer can have is the sense that he or she has no support or is being ignored by supervisors. Leaving an officer all alone in a dorm can make an inexperienced officer feel as if they have been abandoned on an island, which may cause the officer to turn to the inmates for advice. This may lead to the officer trusting the inmates more than his coworkers or supervisors which can lead to corruption. When officers do not have access to assistance and are not properly supervised, this may plant the seed that allows officers to wander down an unethical path. Preventative maintenance is the key: train now, supervise now and save your agency’s reputation now.

Everyone from the warden on down to new recruits needs to develop “whole sight” and explore what is right and what is wrong in their hearts and minds. Guarding your integrity starts with an individual having the right attitude and behavior.

Corrections officers must adhere to a professional code and demand of ourselves that we maintain the knowledge and skill necessary to provide protection with the utmost integrity. We need to always be fair and unbiased, protect confidential information, act in a responsible, professional manner both on and off duty, and, no matter what, always be honest and truthful.

Let’s give the media only good things to talk about when it comes to corrections. Do not let either of the above scenarios occur in your agency. If your agency and officers have a good report card, then they will be perceived as ethically correct, which in turn will help the community be more open and ethical with us.

Gary York is a retired Senior Prison Inspector and is an Ethics and Crisis Intervention Instructor. He is also the author of the books "Corruption Behind Bars" and "Inside the Inner Circle".


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