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Prisons: Correctional Officers

Changes In The Correctional Officer Role

The organizational goals of American prisons define the role of the correctional officer (Hepburn and Albonetti). Prior to the 1960s the sole expectation for C.O.s was that they be custody-oriented. Recruitment standards were low or nonexistent. Applicants were required to have only a minimal level of education and, in many prisons, education was not a consideration in hiring. The primary incentive for prison employment was the security offered by civil service employment in a job that some found more appealing and lucrative than farming, mining, or manufacturing work. People were also forced into prison work by unfortunate circumstances, such as the unavailability of jobs (Jacobs and Retsky) or because of layoffs, injuries, or failure in their initial choice of occupation (Lombardo). As a result, the typical officer was a rural, white male possessing limited education, politically conservative, brutal, slow to accept change, who often came to corrections at a relatively late age after mixed success in civilian life or retirement from the military (Philliber).

Training was typically on the job and often involved nothing more than a new recruit being handed a set of cell block keys and being told to learn the job as quickly as possible. The custody-oriented C.O. role definition was unambiguous. They were to maintain security and control through enforcement of institutional rules. The ability to accomplish this goal was based on their unchallenged power to accuse and punish inmates for rule violations with no regard for due process or inmate rights. Inmate control methods relied on physical coercion and discipline, and C.O.s were called guards because guarding inmates was all that was expected of them. As a result there has always been a widespread public perception that C.O.s are low in intelligence, brutal, alienated, cynical, burned out, stressed, and repressors of minority individuals (Philliber).

However, beginning in the 1960s a broad range of inmate rehabilitation programs were introduced into prisons that had historically viewed custody and control as the sole organizational goal (Farmer). This new emphasis on rehabilitation also introduced the expectation that C.O.s were to move beyond the clearly defined security role and assume the much more ambiguous role of human service-oriented professionals who would assist highly educated treatment professionals in inmate rehabilitation (Jurik). The introduction of rehabilitation created an ambiguous social organization (Cressey, 1966; Brown) by introducing a set of contradictory goals. The goal of custody demands the maintenance of maximum social distance between C.O.s and inmates and the avoidance of informal relationships, affective ties, and discretionary rule enforcement (Cressey, 1965; Hepburn and Albonetti). However, the goal of treatment requires relaxed discipline, affective ties, informal relationships that minimize social distance, and the exercise of discretionary rule enforcement based on individual inmate characteristics and circumstances. Punitive control policies were subordinated to the expectation that C.O.s were to be human-oriented and flexible (Cressey, 1965).

Most correctional facilities today accept the dual roles of custody and treatment, and C.O.s are defined as agents of inmate change who are expected to use discretion to assist in the rehabilitation of inmates while simultaneously maintaining security through rule enforcement (President's Commission; Cressey, 1966; Poole and Regoli, 1981). Simultaneous performance of the dual roles of custody and treatment create role conflict characterized by uncertainty and danger because C.O.s can be disciplined for violating institutional policy even if that violation is meant to assist inmate rehabilitation (Hepburn).

The introduction of rehabilitation coincided with a series of U.S. Supreme Court rulings that provided inmates with increased civil rights and decreased the ability of correctional officers to rely on punitive control. The result was due process–oriented disciplinary hearings, restrictions on the use of isolation as a disciplinary sanction, and the creation of formal inmate grievance mechanisms. These significantly limited the power of C.O.s and provided inmates with a powerful countervailing power (Poole and Regoli, 1981). This shift in power created for correctional officers a perception of loss of control and a belief that inmates possessed more power than officers (Fox; Hepburn). The product of this perception was a strained and unhealthy atmosphere (Duffee, 1974; Patterson) characterized by a perception that managers and treatment staff possessed more respect for inmates than for C.O.s. This perception of being treated unfairly has generated deeply ingrained C.O. feelings of frustration, anger, and lack of appreciation by superiors (Jacobs and Retsky; Huckabee; Wright and Sweeney).

One of the most significant consequences of the perception that correctional managers were no longer on the side of the officers has been unionization. In the early 1970s, federal law granted C.O.s the right to unionize and they quickly joined powerful national unions such as the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) whose leadership has effectively challenged numerous management policies viewed as not being in the best interests of the rank and file. Unions have the authority to successfully influence management's allocation of resources and salaries and benefits have risen dramatically as a result. Unions have been equally successful in leveling the playing field between officers and management through their ability to legally challenge management policies that are unfair, discriminatory, or arbitrary.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawPrisons: Correctional Officers - The C.o. And Rule Enforcement, Organizational Culture, Changes In The Correctional Officer Role