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Model to Increase Understanding of Boundary Violations: Female Correctional Employees with Male Inmates - Part 3
By Dr. Susan Jones
Published: 07/03/2017

Prison at night The following is the conclusion of a three part series.


Power theory has provided definitions of many different types of power. Power is considered a natural component of correctional facilities, but it is usually assumed that the power is in the hands of the employees. The power of inmates, either individually or as a group, is not so readily acknowledged. At first glance, it would seem that these correctional employees possess legitimate power and can maintain control with the full force of the department to back them up. But it is not that simple.

The participants in this study described different types of power that the inmates with whom they developed relationships possessed. One participant described a powerful inmate that was able to control the behavior of other inmates by stopping them from verbally abusing her. Not only was he powerful enough to make other inmates change their behavior, he was successful where correctional staff failed. Two participants described attributes of referent power when they described the male inmates with whom they became involved. These two men had engendered admiration and respect from other inmates and from employees and the fourth participant described an inmate that was so powerful that he convinced her that administration liked her so much that she would not be held to the same standard as others even though the law had just criminalized their behavior. This speaks volumes to his powerful influence and charisma. The power of this inmate was so convincing that she did not feel she could file a report, even when he raped her. She did not think that she would be believed, and she was afraid that the inmate would report her for bringing cigarettes into the facility for him. His power was so complete that she admits that she did not even “go there” in her head. She clarified: “I was just way too far into it but I never dreamed he could have raped me, ever.” She did not think through her choices and come to the decision not to report; she did not think she had choices. This lack of choice goes back to the corrections culture. She believed that her mistakes would be unforgivable, because she had developed an emotional relationship with an inmate that led to smuggling in contraband.

Legitimate power forms the basis for policy and law that labels correctional employees as the perpetrator in any boundary violation that is a criminal act. However, Worley et al. (2003) referred to the inmates involved in boundary violations with employees as predators or manipulators. This idea that the inmate is responsible, to some degree is found in the inmate rules in some jurisdictions. The Colorado Department of Corrections Code of Penal Discipline includes a description of a rule violation titled: Solicitation of a DOC employee, contract worker, or volunteer misconduct (Colorado Department of Corrections, 2011). This charge is used when an inmate is discovered to be involved in a boundary violation with an employee. Punishing the inmate for his involvement in a boundary violation sends a conflicting message about just who is the perpetrator and who is the victim. The existence of this rule implies that the employee is not the lone perpetrator and that the inmate may possess more or different power than the legitimate power of the officer.

Personal Relationship Vulnerability

People in all work settings, including correctional facilities, may experience periods in their lives of personal relationship vulnerability. The vulnerability that often accompanies a personal relationship crisis has been acknowledged in a variety of settings, and this vulnerability can play a significant part in the boundary violation process (Faulkner & Regehr, 2011). In non-correctional work settings, coworkers are often aware when someone in the group is in the process of divorce or is having trouble in a relationship, and, yes, sometimes coworkers will take advantage of that situation. In a correctional setting, inmates often try to capitalize on this type of vulnerability, and the consequences can be more severe. Two participants in this study described personal relationships that were not stable and eventually ended in divorce; the remaining two participants were not in a personal relationship at the time of the boundary violation.


The Bad Apple Theory is often used to explain these violations by declaring that the wrong person was hired (Tschan, 2007). This theory allows the correctional culture to place all responsibility upon the individual employees that choose to leave the correctional team. However, the participants in this study did not move away from the identity of a correctional employee because they were bad people. They did not enter the Department of Corrections so that they would be able to break a law or a rule; instead, they entered the department with the intent of being the best correctional employees they could be. Their move away from the identity of their coworkers, across the boundary into a relationship with a powerful inmate, was the result of moving toward something.

One participant described a relationship that gave her something that she had never before found: “I really felt loved and cherished.” Another participant added:

"Just the way he looked at me. I felt like he saw right through me. I don’t know. I just felt like we had this connection that I haven’t had very often. His expressions and the way he would look at me. I don’t know how else to explain it. I literally felt it through my whole body; it was instant excitement when he would call."

Each participant described feelings of attraction, friendship, or companionship towards someone that was available. The physical proximity of these inmates may have influenced the relationship (Quinn, 1977) and these relationships provided a connection that they didn’t have in other aspects of their lives. This type of connection was not found with coworkers or in their personal lives. They moved into these relationships, even though this move was a dramatic step over the cultural boundary and this was a one-way move because there was no returning to the correctional team. One participant explained: “I was thinking about giving into this [relationship with an inmate] and I knew it meant my career, either way.” The need to find a connection was more powerful than the need to belong to the correctional team.

Areas for Further Research

This boundary violation model is presented as a starting point towards a more complete understanding of the process that moves a female correctional employee into a relationship with an inmate. While this model may offer important information in this area, the complexity of this issue requires additional study if these boundary violations are to be fully understood. This study is limited to the examination of this process between female correctional employees and male inmates. The study of relationships between male officers and female inmates and the relationships between officers and inmates of the same sex need to be examined.

Even though policies and laws have declared that the correctional employee possesses legitimate power and is therefore, the perpetrator in any boundary violation, this is an area of continued debate (Worley et al., 2003). Further research in this area is needed to more fully understand the dynamics of the power relationship that may occur between an employee and an inmate. Incidents have occurred where the correctional employee has been described as using positional power to force compliance by inmates in a variety of illegal and unprofessional acts (Calhoun & Coleman, 2002). However, inmates have also been identified as preying upon employees and manipulating them for a variety of illegal actions (Allen & Bosta, 1981; Worley et al., 2003). What is clear is that the perpetrator in these actions is not always easy to identify. Research that focuses on the entire continuum of boundary violating behavior is needed to examine the different types of power that may influence these violations.

The effect these kinds of violations have upon coworkers and an understanding of any actions that they took to prevent the boundary violations is an additional area of study that needs to be more fully understood. The physical structures of correctional facilities are necessary, but the towers, fences, and cameras are not enough to prevent boundary violations. Examination of why coworkers act or fail to act and the process of how certain employees are excluded from the correctional team is needed. The connections between people within the correctional facility may provide the key to prevention.  

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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