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Ethical Issues for Correctional Professionals

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The world of law enforcement professionals and criminal perpetrators may appear black and white on its face. Prison guards and wardens keep the bad guys off the street. However, the reality involves many shades of gray. Correctional workers face many ethical challenges in their chosen profession. Though few choose a career in law enforcement with the intent of exploiting the system for their own benefit, the complex reality of prison life often can lead the best of corrections workers astray.


Prisons are unsafe workplaces by their very nature. Guards must be wary of an environment in which assaults and murders may be commonplace events. Officers, obviously, have the upper hand in a correctional facility. They carry live ammunition and may be posted in a tower, far removed from the tumult of the yard. At the same time, the perpetual threat to their safety may tempt them to overcompensate when dealing with unruly inmates. A Taser may be employed instead of a reprimand. Fists may be answered with bullets. Worse yet, a warden may conceal embarrassing conduct by prison workers to avoid legal scrutiny. While bending the rules may work in the short term, it ultimately tarnish the credibility of the prison system as a whole.


Prisoners often smuggle items prohibited on the inside, such as liquor and cell phones. Scoring drugs in prison is not much harder than obtaining them on the street. The black market of a prison cannot run effectively without the deliberate oversight -- if not actual cooperation -- of its guards. Leaders of prison gangs often bribe correctional workers to look the other way. Since this form of corruption often appears to be a victimless crime, that only make it all the more tempting to prison officials. Corruption can be a two-way street. For instance, a male guard in a female institution may trade privileges for sex with his inmates.


Like police, correctional officers often heed a code of silence. A guard will not “rat” on another guard when he does something wrong. Fellow officers will ostracize anyone caught talking to a representative of a prison reform group. Given the dangers of the job, a sense of solidarity develops among corrections professionals. While camaraderie is a virtue, a sense of “us versus them” often will lead to brutality, corruption or reluctance to make needed changes in a prison.

Equal Treatment

Like kids in a classroom, some prisoners will be more likable than others. Some will be funny. Some will be angry. Others may be violent. However, correctional workers must apply the rules to all inmates equally. Further, they should be no more helpful to harmful to one prisoner than another. Unequal treatment not only will breed resentment among guards and themselves but inconsistency weakens a prison’s ability to maintain order. Prisoners will break rules if they think the guards like them too much to raise a fuss.


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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