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Tales From the Local Jail: Oh Great! Another Ethics Class!!
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 09/11/2017

Ethics a As sure as the sun comes up every morning, corrections veterans know that when there is a serious case of staff misconduct, such as contraband smuggling, sex with inmates, etc., there will be a push for ethics training. Some corrections officers (COs) think that ethics training is a waste of time-after all, they have never been in trouble. But they cannot brush aside the fact that some veteran corrections officers with many years on the job commit unethical acts. Those are the ones that we read about or see on the local news. And when a CO is fired for bringing a cell phone in to give to an inmate, or is caught taking payoffs to smuggle drugs-it makes all of us look bad. The public-and they do pay our salaries, wonder “Is this that what goes on in the jail that I pay taxes for?”

So-let’s talk about ethics. COs, as part of their subculture, abide by the “CO Code”-those unwritten guidelines handed down from the veteran COs to the ‘rookies’. There are formal ethics-such as the department’s code of conduct policy. And then there are informal ethics-The CO Code. This code, for the most part, keeps a CO safe. But it has to be looked at and applied in a realistic way.

The following excerpt is included with permission from Carolina Academic Press:

Informal Ethics: The Correctional Subculture

Proper ethics are taught in training academies, at roll calls, and at in-service training. The correctional officer is aware of the agency’s general order on the code of conduct. How to properly act is taught, and then the correctional officer enters the institution and has to work with many different correctional officers. An informal correctional officer’s code has developed. Some of the tenets of this code are common sense and emphasize security. But some, while meaning well, may have a negative impact. M.A. Farkas in 1997 conducted extensive research on this code. The eight main tenets of the informal correctional officer’s code are as follows:
  • Always go to assist a fellow correctional officer, no matter if the danger is real or perceived. This shows the inmate population the solidarity among the correctional officers— that they will always back each other up in situations involving inmates.
  • Don’t become too friendly with inmates. Though good interpersonal relations are important, correctional officers are not inside a facility to be the inmate’s friend or “pal.” Inmates will convince correctional officers to cross professional boundary lines and be manipulated. Correctional officers should maintain a safe distance and not divulge personal information to inmates.
  • Don’t abuse your authority as a correctional officer; keep calm and cool. Inmates will resent correctional officers who “throw their weight” around. Correctional officers will find their jobs easier if they remain calm; then, incidents will not escalate into situations that may be out of control.
  • Support fellow correctional officers’ decisions and actions, do not be a “back stabber.” Correctional officers must appear to be solidly linked to each other, as officers who support each other. Inmates will see weakness if correctional officers disagree with each other in front of inmates. Correctional officers should never embarrass each other. At times, correctional officers can discuss differences away from inmates. However, this does not apply if a correctional officer’s actions are unlawful or unnecessarily put an inmate in harm’s way.
For example, a new correctional officer inside a prison assists officers in placing an unruly inmate in a restraint chair. The inmate is restrained; a “spit mask” is put over his face because he is spitting at officers. The officers then leave the area, but one goes back and punches the inmate several times in the mouth and nose, resulting in a lot of blood.

The new correctional officer is told by the [veteran] correctional officer to forget what he saw. If he does, he is backing the correctional officer’s illegal assault. Unfortunately, if he reports the act to his supervisor, he may be labeled a “back stabber.” It’s a tough call, but it is always advisable to report wrongdoing and not give “tacit” approval to correctional officers who act wrongly.
  • Admit mistakes. Veteran correctional officers will say that it is better to admit mistakes rather than be caught up in deception to supervisors and internal affairs. One veteran sheriff’s deputy remembered that early in his career, several deputies made some serious mistakes. The sheriff went around the jail and talked to the staff saying no matter what mistakes you make or what you have done, it is always better to tell the truth and not lie.
  • Always carry your own weight. Correctional officers must do their job and not leave things unfinished for the next shift or other correctional officers. Professionalism means doing the job to the best of one’s abilities and asking for help, if necessary, and not dumping work on others.
  • Defer to the wisdom and experience of veteran correctional officers. Good veterans have a lot of experience that they will share. However, this tenet of the code does not mean that all correctional officer veterans are ethical, professional, or good officers. A veteran correctional officer may have bad habits and opinions; he may be a “know it all.” Each correctional officer, when listening to a veteran, will have to decide if this correctional officer is one who is good and from whom “tricks of the trade” can be learned. Or— the way that he does his job is the wrong way.
  • Mind your own business. Rumors and gossip may appear to make the workplace interesting, but if inmates find out information about staff, especially negative information (such as who just got reprimanded, for example), inmates can use it to drive a wedge between staff. There are gossips in every occupation. False information and lies can cause disharmony and trouble. (Silverman, 2001, pp. 312–313)
In closing, the ‘CO Code’ may appear to help keep COs safe. But-following it requires common sense and discretion.


Cornelius, Gary F. (2017). The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, Third Edition. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Farkas, M.A. (1997). The normative code among correctional officers: An explanation of components and functions. Journal of Crime and Delinquency, 20(1), 23-36.

Silverman, I.J. (2001). Corrections: A Comprehensive View, Second Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.

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. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.

He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University since 1986, where he has taught four corrections courses. He also teaches corrections in service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. His latest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition was published in April 2017 by Carolina Academic Press. He has authored several other books in corrections. Gary has received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in Social Science from his alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an Instructor Appreciation Award from George Mason University.


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