Doing the Right Thing: The Importance of Ethics in Corrections

by | December 20, 2021

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In corrections, we hear the word “ethics” frequently. We agree to abide by a Code of Ethics; our agencies posts Rules of Conduct we must follow. Ethics form the basis of the public trust placed in correctional staff to perform our duties in a professional manner, thus keeping the citizens safe.

But what does it really mean to be ethical? Can a better understanding of what ethics is help us resist temptation to act unethically? These questions are essential because in corrections, bad decisions don’t just affect our careers; they can bring harm on inmates and on citizens outside the facility.

Understanding Ethics

According to Debbie Goodman, who has written extensively on ethics in corrections, ethics is the study of morals—the good, the bad, what is right and what is wrong. To the corrections professional, the accepted rules include following the law, including case law, court decisions and the general orders and policies of the agency. For example, courts have ruled that inmates are to receive adequate mental health and medical care. Officers must not deny this care to inmates in their custody. Inmates are to be kept safe—from other inmates, from “rogue staff” and from themselves.

Each letter of the word ethics represents a critical part in both the professional and personal lives of a corrections professional. Let’s examine each one:

Environment: The environment refers to how the correctional officer was raised. The ways we treat other people—whether we approach them with respect, empathy and curiosity or whether we prejudge them and assume the worst—are largely formed during our childhood and adolescence. In corrections, “environment” takes on another meaning, too: our belief about the correctional facility and corrections in general. An officer who thinks inmates are “scum” and the institution needs to “teach them a lesson” may feel comfortable using unethical behaviors such as excessive force or harassment.

Training academy: While an ethical foundation is built when we’re young, the academy represents another fertile time for reinforcing the importance of ethical behavior and what it looks like in a correctional setting. Training personnel have a unique perspective, especially when training the rookies (aka “newbies” or “new boots”). Trainees who fail to take training seriously and don’t make an effort to learn may be more susceptible to ethical lapses down the road. The training academy is where we need to identify and correct those behaviors or weed out those unsuited for corrections. As a training instructor, I have encountered recruits who talk in class, act immature like they are in high school and display a know-it-all attitude. I have adopted a simple phrase: “If you do not take this training seriously, you will be out of a job.”

Home life: Law enforcement marriages and relationships are under strain: overtime, dangerous inmates, COVID-19 and shift work, just to name a few. Off-duty strife can wear a person down, and pent-up anger can explode onto inmates or colleagues. If the home stress includes financial difficulty, a correctional officer may be vulnerable to inmate manipulation involving schemes of how the officer can make some cash through contraband smuggling. In contrast, a home life that is supportive and in which the correctional officer has a strong identity outside of work can help officers be resilient to stress and resist temptations.

Trainers must stress that inmates are people. Empathy and compassion, combined with guarded skepticism, will keep correctional officers on firm ground.

Individual beliefs: What we believe affects how we act, how we treat others and what we say. If a staff member believes in the Golden Rule—treating others in a way that we would like to be treated—they will treat others with dignity and respect. If they believe in the rights of the accused and the civil rights of incarcerated people, they will provide humane treatment and care. They will recognize that the courts punish offenders; correctional officers do not. But if a correctional officer believes inmates deserve harsh treatment to reform, a problem is looming.

People choose what they believe in. If these choices are negative and are against the mission of the agency, serious repercussions may occur, including lawsuits and preventable harm to inmates. For example, an inmate approaches a correctional officer and complains that his cellmate is threatening him. The officer tells the inmate to “man up” and maybe think about jail the next time he’s consider committing a crime. The inmate returns to his cell; later, his cellmate sexually assaults him. The correctional officer’s unethical beliefs opened the door for a lawsuit.

Citizens: Correctional officers have a mission to keep communities safe. Police officers arrest wrongdoers. Corrections professionals keep offenders locked up or under supervision. Correctional officers have an ethical responsibility to do everything they can to ensure the safety of the public. Even when members of the public are disrespectful to us, we must be professional in attitude, words and behavior.

Stress: Correctional staff, both sworn and non-sworn, are faced with stressful conditions, demands and situations ranging from uncooperative inmates to mentally ill inmates, overcrowding and COVID-19. Stress must be effectively managed so that ethics and professionalism are not compromised. For example, a correctional officer is tired; she has had a shift full of inmate arguments and noise and has been on the go for all 12 hours. An inmate approaches with a problem. The stressed-out officer says sarcastically, “What do you want now?” An officer who effectively manages stress, on the other hand, reacts by listening to the inmate and tries to work out the problem. Stressed-out staff become angry, uncaring and negative, which can lead them to ignore safety issues.

The A-B-C-Ds of Ethics in Corrections

Now that we’ve examined some of the factors that influence ethics, we can identify what ethical behavior looks like in practice. Here is a simple formula to remember, applied to contemporary correctional issues:

Actions: The way you act determines how ethical you are. Do not lie, cheat, steal or mistreat people; always try to do your best. Actions also apply to stress management—by exercising, living a healthy lifestyle, taking time to recharge your batteries, and asking for mental health help when you need it, you are making it less likely that stress will become overwhelming and lead to unethical behavior.

Beliefs: Ethical people have a good belief system. They believe in the law, the facility policies and the mission of the agency. They believe in public service and in following court decisions. Corrections is a people profession. Correctional personnel are responsible for the offenders in their custody, including those with mental health issues, medical problems and substance abuse problems. Caring for them properly is our business, and if we can’t embrace that, we should find another occupation.

An officer who thinks inmates are “scum” and the institution needs to “teach them a lesson” may feel comfortable using unethical behaviors such as excessive force or harassment.

Conduct: If you have good ethics, you conduct yourself as if someone is always watching. The mission of a correctional agency includes the safety, humane care and fair treatment of inmates in its custody. This translates to not using unconstitutional excessive force, not engaging in racial discrimination and not denying medical and mental health care. This also means not aiding inmates in the smuggling and trafficking in contraband or engaging in sexual misconduct with inmates. Outside of the facility, conduct extends to social media use. It’s important correctional officers not use social media to fan the flames of controversy.

Discipline: We are human and possess human weaknesses. We are subject to temptation and enticement. A friendly inmate asks for a favor that violates policy. Inmates flirt with us, feigning romance and sexual attraction. They try to convince us to bring in contraband—drugs, cell phones, messages—promising us financial rewards. We must resist wrongdoing—and that requires self-discipline. Correctional officers who use their position for personal gain have no place in this field.

Can Training Solve Ethical Weaknesses?

Can correctional trainers “fix” an unethical employee? It is a tough task. While employees must have a strong ethical foundation to succeed in corrections, trainers can help good employees understand, recognize and avoid potential ethical pitfalls. Four common areas include:

  1. Constitutional rights: Trainers and supervisors must be blunt and inform staff that inmates have limited rights under the Constitution. Period. A correctional officer may not agree with the courts but must adhere to case law standards and statutes. Trainers should engage officers in frank and open discussions about denial of medical and mental health care, inmate safety and not using excessive force.
  2. Ego: Having a patch on your arm and a badge on your chest does not mean you are God. Trainers must stress that inmates are people. Empathy and compassion, combined with guarded skepticism, will keep correctional officers on firm ground. Acting like a know-it-all and treating inmates as sub-human must be shown to be career-ending.
  3. Manipulation: Training in inmate manipulation must begin at the recruit level and be regularly offered at in-service training. Inmates target staff with weak ethics who do not adhere to policy and procedures. Instructors must help correctional officers understand that inmates are not their friends. Underscore the danger of revealing personal information to inmates. Help officers understand the difference between professional empathy and becoming involved personally.
  4. Social media: Many correctional employees have a presence on social media platforms, but that does not mean they have a blank check to post whatever they want. Trainers and supervisors need to reinforce the risk of forfeiting “an otherwise promising career for a few moments of posting euphoria,” including what they think are funny remarks or photos. Law enforcement officers, including corrections, are held to a higher standard than civilians in the private sector. Trainers and supervisors should provide correctional officers with examples of inappropriate and unethical posts, including those that glorify guns and the use of force, depict alcohol abuse or intoxication, or show bias or prejudice toward protected classes. Also inappropriate are messages that bash the department or agency leaders. The bottom line? Think before you click!

Do the Right Thing

Ethics are moral choices—it comes down to doing the right thing. Corrections professionals who practice good ethics are careful with actions, beliefs, conduct and self-discipline. How we are raised, our beliefs, our home life, the way we are trained and how we handle stress all have an impact on our ethics. The best way not to backslide is to follow the Constitution, federal and state statues, and the agency’s policies and procedures. Keep your ego in check, guard against manipulation and think before posting on social media. Being professional means avoiding corruption and not shirking from our responsibilities, no matter how difficult.


  1. Goodman D (2008). Enforcing Ethics: A Scenario-Based Workbook for Police and Correctional Recruits and Officers, Third Edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. Weinblatt R. (2017) Top 10 social networking tips for cops. Police1. Accessed 12/13/21 from

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 jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs, planning/ policy and classification. Gary is an independent freelance correctional author and trainer. He has taught corrections courses for George Mason University since 1986, 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. Gary is the author of several books, including The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, The American Jail: Cornerstone of Modern Corrections, The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, and Stressed Out: Strategies for Living and Working in Corrections.

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