The boundary line-from the time a correctional officer enters the facility and all through training, he or she hears about the boundary line. Things that correctional officers (COs) are told include ‘never trust an inmate’, or ‘do not believe everything an inmate tells you’. I can still remember the day that I was sworn in with several others as a deputy sheriff. The chief deputy told us to ‘never bring anything in for an inmate’ and ‘never trust an inmate’. Good advice, correct? Easy to follow-right?
You would think true! If this advice given to our COs, both new and veteran, is so simple and easy to abide by, why do we continuously read of sworn and non-sworn correctional staff crossing over professional boundary lines? Why do they fall victim to inmates’ schemes, false promises of love and ploys to smuggle in contraband-or help them escape custody?
Underneath this simplistic view of not crossing boundaries are several dynamics. Moreover-the better a CO is trained in these-the safer he or she is. Everyone who encounters inmates must understand the sentries on the boundary line-our supervisors, mentors and trainers.
The inmate is a determined person, no matter if male or female. Knowing that escape is difficult, an incarcerated criminal offender relies on manipulation to continue criminal activities, do time as comfortably as possible, influence court sentencing and in some cases, and successfully escape. These aims were evident in the Baltimore City Detention Center in 2013 and the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York, in 2015. Both are textbook cases of inmate manipulation and will be discussed in this article.
As a 27-year corrections veteran, author and trainer, when I see a media broadcast or read an article about correctional staff crossing boundaries and being manipulated, I ask several questions:
- How well was the staff person trained in resisting manipulation?
- How closely was the staff person supervised?
- Did the staff person’s colleagues notice the ‘red flags’ about inmate manipulation and do anything to steer their coworker back on the right path?
These questions cannot be ignored-they must be answered. For correctional staff to fight inmate manipulation they have to get involved-and there are many things that they can do. This article will discuss how mentors, trainers and supervisors can assist staff in staying on the correct side of the boundary line. They are the ‘sentries on the wall’, and must take measures to ensure that their staffs are familiar with the topics that are discussed in this article. The four topics to be explored are:
- The Definition of Manipulation
- The Lifestyle of the Criminal Offender
- The Tools of Manipulators
- Staff Countermeasures: Mentors, Trainers, Supervisors: What they can do
The Definition of Manipulation
Manipulation involves a lot more than just being ‘fooled’. There are three components to the definition-and each can easily apply to a correctional environment. If staff-all staff knows these-they will be forewarned, and forearmed. In any manipulation training class, staff training instructors and field training officers (FTOs) must make the following clear to trainees-both staff and veterans. Trainers and FTOs have told me that one of the phrases they hear from officers and civilians is: “It [manipulation] will never happen to me-I’m too smart for them”. After a training, two chaplain’s volunteers informed me that “inmates are not as bad [manipulative and cunning] as you make them out to be”. Others said to me that they do not need training. There are three components to manipulation, and supervisors, trainers and mentors should work together, making sure that staff both understand and apply all three to their work in corrections.
The first component is for the offender or inmate to control or play upon. Staff must realize that inmates want to control many things including receiving contraband, choice cell assignments, sympathy from the court, a trusty job and sex with staff. The list is endless. They also want to control staff, convincing them to bend the rules and not see them as criminals, but poor unfortunates that made a mistake. In summary, the inmate wants to control his or her environment, who they can ‘BS”, what comforts they can obtain, and so on. Moreover-these ‘comforts’ include not only cell phones, drugs, and alcohol. Comforts also include having sexual relations with staff.
Secondly, the offender uses artful and unfair means. These means include lies, ploys, schemes, fabricated stories, appearing sad, depressed and ‘buttering up’ the staff with flattery and romantic overtures. Some of these artful means are very brazen; others are subtle. There is no limit to their imagination. They may cry, saying they really want to change-and all the time trying to ‘con’ the CO into delivering a message to people on the outside or writing a letter to the court for them.
The third component is that these deceptions are used especially to one’s own advantage, or as a means to an end. An inmate may be a gang leader on the outside, trafficking in drugs and engaging in criminal behavior. He thinks: ‘why should jail stop me?’ If he can ‘con’ a female CO into believing that he really ‘loves’ her, he can convince her to bring in drugs. Or- if he gets a CO to bend the rules, maybe he can have messages delivered to gang members in other housing units. Contraband, running a criminal operation or having a CO help in an escape- these all are to the advantage to the inmate-and a disadvantage to the safety and security of the facility.
The Lifestyle of the Inmate
Inmates and staff have what can be called an adversarial relationship. This is not a war in the conventional sense, but a never-ending ‘game of wits.’ The struggle centers on the staff maintaining security and safety, allowing, as much as possible, no harm to come to inmates, staff or the public. The most moral, law-abiding staff is hired and trained. Policies and procedures are to be followed. Many inmates do not follow the rules. As evidenced by their lifestyle, criminals do not follow the norms of society-they live life on their terms. When trainers and mentors are discussing what offenders are like and how they are different morally from staff, certain contrasts should be clarified:
Substance abuse: According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the rate of substance abuse disorders (SUDs) among inmates is difficult to determine. It is estimated that 65 percent of prisoners in the United States have an SUD. An additional 20 percent, while not meeting the criteria for SUD, were under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol at the time when committing their crimes. Some veterans say that these rates are higher.
Education: Many inmates do not have high levels of education, which is a key factor in being successful in life. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 41.3 percent of prisoners have some high school education or less. Twenty-three (23.4) percent have a GED, 22.6 percent have a high school diploma and only 12.7 percent have post-secondary education.
Work: Without an education, it is hard to obtain a high paying job. Many offenders coming into jail work at low-paying minimum wage jobs, or, due to being arrested frequently, are not working at all.
Engaging in criminal behavior: There are many reasons why people turn towards crime. It may be due to their upbringing, or they are a product of a ‘cycle of violence’. Being the victim of sexual, physical and emotional abuse frequently leads to them inflicting such violence on others. Other reasons include having a powerful need-such as drugs, alcohol, power (gangs) or sex. Some lose self-control and commit crimes of passion. In addition-for some-it pays, it is a thrill and crime is easier than working. There are other reasons. Many criminals are irritable, and have poor self-control skills. Poor parenting, peer delinquency (gangs), and not putting forth an effort in school can lead to criminal behavior. Add to these a lack of job skills and unemployment, the result is an angry, non-conformist person who is getting through life by being a criminal. While corrections staff, both sworn and non-sworn, go by the rules, inmates have been living their lives ‘skirting’ the rules. They want the easy way-using people, cheating people and lying to get their way. Getting an education? Too hard! Working for a lower wage, sticking with it to better yourself? Too difficult! Stealing, selling drugs, cheating people? Easy!
The Tools of Manipulators: Case Studies
Jail supervisors, trainers and mentors must speak to their officers and staff openly and frankly. Besides just presenting information, real cases must be discussed. Corrections websites contain many factual, well-reported and well-researched media reports of how inmates manipulated correctional officers and non-sworn staff into doing their bidding. One resulted in escape; the other involved contraband smuggling. These two incidents have been widely reported in the media, and much information about them can be found online for use in training.
Clinton Correctional Facility, Dannemora, New York, June 2015: This is a textbook case of inmate manipulation that capitalized on the security and supervisory failures of the facility. Joyce Mitchell, a civilian worker in the prison tailor shop, was manipulated by two convicted inmates, doing life sentences for murder. Mitchell entered into an improper relationship with the two inmates; she engaged in sexual acts with one. With the help of a veteran correctional officer, Eugene Palmer, she smuggled in contraband that the inmates used to fashion an escape through the subterranean levels and utility pipes of the prison. Palmer delivered the items hidden inside packages of ground meat to the inmates. According to official reports, he may have been unaware of what was inside. Due to his playing favorites with the inmates, accepting artworks from them as gifts, not following security procedures, combined with a lack of staff supervision over Mitchell, the escape happened. One key aspect of this involves personnel viewing inmates as friends or romantic partners. Mitchell and Palmer were too open and friendly with the inmates. Mitchell shared too much about her marriage and personal life. Some staff noticed that Mitchell was overly friendly with the inmates, bringing in food for them, etc. However, an official investigation into allegations of her having an improper relationship with one of the inmates failed to produce any corrective actions.
Baltimore, Maryland City Detention Center, 2013: In this facility, the Black Guerilla Family (BGF) and one gang leader in particular, controlled the institution. Thanks to the help of corrupted officers and effective manipulation techniques, a contraband smuggling operation flourished. BGF recruits were instructed to target specific types of COs. Male COs could be swayed by money. Female COs who exhibited insecurities, low self-esteem and ‘certain physical attributes’ were targeted and to be seduced into romantic relationships. It worked-the drugs and contraband trade flourished. Four female COs became pregnant by the BGF leader. One female CO, after witnessing an inmate being attacked by another inmate, became upset and stressed, seeing blood spurt from the inmate’s head. She sought comfort and advice-but not from a colleague, counselor or supervisor. She went to the BGF gang leader.
A few questions are necessary here: Where were the supervisors? How were the COs trained? Did any colleagues, supervisors or trainers notice any signs of inappropriate behavior and step up to derail the negative route the COs were taking? If mentors, trainers and supervisors, due to inattention or indifference, do not stand guard on the professional boundary wall, embarrassing events such as these will occur. Inmates lie, are smooth talkers, elicit sympathy and profess to be so helpful to the COs. These are manipulative tools-the artful and unfair means to achieve a desired end.
Staff Countermeasures: Mentors, Trainers, And Supervisors: What They Can Do
These are the sentries on the professional boundary lines. Collectively, along with concerned colleagues, they can do a lot in preventing fellow COs from sliding down the ‘slippery slope’ towards unprofessional behavior. In the cases above, better supervision and training may have prevented such scandalous behavior. This is not a ‘foolproof’ approach. The CO who makes a conscious decision to engage in unethical and unprofessional behavior must take responsibility and face the consequences. However, all of us have to watch out for each other. Supervisors, trainers and mentors can work together to ensure that we are keeping on the right side of the professional boundary line.
Cracks in the security wall because of inmate manipulation and unprofessional acts widen when supervisors are mediocre. If supervisors seldom leave their offices or the control center, inmates will see that COs, especially ‘soft’ or sympathetic ones, are not closely supervised. In addition, if these COs and civilians are not attentive to security policies, talk too much about their personal lives, and bend the rules, inmates will target them. For example, if COs are heard by inmates talking about relationship problems or financial difficulties, inmates will approach them suggesting ways to make money (contraband smuggling) or being a person that the COs ‘can talk to any time’. These staff members may think that inmates ‘are not really that bad’, or may say that they want to be the inmates’ friends. Even bending a simple rule about inmates, such as not permitting them to freely walk around and visit other units can be a bright red flag to inmate manipulators. This is especially true when weak supervisors do not address the mistake. Another supervisory mistake is to run a squad or team where everyone gets along, and confrontations to staff who make mistakes are infrequent or avoided. The facility apparently ‘runs itself’. The hardest aspect of being a supervisor is to confront staff about wrongdoing, and taking corrective action, including discipline, on staff members. These may be people that the supervisor used to work with-and not above. Friendships with the staff that a supervisor worked with at lower ranks have to take a back seat, and supervising and directing staff is more important. If staff members are not supervised properly, objectivity is lost. The CO or civilians fail to realize that criminal offenders do not live life by the rules. A corrections supervisor must be approachable. This does not necessarily mean likeable. Some supervisors may be gruff, serious and not ‘people persons’. However, a good supervisor watches out for the safety of inmates and staff, and the security of the facility. Some staff may be reluctant to come forward and inform him or her of a staff member acting unethically or in danger of being manipulated. Staff may not like their supervisors, but should be able to communicate openly with them. And-a good supervisor listens to them.
Correctional training is more than just conducting a Power Point presentation at an academy, or reading a general order at roll call. Basic correctional training, in-service training and on the job training must all bring the reality of the corrections field to the trainees. In addition, supervisors must work with trainers to ensure that topics apply to the job. COs must receive the ‘bang’ for the training ‘buck’. Corrections training in boundaries must be proactive, not reactive. Training in boundaries must be ongoing and frequent, not just as a reaction to an incident of corruption or ethics violations. To be the sentry, trainers must make topics such as ethics and maintaining boundaries interesting, clear and blunt. Doing so gets the attention of attendees, including some veterans that may be there just to get their hours. In my training classes, I talk about escapes, contraband, and the stupidity of making bad choices by staff. I bring in actual news events-often embarrassing to corrections, where staff members have been criminally charged or terminated for crossing the boundary line. I ask them how it must feel to be ‘snookered’ by an inmate, and being ‘perp walked’ out the door in front of your fellow officers. I also ask how it must feel to be the topic of a news report about staff in the facility having sex with inmates. Another question concerns being fired: called into the superintendent’s office, being handed your termination letter and then going home and explaining everything to the family. If trainers are in the session, I always include handouts that they can take back and use to their agencies. Everyone should leave the class with something-and be thinking.
Training is not just inside a classroom. New COs or those that need remedial training are generally paired up with a Field Training Officer, or FTO. In any correctional agency, the FTO should be carefully selected, have a good employment record and be well versed in not only agency policies and procedures, but also in interpersonal skills. Trainers should also enlist the help of specialized facility staff-they want to help as well. For example, your facility has an increase in suicidal behavior-bring in the mental health staff. You have a manipulation issue-mental health personnel can help, talking about anti-social behavior. You want to bring up in training the safe housing of transgender inmates, many who have depression issues and personal problems. Mental health staff can also assist you. Do you have medical issues, such as communicable diseases? Bring in the medical staff.
The third group of sentries are your mentors. They do not have to be supervisors or hold rank. They are the steady correctional officers that you always depend on to run the facility smoothly. They are the veterans with maturity and ‘cool heads’, who take their many years of experience and put them to good use. A good analogy are the movies about World War II, when the replacements arrive at the squad. The squad leader puts them with the older, wiser veterans. These ‘old timers’ correct the mistakes and show them ‘the ropes’.
Correctional officers that are enthusiastic want to be mentors-they care about the agency. They want to bring out the best in staff. Mentors display good ethics, are mature and serve as good examples for staff. They are the ‘glue’ that holds the staff together. Mentors do not think that they know it all, but they take the time to correct staff mistakes and prevent boundary violations. They like attending training seminars and learning new things about corrections-which they pass onto the new correctional officers. They should have input into training presentations. Mentors can be good communicators, listening and responding to officers who need advice and guidance. Therefore, if you have staff that have difficulty saying no to inmates, have difficulty maintaining a command presence, or are too friendly with inmates, assign them to a seasoned, veteran, mature officer. They will learn. In addition, mentors are well thought of by their colleagues.
Another aspect of mentors is that they can be a connection for information about staff. In corrections we all have to watch out for each other. The CO ‘Code’ saying one ‘should mind his own business’ is counterproductive. A CO observes, for example, another CO or civilian-let’s not forget them-becoming too friendly with inmates, bringing in snacks, letting them wander into unauthorized areas, bending the rules, etc., That concerned CO should talk with the mentors, trainers and supervisors. Lives could be on the line. For example, a CO passes by a Sunday religious program, and sees the volunteer giving out snacks to the inmates without permission, or observes the volunteer saying to an inmate “I will call your wife tonight.” That CO is concerned-and he or she had better speak up.
The boundary line-is the line in all corrections facilities that if not crossed, can keep us safe. Imagine a wall, with sentries. They guard the staff against being manipulated to cross the line, or making bad decisions. The best supervisors, trainers and mentors have to stand guard. They must alert staff to the inmate culture, how manipulation works and what can be done to counteract wrongdoing. They, and all staff, have to watch out for each other. We are all in this together.
Agnew, Robert, Ph.D., “Why do criminals offend?” The International Association for Correctional Personnel and Forensic Psychology. 43 (October 2011). 1, 4.
Cornelius, Gary F. The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition. Alexandria, VA: American Correctional Association, 2009.
Cornelius, Gary F. “Tales From the Local Jail: A Good Mentor Is….”, The Corrections Connection. June 12, 2014. http://garycornelius.corrections.com/?p=225
Hare, Robert, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. New York: Guilford Press: 1993.
Harlow, Caroline Wolf, Ph.D. Education and Correctional Populations, Bureau of Justice Statistics. https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/ecp.pdfJanuary 2003.
National Institute on Drug Abuse, Criminal Justice DrugFacts, June 2020, www.drugabuse.gov
Peters, Justin/Slate, “A prisoner’s guide to jail smuggling.” Albuquerque Journal. November 29, 2013. https://www.abqjournal.com/310648/a-prisoners-guide-to-jail-smuggling.html
State of New York, Office of the Inspector General, Investigation of the June 5, 2015 Escape of Inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt from Clinton Correctional Facility, June 2016.
Vargas, Theresa, Ann E. Marimow and Annys Shin. “Baltimore case depicts corrupt jail culture ruled by drugs, money, sex.” The Washington Post. May 6, 2013. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/baltimore-jail-case-depicts-a-corrupt-culture-driven-by-drugs-money-and-sex/2013/05/04/d0cde8a6-b33f-11e2-9a98-4be1688d7d84_story.html
 Gary F. Cornelius, The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition. (Alexandria: American Correctional Association, 2009), 69.
 Cornelius, 70-72.
 Cornelius, 96-97.
 Robert Hare, Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us. (New York: Guilford Press, 1993), 84-85.
 Robert Agnew, Ph.D., “Why do criminals offend?” The International Association for Correctional Personnel and Forensic Psychology. 43 (October 2011), 1, 4.
 State of New York, Office of the Inspector General, Investigation of the June 5, 2015 Escape of Inmates David Sweat and Richard Matt from Clinton Correctional Facility, June 2016.
 Justin Peters/ Slate, “A prisoner’s guide to jail smuggling,” Albuquerque Journal, (November 29, 2013), https://www.abqjournal.com/310648/a-prisoners-guide-to-jail-smuggling.html
 Theresa Vargas, Ann E. Marimow and Annys Shin, “Baltimore case depicts corrupt jail culture ruled by drugs, money, sex,” The Washington Post, May 6, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/baltimore-jail-case-depicts-a-corrupt-culture-driven-by-drugs-money-and-sex/2013/05/04/d0cde8a6-b33f-11e2-9a98-4be1688d7d84_story.html
About the Author:
Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.
He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University since 1986, where he has taught four corrections courses: punishment and corrections, community corrections, jails and preparation for internship. He also teaches corrections in service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. He has also presented webinars and Skype presentations on correctional issues. His latest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition was published in April 2017 by Carolina Academic Press. He has authored several other books in corrections, including The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition, (2009) from the American Correctional Association, and The American Jail: Cornerstone of Modern Corrections, (2008) from Pearson Prentice Hall. Gary has received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in Social Science from his alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an Instructor Appreciation Award from George Mason University. In January 2011, Gary started a blog “Tales from the Local Jail” on The Corrections Connection (www.corrections.com) followed in December 2012 by his second blog, “Talks About Training” on Corrections One (www.correctionsone.com). Gary has served on the Board of Directors of the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel (IACTP) representing local adult corrections. He has corrections projects in development, including, a new second edition of The Twenty Minute Trainer, from the Civic Research Institute, and a new third edition of Stressed Out: Strategies For Living and Working in Corrections from Carolina Academic Press. Gary has appeared on CNN, MSNBC and Tier Talk, discussing corrections security, training and staff issues. He presents training for InTime Solutions and Lexipol. He resides in Williamsburg, Virginia.