Expert Commentary

Inmate relationships with prison staff: Research roundup

2015 collection of studies and reports focusing on inappropriate relationships between inmates and prison employees, anti-fraternization policies and growth in the number of female prison guards.

During a routine bed check in June 2015, guards at the Clinton Correctional Facility in New York discovered that two inmates had vanished. Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped the state’s largest maximum-security prison, triggering a manhunt by federal and local authorities. Authorities believed the men had help escaping and, by the end of June, arrested two people they said were accomplices. News agencies reported that the two alleged accomplices were a corrections officer and a supervisor in the prison tailor shop. The high-profile break-out shed light on the problematic relationships that can develop between inmates and prison staff within the American correctional system.

Typically, concerns about inmate-employee relationships center on physical violence and sexual abuse. A report from the Correctional Association of New York, for example, pointed out that the Clinton facility has an “infamous history of violence, brutality, and abuse by correction officers, as well as unrest, violence, organizing, and lawsuits by people incarcerated at the facility.” In the report, which focused on the years 2012 to 2014, officials wrote that they are “deeply concerned” about the level of alleged violence and abuse at the prison and made a number of recommendations for changes.

Sometimes, as prisoners and employees come into contact with one another, relationships become sexual, whether consensual or not. In 2014, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report indicating a significant increase in the number of times inmates who alleged they had been a victim of sexual abuse, harassment or violence. About half of the allegations made in 2011 involved staff sexual misconduct or sexual harassment directed toward inmates. Only about 10% of all allegations made that year were substantiated based on follow-up investigations.

Authorities warn that sexual interactions can lead to other types of misconduct among prison personnel. A U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) report in 2009 noted that employees who work at federal prisons and who have sexual relationships with inmates can be subject to extortion demands and could be pressured more easily to violate prison rules. “Compromised personnel who have been found to have sexually abused prisoners also have been found to have provided contraband to prisoners, accepted bribes, lied to federal investigators, and committed other serious crimes as a result of their sexual involvement with federal prisoners,” the report states.

One factor that has contributed to the trend is the growing number of female prison staff, note law professor Brenda V. Smith and research fellow Melissa C. Loomis, both of American University. Since the 1970s, the number of female prison staff has risen significantly. Smith and Loomis, citing data released in 2011 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), wrote that female employees commit 61% of acts of staff sexual misconduct and 21% of acts of staff harassment. The BJS collected information from federal and state prisons as well as correctional facilities run by tribal governments, the U.S. military and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice found that female staff members made up about 27% of the Federal Bureau of Prisons workforce alone and that those female employees were involved in 30% to 39% of sexual allegations made by inmates within that prison system.

Writing about inmate-employee relationships can be difficult, considering the complexity of the issue and the complexity of the nation’s correctional systems in general. The following studies and papers offer insight into this topic, including anti-fraternization policies and changes in prison-guard demographics.


“After Dothard: Female Correctional Workers and the Challenge to Employment Law
Smith, Brenda V.; Loomis, Melissa C. Florida International University Law Review, 2013.

Abstract: “This article examines a profession where women have made great strides — corrections. Using an equality framework, corrections and other non-traditional professions were the first target of the feminist movement in the 1970s. By and large, feminists were successful in creating greater porosity for women in law enforcement, emergency services, corrections, and the military. While women have entered these traditionally masculine spaces, they still suffer from an achievement gap. They are still underrepresented in leadership positions and marginalized in these settings; are still the targets of discrimination based on race, gender, and perceived sexual orientation; and are less likely than men to hold these positions and be married.

Women’s entry into correctional spaces has had several unintended consequences. First, it has complicated the experiences of other marginalized groups in those institutions. In particular, women’s progress in correctional institutions has increased female inmates’ exposure to supervision by male staff, which places them at greater risk for sexual victimization. Second, it has diminished privacy of both male and female inmates in custodial settings. Third, it has resulted in female correctional employees’ disproportionate involvement in prohibited intimate contact with male inmates and youth in custody. These sexual interactions have resulted variously in termination, resignation, prosecution, procreation, and litigation; complicating feminist theories of power, consent, and equality. Finally, it has complicated key employment law jurisprudence.”


“Anti-Fraternization Polices and their Utility in Preventing Staff Sexual Abuse in Custody”
Smith, Brenda V.; Loomis, Melissa C. Report from the American University, Washington College of Law Project on Addressing Prison Rape, May 2013.

Summary: “Many custodial facilities have implemented anti-fraternization policies that regulate contact between staff and inmates. These policies either limit, or altogether prohibit, interactions between employees and current or former inmates and their families. Correctional employees who are adversely affected by their agency’s anti-fraternization policies most often challenge these polices under the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to freedom of association. Courts generally uphold the agency’s anti-fraternization policy against such challenges, and cite the agency’s interest in maintaining a safe and secure facility. This document provides an overview of how courts across various jurisdictions have responded to employees’ challenges to anti-fraternization policies. Cases are organized according to cases upholding agency anti-fraternization policies or cases not upholding agency anti-fraternization policies by Circuit and its related states.”


Does the Front Line Reflect the Party Line? The Politicization of Punishment and Prison Officers’ Perspectives towards Incarceration”
Lerman, Amy E.; Page, Joshua. British Journal of Criminology, June 2015. doi: doi:10.1093/bjc/azv061.

Abstract: “Imprisonment policy has become increasingly politicized since the mid-1960s, but we do not yet know the consequence of this shift for the professional orientations of prison workers. In this article, we use original surveys of prison officers in California and Minnesota to assess whether and how partisan identification and the politicization of crime policy predict officers’ conceptualizations of the purpose and function of prisons. Results show that individual partisanship is associated with officers’ attitudes, but this is conditional on state context. Along with deepening understandings about the determinants of street-level bureaucrats’ perspectives, this article advances knowledge about how the broader political environment might shape the attitudes of front-line workers. This is important because prison officers’ perspectives affect their workplace behaviour with consequences for staff–prisoner relationships, policy implementation and the routine operations of penal facilities.”


The State of the Job: An Embedded Work Role Perspective on Prison Officer Attitudes”
Lerman, Amy E.; Page, Joshua. Punishment & Society, December 2012. doi: 10.1177/1462474512464135.

Abstract: “Although the United States has grown increasingly punitive in the last three decades, there is considerable variation across states. On a variety of indicators, California is much more punitive than Minnesota. Using data from two original, large-N surveys, we analyze whether these differences in the orientations of state correctional systems are reflected in the attitudes of workers who are tasked with the day-to-day oversight of state prisons. With respect to the purpose of imprisonment, we find that California prison officers are significantly more punitive than those in Minnesota. In contrast, officers in each state express similar levels of support for basic rehabilitation programs. Based on these findings, we propose an embedded work role perspective, which posits that officers across states reflect a shared position within the prison organization, but that the prisons in which they work are embedded in broader penal and political environments that predict differences in attitudes across state contexts. This conceptualization of prison officer orientations has implications for policymakers, prison administrators, and scholars concerned with the politics and practice of work and incarceration.”


“When Boundaries are Broken: Inmate Perceptions of Correctional Staff Boundary Violations”
Blackburn, Ashley G.; Fowler, Shannon K.; Mullings, Janet L.; Marquart, James W. Deviant Behavior, Vol. 32, Issue 4, 2011. doi: 10.1080/01639621003748837.

Abstract: “Boundary violations via inappropriate behaviors committed by correctional staff can cause many problems for prison administrators. This study examines gender differences in inmate perceptions of staff boundary violations. Findings revealed male inmates were significantly more supportive of officers’ boundary violations. Younger inmates, Hispanic inmates, and those that had completed high school were also more supportive of staff inappropriate behavior. It is recommended that officers adopt a “firm but fair” orientation to deal with inmates and, within that framework, use gendered strategies to better interact with and empower women inmates. It is also suggested that agencies adopt effective measures to train staff and educate inmates regarding boundary violations.”



“Recommendations for Correctional Leaders to Reduce Boundary Violations: Female Correctional Employees and Male Inmates”
Jones, Susan J. Women & Criminal Justice, July 2015. doi: 10.1080/08974454.2014.989301.

Abstract: “The correctional profession continues to report boundary-violating behavior by correctional employees with inmates, such as aiding an inmate in an escape and engaging in sexual contact with an inmate. These criminal behaviors obviously threaten the safety within the institutions and the community; however, these types of actions are normally preceded by minor boundary crossings within the institution. Therefore, all types of boundary violations and crossings between an inmate and an employee must be examined and eliminated. This article offers correctional leaders recommendations for organizational change that may reduce the number of boundary violations and crossings between female employees and male inmates. These recommendations are built on a larger qualitative study that used portraiture methodology, by interviewing 4 former female correctional employees who developed relationships with male inmates.”


Prison Guard Predators: An Analysis of Inmates who Established Inappropriate Relationships with Prison Staff, 1995-1998
Worley, Robert; Marquart, James W.; Mullings, Janet L. Deviant Behavior, Vol. 24, Issue 2, 2003. doi: 10.1080/01639620390117237.

Abstract: “Recently, media accounts have shed light on a number of correctional employees who were terminated for engaging in ‘inappropriate relationships’ with prisoners. This study employed face-to-face interviews of 32 inmate ‘turners’ who were investigated for engaging in inappropriate relationships with security officers. We found that many inmate manipulators share similar attitudes and beliefs regarding inappropriate relationships. Our findings indicate that there are three distinct types of inmate ‘turners,’ each exhibiting an entirely different set of motivations and behavior from one another. We conclude that inmates are very persistent in attempting to initiate an inappropriate relationship with prison employees.”


Key words: Research roundup, inmate, escape, sexual abuse, sex crime, female prison guard

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