Unethical staff behavior: good correctional managers can help staff succeed.
Unethical behavior can occur in many different situations and involve many different types of behavior. Described below are case studies involving on-duty misconduct, off-duty misconduct and investigative violations. The discussions following the cases are offered to stimulate conversation, but are by no means the only possible solutions or courses of action to take. Rather, administrators should follow their own agencies' codes of conduct and be guided by their own moral compasses.
On-Duty Misconduct Case #1
The situation: An inmate being escorted to the lieutenant's office broke from the escorting officers to discard a shank he was carrying. While being restrained, the inmate kicked one of the officers in the face, but control was quickly re-established. While being shaken down before entering the detention area of the institution, and while handcuffed behind his back, the inmate attempted to kick the officer who was pat-searching him. One of the escorting officers slapped the restrained inmate with an open hand on the side of the head. Another staff member objected in the presence of the inmate to the procedures being employed and his objections resulted in another officer pushing the complaining officer away from the area.
Questions for discussion:
1. You are assigned to find out what happened. How would you go about it?
2. Could things have been handled differently to prevent this from happening?
3. Would additional staff training for situations such as this be beneficial?
Discussion: Conducting an investigation requires interviewing and taking statements from each staff member involved in a given situation. From these statements, a picture of what happened begins to form. Often, there are two conflicting sides to each situation. This is where corroborative evidence helps de-termine which version of events to believe. In situations such as this, the supervisor must step in and take charge. Had the supervisor taken control of the situation earlier, after the first assault, subsequent events may not have occurred.
The situation: Two employees who have worked together in a correctional facility's personnel office for the past three years have always gotten along. Both employees are considered stable and competent workers who get the job done. Although there have been some minor disagreements in the office, nothing major has ever happened until yesterday.
Yesterday, one of the employees went to the coffeepot and found it empty. This employee accused the other employee of purposely drinking the last cup of coffee without making a new pot. A verbal altercation began and quickly escalated into a physical confrontation with the employees striking each other.
Questions for discussion:
1. What happened here? How would you determine who was responsible."
2. Were there any warning signs that may have indicated that a problem was "brewing"?
3. How would you go about ensuring that a similar situation does not occur in the future?
Discussion: The facts of this case are often very familiar to supervisors. Individuals have concerns and problems that they may bring to work. Supervisors must be aware of these concerns and make sure that personal situations do not impact the workplace.
As before, the supervisor must step in and defuse these situations or they may explode and call for official action.
The situation: A laundry plant foreman who works at a medium security correctional facility has always wanted more out of his law enforcement career. He has made it clear that he eventually wants a badge and a gun. In fact, he applied for a job as a deputy sheriff with a local sheriff's office, but he was not selected due to his poor eyesight.
However, this minor setback has not deterred the employee from pursuing his ambition to work in local law enforcement. He has a cousin who is a sheriff's deputy and, on occasion, his cousin has permitted him to ride along in his patrol car. One evening, when the employee was riding with his cousin, they became involved in a high-speed chase involving a car full of teen-agers, ages 16 to 18. This high-speed chase included speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour and finally resulted in the sheriff's deputy firing several shots into the car he was chasing. All of the deputy's actions were in violation of the sheriff's department's operating procedures.
At the hospital, where the occupants of the car were taken due to injuries they sustained when their car ran off the road, the deputy, as well as the laundry plant foreman, were arrested by state police on numerous charges, including attempted murder and reckless endangerment.
Questions for discussion:
1. After the employee contacts you, his supervisor, how do you propose telling your boss about what happened?
2. What do you believe is your agency's policy on such off-duty activities?
3. What is the appropriate action to take to resolve this matter?
Discussion: Supervisors often must take bad news to their bosses. At these times, the boss wants to know what happened. Supervisors must be accountable for their employees and be prepared to explain their employees' behavior both on and off the job.
Off-duty misconduct reflects back to the correctional institution because the public holds correctional workers to a certain standard. A connection does exist between the off-duty unethical activities of correctional workers and their ability to do their jobs.
In this case, the poor judgment that this staff member exercised should preclude his continued employment in corrections.
The situation: The supervisor of the mechanical services area at a large, high security correctional facility is driving on a highway. With the employee is his girlfriend and his two small children. He is currently separated from his wife.
While exceeding the speed limit, the employee is pulled over by the police. During the traffic stop, the employee displays his official identification and tells the police officer that he is responding to an institution emergency. He is given a verbal warning by the police officer and allowed to go on his way.
Questions for discussion:
1. You are the employee's supervisor and the next day you receive a telephone call from the police relating the incident. What do you do with this information?
2. How do you go about instructing your staff on the proper use of their official identification?
3. What do you believe should happen to this employee?
Discussion: You report this information to your supervisor who, in turn, instructs you to investigate the incident. In addition, you are asked to develop a method of training staff on the proper use of their official identification.
A period of suspension should have the desired effect of ensuring that this employee does not misuse his official identification again.
The situation: You are residing in housing on prison grounds provided by the agency for which you work. A couple who lives next door - the husband is your employee - has had a rocky relationship in recent months. Their arguments have been increasing in frequency as well as volume. Today, while relaxing on your day off, one of the couple's children runs over to your house in a panic. The child tells you that his daddy is hurting his mommy. You rush over to the house and find the husband on the floor of the kitchen bleeding profusely. His wife stands over him with a butcher knife in her hand. You are able to talk her into giving you the knife.
An investigation conducted by local law enforcement results in two conflicting stories. The wife claims that she picked up the butcher knife to defend herself after her husband attempted to cut her with a knife he took from the kitchen sink. The husband relates that he and his wife had an argument and that he struck his wife with his fist. Without warning, she picked up the butcher knife from the kitchen sink and stabbed him several times.
Questions for discussion:
1. The police are seeking your guidance in resolving this matter. How do you propose to resolve the case?
2. What safeguards should be in place to prevent similar situations from occurring?
3. What is your final decision in this case? Whom do you believe? What does the evidence suggest?
Discussion: As before, you have two conflicting statements about what occurred. And as before, as an investigator in this situation, you must seek to uncover any and all evidence that will lead you to a logical conclusion.
In this situation, the child provided key evidence of who was the aggressor, which resulted in the arrest and prosecution of the employee for spousal abuse.
The situation: A new correctional employee and his wife go to a social occasion at another employee's house.
During the party, several of the employees and their spouses pass a marijuana cigarette around the den. When he sees this activity, the employee and his wife abruptly leave. On the drive home, his wife inquires about the sudden departure and the employee tells her why. Her question (to her husband) is: "What are you going to do?"
Questions for discussion:
1. What emotions are present as the employee decides what to do?
2. What is his obligation as a correctional employee?
3. What might happen if he does nothing?
Discussion: Many emotions are involved in the decision of "the right thing to do." The staff member wants to fit in with his co-workers and be well-liked. However, he also realizes that his employer expects him to report any violations of the employee code of conduct. But the employee's wife doesn't want her husband to jeopardize his career.
If he chooses to do nothing, other events may occur that will bring the employee's inaction to light. What choices does the employee have and what can his supervisor do to assist him in doing what is right?
The situation: During a forced cell move of a disruptive inmate, the inmate's leg is broken. All of the staff involved write memorandums about what happened. In reviewing these memorandums and other documentation, it is apparent to you, the investigator, that something is not right.
During a follow-up investigation, you find evidence that the supervisor who was involved in the situation is talking to the other staff involved and encouraging them to "do the right thing." When you take your investigative results to this supervisor's boss, he tells you that the supervisor is just trying to ensure a quick resolution. Further, the supervisor's boss tells you not to worry about this matter, as the supervisor is scheduled to be promoted and moved across the state to another prison.
Questions for discussion:
1. How do you proceed with your investigation?
2. Should you take the advice given and drop the matter?
3. What do you think will happen to the supervisor in his next job assignment?
Discussion: This situation puts you, the investigator, in a dangerous situation. If you go higher up the chain of command, you run the risk of adversely affecting your career. If you do nothing and your inaction becomes known, you run the risk of being derelict in your duties. What should you do?
The situation: You are assigned to investigate a case that involves allegations of physical abuse of an inmate after a violent confrontation.
During your investigation, several of the staff involved in the incident have given you statements that conflict with the physical evidence you have gathered. In other words, you know that someone is lying.
The challenge facing you is to determine whether to close your investigation at this point or to give these staff members a second chance to tell the truth.
Questions for discussion:
1. What is your position on continuing this investigation or closing it unresolved?
2. What motivations do staff have to lie to you during an investigation?
3. What is "the right thing to do" here?
Discussion: People do not always tell the complete truth for many reasons. In this case, some staff may think that "doing the right thing" is telling a version of the truth advantageous to their fellow employees. Some will not tell the truth anyway, because the truth will result in disciplinary action against them. A second opportunity will provide those staff attempting to "do the right thing" to tell the complete truth.
Helping Employees Succeed
The majority of people who work in correctional facilities throughout this country carry out their assigned duties on a daily basis in the highest ethical manner. However, there are individuals employed in prisons who are not so ethical.
Correctional supervisors and managers can help their staff succeed in their duties and act in an ethical manner. The following 10 suggestions may provide guidance to supervisors and staff in their day-to-day dealings with inmates. Although these suggestions do not cover every aspect of correctional work, they provide a good "umbrella" to cover staff as they do their jobs.
1. Make Sure Your Employees Know Policy. It is amazing how many correctional managers and supervisors make the assumption that their staff, particularly those staff who are on the front line supervising inmates, know the policies and procedures of the facility where they work. Never assume that staff know what they are expected to do. Managers need to ask their employees questions and determine firsthand if their employees know the established procedures of an institution. Another vital tool for managers to ensure that their employees know policy is to observe them as they walk around the facility on a daily basis.
No one needs to remind us that inmates know correctional policies and procedures better than we do. If managers don't take the time to teach staff the right way to carry out their duties, inmates inevitably will take the opportunity to do so.
2. Anything Not Inspected Is Neglected. This old prison saying is extremely relevant in pointing out that managers need to get out of their offices and inspect all areas of the prison. Staff are quick to notice when managers do not visit their work areas and as a result, they tend to neglect those parts of their jobs that they feel management does not care about.
Inmates are equally observant and watch closely to see how much attention is paid to various procedures. It is vital that managers make certain that they are equally as interested in and available to their employees as the inmates are.
3. Lead by Example. Managers who lead by example get their messages across loud and clear. Staff and inmates closely watch to determine for themselves if management's words are matched by deeds and/or examples.
If you talk about how vital and necessary ethical behavior is, but your actions send the message that you are willing to cut corners on some rules that you consider unimportant, staff will watch your example and follow in your footsteps. Nothing demoralizes staff more than managers who talk about how ethical behavior is the standard and then turn around and "lower the standard bar" for themselves or others.
This leadership-by-example also is important when managers become aware of unethical behavior. The standard that managers set cannot waver in its application to each employee. How you, as a manager, deal with unethical behavior sends a loud message to the majority of your staff who are conscientiously doing their jobs in an ethical manner.
4. Management Sets a Moral Tone. This concept goes hand-in-hand with the previous suggestion of leading by example. The moral tone or character of a correctional facility is comprised of many parts. However, the most important part is how management defines ethical behavior, what expectations for right and wrong behavior it sets, and guidelines that are offered to staff.
5. Know Your Inmate Manipulators. Make certain that staff at all levels in your facility are aware of manipulative inmates. Their prison records usually are replete with many instances of prior attempts, successful and unsuccessful, to manipulate staff.
There are several proven and effective ways to disseminate this information: posted picture files, intelligence briefings and staff recalls are a few that come to mind. Whatever method is chosen should be evaluated occasionally to ensure that staff get the message: These manipulative inmates require closer than usual observation. Beware!
6. Be Sure to Document. Another old prison saying is that if an inmate does something that a staff member observes and the staff member does not say "no" to the inmate, he or she has, in fact, said "yes." Staff who become involved in attempts by inmates to involve them in unethical behavior usually are first tested by the inmate. This test typically involves a minor rule infraction to determine if a staff member will say "no" or ignore the behavior. Unless staff say "no" and document the incident by writing a misconduct report or somehow document the attempt by other means, the path toward future unethical behavior becomes a very slippery slope indeed.
7. Take Time to Criticize and Time to Praise. Supervisors must criticize staff's work performance from time to time. However, this criticism should be clone in private, if possible, and in a way that maintains staff members' dignity.
The other side of the coin is to praise staff when their behavior warrants it. This praise should be delivered in as energetic a manner as possible and with the same degree of attention that criticism is given.
Staff closely watch to see if their supervisors take the time to tell them they care. Either criticism or praise is evidence to staff that their supervisors care about them.
8. Look With a "Third Eye." When supervisors walk around institutions, they should not only rely on their five senses, but also on their correctional "third eye," or gut reaction - the hairs on the hacks of their necks stand up, or something tells them that the pulse of the institution is just not right. When supervisors walk through institutions, they observe many things. Of these observations, many must be filtered by supervisors' experience and training to determine when they warrant further action.
9. Coaching and Mentoring Are Effective Training Tools. As a supervisor, the majority of conversations with your staff will involve giving constructive criticism and the occasional word of praise. These occasions are not enough to ensure ethical behavior by your staff.
Coaching and mentoring require supervisors to work with employees to help them see the reason for the right and wrong nature of ethical behavior. As a coach develops the talents of his team, so must a supervisor. Likewise, the supervisor must be a mentor to his staff and bring them along in the right way.
Remember, inmates are standing by to provide this needed guidance and support for those staff yearning for this attention. If they are unable to get this type of important training from you, some will not hesitate to seek it elsewhere.
10. Don't Become Complacent. Staff and supervisors often want the same thing: a quiet, uneventful shift that ends with them going home in a safe manner.
When things are going well, there is a tendency to become complacent. Inmates often contribute to this desire to have things go smoothly. They, too, do not want to "make waves."
Supervisors have an obligation to continuously check and monitor their institutions' operations to ensure nothing is taken for granted. Things may look all right, but are they?
In closing, I would like to offer one more piece of advice to those individuals who daily accomplish the dangerous and difficult mission of confining inmates. The story is told of a young man who went to see the president of the company he worked for to find out the secret of his success. When asked the question by the young man, the president replied, "right decisions." The young man pressed on and asked, "How do you make right decisions?" The president answered, "experience." "And how do you get experience?" the young man further asked. To which the president replied, "wrong decisions."
From my personal experience, I know that the right decisions I have made and the success that has resulted from those decisions have been the results of many wrong decisions. I tip my hat to those brave souls, correctional supervisors, still willing to gain experience by making right, and sometimes wrong, decisions.
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Allen, Harry E. and Clifford E. Simonsen. 1992. Corrections in America: An Introduction, Sixth Edition. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co.
American Correctional Association. 1992. Working with Manipulative Inmates. Laurel, Md.: ACA.
Fournies, Ferdinand. 1988. Why Employees Don't Do What They're Supposed to Do and What to Do About It. Blue Ridge Summit, Pa.: TAB Books Inc.
Kauffman, Kelsey. 1988 Prison Officers and Their World. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Runyon, Tom. 1953. In for Life: A Convict's Story. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. Inc.
Shostrum, Everett. 1968. Man the Manipulator. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press.
Steiner, Claude. 1974. Scripts People Live. New York: Grove Press Inc.
Torok, Lou. 1973. The Strange World of Prison. New York: The Boobs-Merrill Co. Inc.
Mark A. Henry is warden of the Federal Correctional Institution in Cumberland, Md, The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Bureau of Prisons.