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How to Prevent Correctional Officer Corruption

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Employees working in the correctional system often tolerate conditions that deviate from ideal norms. Violence, drug-dealing and bribery have and will continue to be part of the criminal subculture in prisons for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, this environment of corruption may rub off on correctional officers that are sworn to enforce the law. Anti-corruption policies and procedures may prevent or roll back a significant degree of misconduct.

Establish a code of ethics for correctional officers. The code should set a standard above ordinary morality since commitment to quality law enforcement work involves greater demands than just being a decent person. When developing this code, refer to the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics, published by the International Association of Chiefs of Police. It already contains a great deal of information that can be modified for use in an ethics code for corrections officers.

Establish a set of rules with specific prohibitions, sanctions and procedures for trying corrections officers suspected of misconduct. Make sure these rules comply with applicable state and federal laws. Particular areas of concern involve accepting gratuities, false testimony, brutality, as well as sex or sleeping on duty. Not every offense is an instance of corruption but most of them may lead to corruption. For instance, a small gift from a prisoner to a guard may not constitute a bribe but it can lead to systematic kickbacks down the road. For egregious instances of misconduct, develop a mechanism and standard for when a case should be referred to a District Attorney for formal criminal prosecution.

Set up an investigative committee to search for and punish instances of corruption. Internal policing should be balanced carefully. Too much vigilance may reduce the morale of officers who are already performing a stressful job. Too little will make the anti-corruption effort look toothless and officers will not have significant enough disincentive from giving in to temptation. Either way, be prepared to negotiate with a correctional officers’ union about how to conduct investigations. They may complain of unnecessary intrusion in the workplace.

Identify and monitor officers suspected of corruption. Officers with tattoos such as stars on their wrists or necks may be indicating an affiliation or rank in a prison gang. Background checks on correctional officers also may be an effective way of uncovering gang ties and a history of unethical behavior. If an officer appears to be corrupt, open an investigation.


Noel Lawrence has written on cultural affairs and cinema for Release Print and OtherZine since 2000. He holds a graduate degree in Russian literature from Stanford University and currently lives in Los Angeles.

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