Prisons: Correctional Officers
The C.o. And Rule Enforcement
The C.O. role of primary social control agent relies on enforcement of a multitude of rules. These rules are typically classified as major or minor. Major rules are prohibitions against violation of the crime code: murder, assault, rape, arson, escape, drug trafficking, drug use, and other felonies. Minor rules are prohibitions against the violation of institutional rules regarding horseplay, disrespect to employees, maintaining sanitary housing quarters, and not playing the radio too loud. Formal punishment of rule violations is initiated through the officer's filing of a written misconduct report that is reviewed during a semilegal proceeding that determines the inmate's guilt or innocence. If found guilty, the inmate is subject to sanctions imposed by the misconduct reviewer that may range from suspension of privileges to a recommendation that parole be denied. Increasingly, in an attempt to make decision-making impartial, this individual is a hearing examiner who is a correctional employee, but not an employee of the prison in which the misconduct has occurred. C.O.s no longer have the authority to determine guilt and sanctions.
Inmate rule violations are common. In 1986, 53 percent of the 450,000 state prison inmates received misconducts for at least one rule violation during the period of their confinement (Stephen). In 1997, state and federal C.O.s reported a total of 1,841,913 minor rule violations and 821,004 major rule violations (Camp and Camp, p. 28). However, there is evidence that the rule violations reported by C.O.s do not represent the total number of rule violations committed by inmates, or observed by C.O.s. Hewitt, Poole, and Regoli have reported that inmates engage in a much higher level of rule violation than official reports record because very few rule violations result in a misconduct report. This conclusion is supported by C.O.s reporting that they observe nearly the same number of violations claimed by inmates. C.O.s exercise a considerable amount of discretion in making the decision to report, or not report, inmate rule violations.
The ability of C.O.s to engage in discretionary rule enforcement is a matter of concern for researchers and practitioners alike because of the possibility that racial discrimination may be a source of differential rule violation reporting. For example, Carroll found that African American inmates were disproportionately reported for all levels of rule violations, especially serious violations, and were subjected to closer surveillance and control by white C.O.s than were white inmates. Held and others determined that African American inmates receive a disproportionately higher number of misconduct reports because white officers consider African American inmates to be more aggressive and dangerous than white inmates. This effect was most noticeable in minor rule violation situations in which the C.O.s had the most discretionary authority. Held and others concluded that the disproportionate number of misconduct reports written on African American inmates was the result of white officer perception of dangerousness, not inmate behavior. Poole and Regoli (1980) also reported that African American inmates were cited for more rule violations than were white inmates. Finally, in a review of fifteen studies Goetting found that seven reported higher rates of rule violation reports filed against African American inmates while seven found no significant difference in reporting rates by race.