Why Do Correctional Officers Have Inappropriate Relationships With Inmates?

by | December 8, 2023

If you pay attention to the news, you’ll notice how often it happens. A female inmate gets pregnant, and the father turns out to be a correctional officer (CO) at the facility. An inmate on the lam is discovered hiding out with a CO who helped him escape. The source of contraband in an institution turns out to be a corrections officer, who just happens to be carrying on a physical relationship with the inmate who’s distributing the illicit goods.

So, this begs the question: Why do correctional officers have inappropriate relationships with inmates?

Unfortunately, there’s no simple answer to this question. The reasons inappropriate relationships develop between correctional officers and the inmates they supervise can vary depending on the individuals involved and the circumstances surrounding the relationships. However, some factors that can contribute to such relationships include:

  1. Power dynamics: In some cases, corrections officers may find themselves attracted to inmates due to the imbalance of power that exists between them. As a person in authority, the corrections officer may feel a sense of control or influence over the inmate, which may lead to inappropriate behavior.
  2. Emotional vulnerability: Serving time is difficult — physically and emotionally. Inmates may become emotionally vulnerable due to their circumstances, and corrections officers may step in to provide comfort and support for the inmates in their care. This can lead to feelings of attraction or even emotional intimacy.
  3. Personal issues: Like anyone else, corrections officers may find themselves facing personal issues that can impact their judgment. Struggles with mental health, substance abuse, or outside personal relationships may cause an officer to be more susceptible to establishing an inappropriate relationship with an inmate.
  4. Lack of training or supervision: In some cases, a corrections officer may engage in inappropriate behavior due to poor training or supervision. Correctional facilities must provide adequate training to their staff on appropriate boundaries and behavior and must have mechanisms in place to monitor and prevent inappropriate behavior.
  5. Organizational culture: The culture within a facility or organization can also contribute to the development of inappropriate relationships — especially if there is a tolerance for rule-breaking and a failure to hold those who violate the rules accountable for their actions.

It’s important for correctional facilities to set forth clear policies and procedures and to provide adequate training and oversight to prevent such behavior from occurring. When inappropriate relationships are discovered between facility staff and inmates, facility leadership should discipline and/or remove the staff members, conditional on the severity of the infractions.

Legal Prohibitions Against Officer-Inmate Relationships

A nonprofessional relationship between a member of corrections staff and an inmate is a serious ethical breach. (Some have compared it to the ethical lapse that occurs when doctors or therapists become intimate with their patients.) In mild cases, these relationships can create awkwardness and favoritism, which can cause problems with others incarcerated in the same facility. In severe cases, especially when a physical relationship develops, it can prompt behaviors that endanger the security of inmates and the safety of other staff members.

The power dynamic between COs and inmates is such that any sexual relations between them automatically constitutes sexual abuse. According to a 2009 report from the Department of Justice, “Under the federal criminal code, consent by a prisoner is never a legal defense because of the inherently unequal positions of prisoners and correctional and law enforcement staff who control many aspects of prisoners’ lives.”

The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) is a federal law passed in 2003 with the goal of preventing, detecting and responding to sexual abuse and harassment in correctional facilities. The law applies to all types of correctional facilities, including jails, prisons, juvenile detention centers and immigration detention centers — regardless of whether the facility is run by local, state, federal or private agencies.

PREA sets standards for the prevention, detection and response to sexual abuse, and requires facilities to develop and implement policies and procedures to address sexual abuse and harassment. The law also established the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission and mandated the development of national standards for the prevention and detection of and response to sexual abuse in correctional facilities.

It’s worth noting that, while inmates can’t consent to a sexual relationship with a corrections officer or other member of staff, some actively try to cultivate them. The reason: manipulation. Inmates know the rules as well as staff members, and they know if an officer is compromised, they could be coerced into providing favors and services, providing contraband and more.

How Common Are Inappropriate Jailhouse Relationships?

It’s impossible to know for certain exactly how often inappropriate relationships with inmates and jail staff occur. The most recent figures come from a national survey conducted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) in 2011-2012. That survey revealed that:

  • An estimated 3.2% of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by facility staff or another inmate in the past 12 months or since admission to the facility, if less than 12 months.
  • About 1.8% of jail inmates reported an incident of sexual victimization by a member of staff.
  • Rates of victimization were higher among males than females, higher among Black inmates than white inmates, and higher among inmates ages 20 to 24 than among those age 35 or older.
  • Inmates with serious psychological distress reported high rates of staff sexual victimization.
  • Inmates who reported their sexual orientation as gay, lesbian, bisexual or other were among those with the highest rates of sexual victimization. Among non-heterosexual inmates, 4.3% of jail inmates reported being victimized by staff. This held true for each demographic subgroup (sex, race or Hispanic origin, age and education).
  • Among the 358 jails in the survey, just 34 had no reported incidents of sexual victimization.

The varied rates of inappropriate sexual behavior between facilities highlighted in the DOJ report serve as a reminder of the importance of facility leadership in preventing inappropriate relationships between corrections staff and inmates. Sound policy and good management can make a profound difference in keeping these relationships from developing.

Danger Signs of Inappropriate Relationships

Corrections leaders must be constantly on the lookout for the “red flags” that may indicate a CO may be susceptible to developing an illicit relationship with an inmate. According to corrections healthcare expert Dr. Lorry Schoenly, these are the inappropriate relationship warning signs to watch for in facility staff:

  1. Personal troubles. Whether it’s divorce, family strife, money struggles or some other conflict, personal trouble can make a corrections officer open to the possibility of a relationship with an inmate. During in-service training, facility managers should emphasize that getting peer support or professional counselling is much better than opening up about personal worries to an incarcerated person under their supervision.
  2. Performing favors. Inmates will often ask for “little” favors as a way to test whether a CO is corruptible. They’ll study an officer’s reaction and determine whether it might be productive to ask again. Knowing the facility’s policies and setting firm boundaries can go a long way toward helping officers avoid the temptation to please an inmate with favors and benefits.
  3. Looking for opportunities to contact. If a CO finds themselves looking forward to seeing or interacting with an inmate, that’s a major concern. Reviewing the rules and regulations regarding what’s allowed and what’s not allowed can help redirect an officer who may be considering crossing a line or two. As Dr. Schoenly notes, “If you find yourself attracted to a particular inmate, ask for a re-assignment immediately.” If corrections leaders suspect a CO is developing a “crush” on an inmate, taking action is imperative.
  4. Notes, letters, emails. Simply put, any written communication between a corrections officer and an inmate is a bad idea. It’s a sign of bad choices in the future, and it’s almost definitely against facility policy. Officers need to be reminded that handing off a note to an inmate is a disciplinary issue.
  5. Making contact. Obviously, physical contact that goes beyond job-related duties is always out of bounds. Behavior like this should be reported immediately to a supervisor.

Maintaining Ethical Boundaries

Dr. Schoenly provides a helpful list of questions COs should ask themselves regarding potentially inappropriate relationships with inmates:

  • Is the behavior consistent with your profession’s ethical code?
  • Is the behavior consistent with organizational policy?
  • Is the behavior consistent with your duty to always act in the best interest of the inmate and staff?
  • Is this a behavior you would want other people to know you have engaged in with an inmate?

Obviously, if a corrections officer answers no to any of these questions when contemplating any action regarding an inmate incarcerated in their facility, that should serve as a wakeup call to change their behavior.

Conclusion

The relationships between correctional officers and inmates should be strictly professional and based on respect and safety. Correctional officers have the responsibility to maintain safety and security within the facility and ensure inmates are treated humanely and with dignity. They are not permitted to engage in any form of sexual or romantic relationships with inmates, as this is a violation of professional boundaries and a breach of ethical conduct.

Unfortunately, inappropriate relationships between correctional officers and inmates do occur. When they do, leaders must act swiftly to curb the behavior and take the appropriate disciplinary steps. Anything compromises the safety and security of the facility.

CHRISTOPHER J. MUNLEY has served as a deputy director of public safety for the Sandy Pines Recreational Community in Hopkins, Mich., since 2019. He is a former U.S. Department of Justice-certified Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) auditor, providing policy consultation, development and auditing services to adult prisons and jails, lockups, and community confinement facilities. In 1996, Christopher began working at the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office in West Olive, Mich., retiring as a sergeant and operations supervisor with the Ottawa County Sheriff's Office Correctional Facility in December 2018. He is a military veteran who served a combined 13 years in the US Army, the US Army Reserves and the US National Guard. Christopher is a graduate of the Northwestern University School of Police Staff and Command and a certified “gang expert” through the National Gang Crime Research Center (NGCRC) in Chicago. In August of 2011, the NGCRC presented Christopher with the prestigious Frederic Milton Thrasher award for Superior Accomplishments in Gang/Security Threat Group Intelligence and investigations. Christopher is also a past president of the Michigan Chapter of the Midwest Gang Investigators Association. He joined the Lexipol team as a content developer in December 2018.

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