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Model to Increase Understanding of Boundary Violations: Female Correctional Employees with Male Inmates - Part 2
By Dr. Susan Jones
Published: 06/26/2017

Prison at night
The following is the second in a three part series.

Corrections Organizational Culture

The corrections organizational culture is embedded in each facility and it extends into the community. A strong part of this culture is the concept of family support and unity among staff; the DOC family is touted as a positive attribute of working in corrections. One participant recounted information about this DOC family:

"I didn’t feel like I belonged to the DOC family. I heard about that family, but I was very let down by coworkers and the DOC. … I was going through one of the worst times in my life, and they [DOC family] were nowhere."

The lack of support from a “DOC family” was specifically revealed by two of the four participants. These participants did describe the existence of this type of family, but they were careful to clarify that they did not benefit from this family connection.

The culture also includes the myth that rigid boundaries exist between inmates and staff and that the boundaries are known to all correctional staff. This myth is perpetuated by training programs that address boundary maintenance as if there is only one way to interact with inmates. The training is very much geared toward a medium custody level inmate and does not address differences between institutions or positions. Except for policy that prohibits all relationships with inmates, there is frequently no guidance, through training or policy, for the less serious boundary issues with which correctional employees struggle on a daily basis. Prevention of the less serious violations may be a key component to the prevention of boundary violations that are criminal in nature because there is rarely a criminal boundary violation that is not preceded by a variety of less serious boundary violations (Blackburn et al., 2011; White, 1993). One participant in the study discussed her inability to ask for help, even though no law or rule had been broken: “Had I been able to come to talk to you to tell you I have these feelings and I think you need to move him back to wherever, that might have solved the problem.” This participant did not reach out to anyone because she didn’t think she had a choice and she didn’t believe that she could have explained the situation to anyone who was in a position to help.

The third component of the correctional culture that is identified in this model is the perception that a relationship with an inmate is a problem that cannot be fixed. Employees are told very clearly that any type of sexual relationship with inmates is against policy and is a criminal offense. The training in this area is clear and specific. However, for all the other types of boundary violations, there is rarely any discussion at all among correctional leaders, unless another law is broken, such as introduction of contraband. The culture does not have any tolerance for this problem, and the perceived repercussions are significant. One participant communicated this very clearly when she stated: “I could not even imagine working there after I said those words.” Nothing in her experiences with her family, in basic training, or at work in the facility communicated to her that there was a way to fix this. She was developing feelings for an inmate and the message that was communicated so effectively to her was that the culture of corrections would not stand for this transgression. Even though she knew that many people wanted her to do well, she believed that these same people would not be able to help her in this situation.

As part of the reaction from the culture, current successful employees are discouraged from openly discussing mistakes they have made in their careers when they crossed a boundary with an inmate. So these boundary crossings, that did not cause harm and did not result in the end of a career, are never discussed. In the absence of discussion of these types of mistakes, other employees are led to believe that these successful employees never struggled with boundary issues and were never confused about boundary placement. The silence on this important topic further isolates people who are having a difficult time identifying the boundary in their particular context, and these individuals may begin to question their suitability for corrections work. The end result is that employees are discouraged from asking for help with any type of boundary violation (Jones, 2015).

Prison Environment

Within the prison environment, four specific elements have been identified that influence the boundary violation process: social identity, boundary confusion, power, and personal relationship vulnerability.

Social Identity

The social identity theory purports that identification to a team or group guides individuals’ actions and influences their support of the organization (Ashforth & Mael, 1989). The human connection between employees is crucial to forming a cohesive team that is working towards the same goal (Flaherty-Zonis, 2007). How an employee sees their correctional work may impact their ability to be a part of that team. Individuals that see their position as just a job, may be less likely to accept the goals of the corrections team than someone that sees corrections work as a career.

A lack of fit or trying to complete the job duties differently has been identified by former employees who developed relationships with inmates. Doing the job differently was described as being “more kind” or ignoring some of the less important rules. Of course, these types of actions by correctional employees moves them further from the team and compounds the feeling of not really fitting in the corrections workplace. One participant made a conscious effort to deal with the environment and the people locked up there in a “different” manner: “It got a little scary, the people in the prisons, so I was nice to everyone [the inmates], saying good morning, how are you… etc. I didn’t want to make their day worse. I tried to be a positive part of the day.” This participant went on to clarify that she felt protected by the inmates: “They took a fatherly big brother role with me like they kind of took me under their wing.”

When a correctional employee feels like they are not part of the team, or that they no longer agree with the philosophy or values of the team, they may look for identity elsewhere.

Boundary Confusion

Boundary theory includes the concepts of both boundary crossings and boundary violations in the lives of individuals (Gutheil, 2005). A boundary crossing is defined as an act that does no harm, even though it is an act that is outside of the scope of normally accepted behavior. A boundary violation does create harm or exploitation by an action that is outside the normally accepted behaviors (Gutheil & Gabbard, 1998). In corrections, a boundary crossings are rarely confronted and rarely used as a training opportunity. Only boundary violations are addressed, and then the assumption was that such a violation was so clear that it must have been an intentional act of misconduct. In reality, there are no clear boundaries that everyone knows and accepts for all inmates in all correctional facilities. Instead, boundaries are applied inconsistently with different inmates, in different settings, by different professionals. The inconsistent and unclear application of boundaries makes it difficult for some correctional professionals to adapt to this work. The job duties that correctional employees are assigned are a component of defining this moving boundary. Many employees depend upon an inmate to complete their job duties, so the boundaries shift. This interdependent relationship demonstrates the reciprocity that Sykes (1958) described in The Society of Captives. This environment requires reciprocity, and consequently, the reciprocity negates one clear boundary between staff and inmates. One participant described many different boundaries based on the positions to which she was assigned. The boundaries that were expected between the employees and inmates at the youth facility were dramatically different from what was expected in the other facilities where she worked in the programs department. She described this difference: “In programs you are in a different place. You are not security, you are not on them all the time, and you are a person who they can almost trust.” She went on to describe differences in the way correctional employees interacted with inmates based upon the job assignment of the inmate. Para-professionals within the schools were treated more like co-workers than like inmates. The inconsistent boundaries this participant described illustrate the differences between job positions and work units within facilities.

Check back next week for the final installment in this series.

Dr. Susan Jones retired from a warden’s position within the Colorado Department of Corrections. She worked in a variety of corrections positions in Colorado for 31 years, including: community corrections, correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, manager, associate warden and warden. Dr. Jones research interests have focused on the issues that correctional employees face on a daily basis. Visit Dr. Jones's Facebook page "A Glimpse Behind the Fence".


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To view Figure 5.1: Boundary Violation Model click here.


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