With more than 2.1 million adults behind bars, the U.S. has the world’s largest correctional population. These individuals are supervised by correctional officers, who are entrusted with maintaining the security and safety of these facilities.
A key component of correctional work is to monitor and respond to institutional rule violations – behaviors that include drug use and sales, violence, and theft.
The majority of correctional officers are dedicated professionals who care about their jobs and take their jobs seriously. But what happens when correctional officers are the ones breaking the rules?
The results of our new research study – soon to be published in Criminal Justice & Behavior – address this question.
Data for our study were gathered from in-depth interviews with 38 men and women recently released from state prisons. Participants were recruited from a reentry organization in the Midwest region of the U.S. and were asked questions about their experiences in prison.
Questions focused particularly on trauma-inducing aspects of the prison experience, including concerns about health and violence. Interestingly, and despite not being prompted to discuss staff behavior during the interviews, research participants often framed their trauma-inducing experiences with references to staff misconduct.
In fact, 95 percent of respondents described one or more acts of prison staff misconduct during the interviews, totaling 212 descriptions of staff misconduct, or an average of 5.5 per participant.
The most common form of prison staff misconduct described was medical neglect, followed by violence and contraband violations. One participant described being told to “shut up” as he moaned in pain while getting four teeth extracted without adequate pain management.
His wrists and ankles were shackled during the procedure.
Others reported being denied medical accommodations for chronic conditions such as epilepsy and diabetes or medically necessary items such as eyeglasses. Regarding violence, participants described instances where staff would assault incarcerated people in areas of the prison that did not have security cameras.
After being sexually assaulted by a staff member, one woman was threatened with solitary confinement when she attempted to report the abuse. Feeling powerless and scared, she decided to withdraw her report.
Other forms of violence were less direct but still consequential, including instances where correctional staff would intentionally respond slowly to acts of violence as well as incidents where correctional staff would disclose information about incarcerated people that was likely to provoke violence (e.g., commissary balances, informant statuses, convicting offenses).
Participants also referenced instances where staff were instrumental in the sale and distribution of illicit drugs in prison.
Prison staff misconduct is not only detrimental to the rehabilitative and reintegrative goals of correctional settings, but also undermines legitimacy within the prison.
Mistreatment by correctional staff does not foster respect for the staff nor for the entire correctional system. These actions may indeed compromise the rehabilitation of incarcerated persons, who share their living space with correctional officers on a constant basis and rely on them for fundamental needs and care, including basic medical attention.
In fact, medical attention, or the lack thereof, was the most common form of staff misconduct described in our findings. While data for our study were collected prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, they nonetheless emphasize the problem of medical neglect in correctional facilities – a problem that has been front and center over the last 15 months (as expressed in the number who have contracted COVID-19).
Our findings make clear why providing improved, adequate healthcare for those serving time in America’s jails and prisons is all the more pressing as COVID-19 has revealed health inequities and inequalities both within and outside prison walls.
Our findings also highlight the importance of making sure that correctional staff are well trained to model prosocial versus antisocial behaviors, and that accessible, non-retaliatory policies are in place for reporting misconduct within correctional facilities.
Let’s be clear: Our work is not meant to cast a negative light on the men and women who work in correctional settings as a group, especially under very difficult situations. Instead, our work has identified some potential avenues for training and change that could help foster a safe and more secure correctional setting.
That is important for the delivery of rehabilitative services and programming aimed at helping incarcerated people transition to society.
Focusing on fair and just treatment on the inside can go a long way toward increasing trust and legitimacy, and reducing crime, on the outside. Given what we know about the importance of legal socialization for the prevention of crime, doubling up on procedural justice within carceral settings is simply smart policy.
Meghan Novisky, Ph.D., is a criminologist at Cleveland State University. Her research focuses on the health consequences of incarceration and conditions of confinement. Follow her on Twitter @DrNovisky.
Chelsey Narvey, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at Sam Houston State University. Her research focuses on developmental psychopathology, the carceral experience, and the ways teleservices can be used in correctional settings. Follow her on Twitter @chelseynarvey.
Alex R. Piquero, Ph.D., is Chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminology and Arts & Sciences Distinguished Scholar at the University of Miami. His work focuses on criminal behavior, crime trends, and crime policy. Follow him on Twitter @DrAlexPiquero.