Prison Corruption Essay

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Fyodor Dostoevsky stated, “The degree to which a society is civilized can be judged by entering its prisons.” Prisons, as a part of the corrections system, occupy an important position in society by carrying out criminal sentencing, increasing public safety, and maintaining a just society. Prisons serve as an institution that “corrects” those who have committed offenses against society and enforces the moral rules of society. Prisons and corrections officers are generally valued as institutions and as individuals that are trusted to serve the community. When prison officials engage in corruption, the integrity of the system as a whole becomes questionable; a corrupt institution cannot serve the purpose of correcting offenders. Conditions within the prison affect the behavior and mental status of prisoners, which then influences their actions when they return to the community. Prisoners who experience corruption by prison officials have greater difficulties reintegrating into society because of the unjust treatment in prison.

Extent of Prison Corruption

Prison corruption is a widespread problem in American jails and prisons. Bernard J. McCarthy defined corruption as violations  of organizational rules and regulations for personal gain. Some examples of corruption are receiving bribes, smuggling contraband, and fixing a ticket for an inmate. The true extent of prison corruption is unknown. Most  of the  available  information stems from media reports, inmate reports, and officers who report  corrupt behavior  by other officers. There is currently no systematic tracking of prison corruption. One explanation for the lack of data is society’s view of prisoners. Many people believe that prisoners brought their problems upon themselves because of the crimes they committed. This leads to a lack of interest in what goes on behind prison walls. Another reason for the public’s indifference is that prisons are generally not visible to them, and aren’t a part of their daily routine. Finally, administrators often turn a blind eye to corruption because they don’t want to attract negative publicity.

Forms of Corruption

According to Sam Souryal, there are three main types of corruption: acts of misfeasance, acts of malfeasance,  and acts of nonfeasance. Acts of misfeasance are a form of wrongdoing where one does something lawful in an unlawful way, so that the rights of others are infringed upon. An example of this would be a prison official signing a contract with a company  in which the company may not be the best choice for the prison, but the official profits personally from the deal. For instance,  a prison may contract with medical services that are cheap, but also inadequate. The prison official owes the inmates the duty of care, but breached that duty of care by improperly performing a legal act. This is especially problematic when prison inmates are harmed as a result.

Acts of malfeasance are more blatant acts of misconduct. Acts of malfeasance are illegal acts, such as embezzlement, stealing from the prison, trafficking contraband, extortion, and oppression of inmates. For instance, in 2010, Lloyd Nicholson and two other guards who worked at Rikers Island Jail in New York, were convicted of gang assault on teenage inmates. Nicholson admitted that he and several other correctional officers had implemented a disciplinary program that they called “The Program.” Part of The Program was to order inmates to beat other inmates as a punishment. Inmate Michael Twiggs suffered a punctured lung due to the beatings. Another inmate, 18-year-old Christopher Robinson, was beaten to death in 2008. Nicholson was sentenced to six years in prison. Two of his colleagues received sentences of two years and one year, relatively light sentences, as part of a plea bargain in which they admitted to turning a blind eye when Christopher Robinson was beaten to death by other inmates. The guards also stated that they had recruited inmates for The Program by allowing those who cooperated to extort commissary money, phone privileges, and clothes from other inmates.  Inmates who did not give up their belongings were beaten by the recruits.

Finally,  acts  of nonfeasance describe  inaction, or the failure to act when an act would have been required.  The term nonfeasance  is used in tort law and officers can be held liable if three conditions are fulfilled: (1) prison officials owed a duty of care to inmates, (2) the officer failed to act on the duty of care, and (3) the officer’s failure to act resulted in injury to the inmate. The duty of officers includes the prevention of physical harm, such as assault or rape, to inmates. Other examples include not reporting misconduct by other officers or looking the other way when contraband is smuggled into the prison. A prominent example of acts of nonfeasance committed by correctional officers is the problem of inmate-on-inmate violence. One of the most scarring and inherently evil acts of violence is rape. According to the national inmate survey from 2012, 4 percent of inmates of state and federal prisons have been raped or sexually victimized by another inmate, and 1.6 percent of jail inmates (11,900) reported being sexually assaulted by another inmate.

Acts of nonfeasance are the most common type of corruption in prisons, and are the hardest type of corruption to prove. Acts of nonfeasance contribute to an atmosphere in which corruption is acceptable  within  the prison  work  environment. Officers typically claim that they did not know about the illegal activities going on. Officers very rarely report code violations by other officers because  “whistle-blowers” are treated as enemies by coworkers and administrators. Whistle-blowers often  face great  professional and personal  risks associated  with exposing a corrupt individual, group, or agency. These risks include loss of employment and benefits, problems with  securing  future  employment within the same occupational field, and being ostracized and/or terrorized by coworkers.

Explanations of Prison Corruption

Corruption often begins with minor  offenses, which then become more serious and can spiral out of control, as was the case in the 2013 Maryland jail scandal in which the Federal Bureau of Investigation indicted 13 state correctional officers for assisting Black Guerrilla Family gang members in their drug dealing and money laundering schemes. There is no single explanation of why some officers engage in corruption while others do not. Research shows that character is not necessarily a predictor of corrupt behavior; neither is the absence or presence of an ethical boss. There are multiple factors that contribute to corruption within prisons. These factors are related to the environmental and social forces inherent in the prison culture.

Sociopsychological Factors

Lucien X. Lombardo argues that prison guards, like prisoners, are captives. They are contained in the artificial, violent, and crowded prison environment. Guards  and inmates  alike are aware of the constant threat of harm to themselves and others. Guards are heavily outnumbered by prisoners and must use their authority to keep order and ensure a safe environment. The guards are required  to make decisions about  which privileges prisoners will receive by forming an opinion about the behavior of the inmates. Guards also have the power to remove privileges as a form of punishment. These decisions are highly discretionary and carry low public visibility. It is the nature of this captor-captive relationship and the low visibility that leads to corruption.

One of the most influential  studies on the impact  of the prison  environment on correctional  officers and  inmates  was the Stanford prison experiment by Phillip Zimbardo in 1971. The experiment involved a group of Stanford University students who were randomly divided into “guards” and “inmates” and left in an artificial prison environment in the basement of the university. After only a day the “guards” started to harass and manipulate the “inmates.” The leader of the mock guards took on the role of the tough guy and tried to “break” the inmates. All other  officers followed  his lead,  even if they disagreed with his methods. Several mock inmates had to be removed from the experiment due to severe psychological problems caused by the “prison environment.” The main conclusion of Zimbardo’s experiment was that anyone can become corrupted when confronted with certain situational forces and group dynamics. He called that phenomenon the “Lucifer Effect”.

In addition, the prison environment has changed in many places from the traditional linear design to a direct supervision design in the form of pods. The direct supervision environment puts inmates and officers in closer proximity, which can increase the emotional transference between them. Increased emotional transference may contribute to corruption in the form of bribes and doing favors. Kevin Gilmartin and Russell Davis refer to this as Correctional Officer Stockholm Syndrome. Officers begin to identify with the inmates because of the greater isolation from coworkers and the close proximity to inmates.

In this environment, guards may shift loyalty to the inmates and engage in minor rule infractions to make life easier for their people. These minor infractions could be bringing extra food, candy, or other goods into the pod, and the officer may not perceive these favors as rule violations. Over time, however, infractions usually become more serious. This puts the officer in a vulnerable position, and the threat of inmates snitching on him may force him to continue doing favors. Inmates who are now in a position of power may ask for favors such as smuggling in drugs, cell phones, and other contraband. Thus, a naïve officer may be a greater risk for corruption in a direct-supervision jail because of the lack of the presence of other more experienced officers.

Organizational Factors

Neal Trautman attributes prison corruption to a lack of leadership, accountability, and training. He states that too many departments have poor hiring and training  standard, and lack quality role models for new hires. As a result the new recruits  adopt  unethical  behaviors  and accept them as normal.  Interference from administrators and politicians also increases prison corruption, leading to a lowering of hiring standards, unfair promotion practices, and inconsistent accountability. Employees who experience misconduct  by  their  supervisors,  unfair  promotion practices,  and inconsistent accountability will likely become angry and bitter toward the department. As a result, they rationalize their own misconduct as justified. This is exacerbated when employers ignore the personal needs of the corrections officers. Many departments struggle to retain their employees because of the high-stress environment and the lack of positive experiences. Retention is also low if promotion is not based on quality but rather  on political decisions. If those promoted to work as supervisors are not the best and brightest, the morale among employees deteriorates and rationalization of corruption increases.

Finally, lack of courage contributes to corruption. Officers and administrators alike ignore misconduct. The guards learn in the training academy that they have to work together and “have each other’s backs” to keep order in the prison, since they are outnumbered by the inmates. Guards become part of an organization that emphasizes loyalty to the organization rather than to morality and professionalism. Similar to police officers, corrections officers follow a code of silence, and snitches become enemies. The adherence to “the Code” ensures that corrupt officers are not exposed, and inmates have little chance of finding witnesses for assaults against them if guards were directly or indirectly involved.

Preventing Corruption

A major concern regarding the topic of prison corruption is how to minimize it. Trautman proposes  several  solutions  to  prison  corruption. First, prisons must ensure quality recruitment  and  background  investigation, because past behavior is often the best predictor of future behavior. Also, prisons should provide a high-quality field training program to ensure that new recruits  understand the ethical issues involved in their job and create a positive culture. The institution should provide fair and consistent accountability as it is one of the most effective ways to prevent unethical and corrupt behaviors. Prisons should conduct effective career survival training  that  includes  ethical-dilemma simulations because they will help store the learned material in the long-term memory. Also, supervisors must be positive role models, since they act as trainers, counselors, and mentors for all prison employees. They need to prevent officers from becoming angry and bitter because that is a major rationalization and impetus for engaging in corruption. Prisons should implement an effective employee intervention program that enables the early detection of corrupt behavior via performance tracking and internal training. Prisons should make character and moral standards the most important considerations for promotion. Finally, prison officials must have the courage to acknowledge and resolve integrity needs.


  1. Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The House of the Dead. David McDuff, trans. 1860. New York: Penguin, 1985.
  2. Gilmartin, Kevin M. and Russell M. Davis. “The Correctional Officer Stockholm Syndrome: Management Implications.” National Institute of Corrections. First Annual Symposium on Now Generation Jails, 2006.
  3. Karoliszyn, Henrick and Larry McShane. “Rikers Island Correction Officers Get Short Jail Terms for Role in 18-Year-Old Inmate’s Death.” New York Daily News (January 17, 2012).
  4. Lombardo, Lucien X. Guards Imprisoned: Correctional Officers at Work, 2nd ed. Cincinnati, OH: Anderson, 1989.
  5. Sabol, William J. “Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails Reported by Inmates, 2011–12.” Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, 2013.
  6. Souryal, Sam S. “Deterring Corruption by Prison Personnel: A Principle-Based Perspective.” Prison Journal, v.89/1 (2009).
  7. “Stopping the Cellphones That Foster Jailhouse Corruption.” Baltimore Sun (May 12, 2013).
  8. Trautman, Neal. “How and Why a Department or Jail Becomes Corrupt.” National Institute of Ethics. (Accessed September 2013).

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