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Confronting staff substance abuse.

A few years ago two transfer officers from Georgia State Prison, a maximum security facility, were transporting an inmate from the facility to a medical treatment prison about 200 miles away. En route, the inmate freed himself from

his restraints with a handcuff key he had concealed, drew a small caliber, derringer-type weapon, and pointed it at the head of one of the officers.

The inmate told the officers that he was commandeering the vehicle and if they did not follow his instructions he would kill them. Knowing the inmate had a history of escapes, with one involving gunfire, the officers went along with his demands. After ordering them to throw their weapons out of the vehicle, the inmate instructed them to turn onto a narrow side road. In an uninhabited area, he ordered them to stop the vehicle and get out. The inmate then handcuffed the officers and made his escape on foot.

When the vehicle did not arrive at the medical institution and the officers did not respond to repeated radio calls, a statewide alert was posted and a search initiated. The officers were found a few hours later, and the inmate was captured in an adjoining state the same day. The inmate claimed that an officer working at the prison had given him the weapon, ammunition and handcuff key.

The accused officer admitted he had brought the inmate a weapon and many other items, including drugs, over the past months. He said he smuggled the contraband to the inmate in exchange for money to support his own drug habit.

Employees new to corrections work may wonder how this could happen. Knowing the danger a firearm in a prison can present to staff and inmates, not to mention the risk of prosecution if discovered, how could a correctional officer do something like this?

Correctional officers who have worked around inmates for any length of time, especially in maximum security prisons, know how this can happen. They also know it will probably happen again. In this case, the officer thought he had found an easy way to relieve the stress he experienced on the job--by taking drugs. In addition, he got caught up in one of the oldest and most dangerous con games inmates play on staff.

Correctional officers who drink excessively or abuse drugs are especially susceptible to inmate manipulation. Some inmates are skilled at understanding and reading behavior. They look for a weakness they can exploit. Whether it's compassion, fear or perhaps an unfulfilled need, these inmates know what to look for and how to manipulate it. By the time the officer realizes what is going on--if ever--it's usually too late to stop.

In prison it's known as a setup. In their book, Games Criminals Play, Allen and Bosta ( 1981 ) state: "Whether staff like it or not, the critical eye of the inmate is a 24-hour companion.... The |setup~ process is subtle, the victim unsuspecting; it is covert, but undetected until the damage is done...." That's what happened to the officer in this situation. Even if the officer had refused to supply the inmate with a handgun and instead confessed to the warden that he had been bringing prohibited items into the prison, he probably would have been prosecuted.

What factors contributed to this situation? The officer admitted to using marijuana and alcohol to relieve stress he experienced on the job. The inmate worked to gain the officer's confidence and initiated conversations with the officer. One thing they discussed was the officer's use of marijuana and alcohol. Once he had this information, the inmate knew he had the officer hooked.

Stress on the Job

A substance abuser is not necessarily a crackhead hanging out at a crack house or a wino passed out in an alley. Substance abuse, particularly alcohol abuse, is a fact of life for many average citizens who have families and hold down jobs. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (1991) reports that 51 percent of Americans abuse alcohol.

Many factors contribute to substance abuse. One factor is the degree of stress in a person's life.

Working in a prison is one of the most stressful jobs you will find. Think about the psychological environment of a prison. Your job consists of keeping inmates confined in a place they don't want to be. You are constantly exerting your authority over inmates to ensure order is maintained. There is an ongoing "battle of wits" between inmates and staff. Inmates are usually trying to gain something--extra recreation time, extra personal items, contraband--which means they are probably going against your authority. In addition, inmates are usually competing among themselves for something of value or to gain a degree of control. Correctional officers have to be aware of their surroundings constantly, maintaining a never-ending vigil to ensure inmates don't get out of line. All this creates a high degree of stress.

Then there is the physical environment. Imagine the intensity of a multi-tiered, maximum security cellblock housing two or three hundred inmates: the constant noise level, the jumble of sounds, the frantic activity. Add to that crowding, where, in some cases, two inmates are assigned to a cell designed for one. There's the constant threat of violence against an inmate or an officer.

There are demands made on correctional staff by their peers and supervisors. Supervisors may place difficult demands on officers, who may then view supervisors as insensitive and uncaring. Or for various reasons, there may be a shortage of staff, which forces officers to work longer hours than usual.

Other demands are self-imposed. Correctional officers do not want to appear weak or frightened in front of inmates or each other; therefore, they may act in a way that would normally be out of character outside the institution. All of these situations create stress.

The officer who brought contraband into prison was a relatively new employee who was assigned to work in a maximum security cellblock. He was in constant contact with some of the most hardened, devious and violent criminals found in a correctional system. Working a cellblock range alone for most the day, his interactions were not with other officers but with inmates. Because he lacked authority over the inmates, he attempted to maintain control by persuasion and suggestion. When the inmates learned he could be manipulated, what little control the officer had was lost.

This officer turned to marijuana and alcohol to cope with the situation. He is not the first nor will he be the last to do so. As one officer said in Prison Officers and Their World (Kauffman, 1988), "I was drinking to get up enough nerve to go |in~ and when I got out of work I'd get loaded just to forget. I'd go out at night and sometimes not come home, just stay out and get loaded all night long because I didn't want to think about going to work the next day." This is not unusual behavior for someone unable to adequately cope with the demands of prison work.

Drug Testing

In 1984, the Georgia Department of Corrections initiated a program for testing inmates for marijuana and cocaine use. In January 1985, all job applicants were being tested. Staff testing followed in July. Most staff were receptive to this idea. They were aware of the kinds of problems drugs can cause in a prison and realized that drug testing is in the best interest of staff and inmates.

Substance abusers who might have applied for a job with the department in the past realized that doing so now, with mandatory drug testing, would be a waste of time. More employees asked for help to overcome drug dependency, and fewer inmates were found using drugs. It is likely that there is a direct correlation between the two.

Drug testing sends a signal to both staff and inmates that drugs have no place in a prison. Correctional officers who abuse drugs face a greater risk than ever of losing their jobs. Officers who don't abuse drugs can reel reassured that fellow officers are drug-free and therefore dependable.

Seeking Help

Correctional officers who are substance abusers must seek help. Help is available in many forms: private counseling; community groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous; and counseling programs offered by the agency.

Officers with substance abuse problems should realize that their agency is concerned about keeping good employees and maintaining safety for staff, inmates and the public. Programs agencies provide to help their officers overcome substance abuse problems are in place to help, not to single out, employees with problems.

One example is the employee assistance program developed by the Georgia State Prison to help employees with alcohol abuse problems. The program began as an in-house referral program with existing staff, medical doctors, clinical chaplains, psychiatrists and psychologists who worked with staff who asked for help. An employee who was a recovering alcoholic helped to direct the effort.

In addition to seeking professional help, employees with a substance abuse problem should try to help themselves by developing self-esteem and a positive self-image. Environment affects behavior and attitudes. Correctional officers should always remember that they are professionals. Professional appearance and demeanor improve attitudes. If officers act professionally in their interactions with inmates, inmates will have more respect for them. Ultimately, this should reduce the job's stress level.

It is also important for staff who do not abuse drugs or alcohol to be aware of the problems associated with substance abuse. A fellow officer's substance abuse problem may very well become their problem if that officer can not be relied on to carry out his or her duties. Officers rely on each other for safety.

Substance abuse will always be a serious problem, particularly in a correctional setting. Correctional officers who are substance abusers must seek help. They should participate in programs offered by their agencies and communities to get help. Correctional officers with substance abuse problems endanger other staff, inmates, the public and themselves.

Lanson Newsome is deputy commissioner of the Georgia Department of Corrections.


Allen, B., and D. Bosta. 1981. Games criminals play: How you can profit by knowing them. Susanville, Calif.: Rae John Publishers.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. 1991. Summary of findings from the 1991 household survey on drug abuse. Rockville, Md.: National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Kauffman, K. 1988. Prison officers and their world. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
COPYRIGHT 1993 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Author:Newsome, Lanson
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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