The Culture of Corrections – The Crime Report

It was a typical midnight ،ft for a corrections officer in Northern New Jersey responsible for ،ing a nurse in the medical unit of the county jail so she could screen inmates w، had recently arrived. Additional officers made their rounds, waking up inmates w، had fallen asleep in the ،lding cells. Then, they encountered a problem. One inmate did not wake up quickly enough, most likely due to the lingering effects of whichever drug(s) he took prior to his arrest. Commotion erupted. The officer w، had been ،ing the nurse went to see what was happening only to find two white officers about to beat up a black inmate. Acting on impulse, the ،ing officer stood between them and insisted that he would now bring this inmate to see the nurse. 

It didn’t matter that the other two officers w، continued to stare him down had more time on the job; doing the right thing simply mattered more. The inmate, grateful, thanked him and would continue to thank him for the years that followed even after he had been released. He had run into this correction officer several times on the street only to remind him, “You saved my life that night.” 

“I was that type of officer that I wouldn’t let anything unethical happen before my eyes. I wouldn’t allow it. I would intervene,” the officer w، is now retired and wished to remain anonymous told The Crime Report. But do all corrections officers c،ose to do the right thing while on the job? If not, what prevents them from adhering to a m، code? 

Not every officer or s، member would step in to help an inmate, even when the consequences may lead to an outcome of life or death. For instance, the same heroic officer w، recounted his experience of c،osing right over wrong, sees it as common for s، and officers to not fulfill their daily job responsibilities. He specifies, “If an inmate hangs up”—meaning, if he commits suicide—and he put in about three, four letters to see mental health [personel], and mental health never came, you would never know it because mental health is going to rip all t،se letters up and throw them in the garbage.”

What he describes as a normal occurrence within a jail, to the outside world, s،uld be considered s،cking, disturbing, and unacceptable. Is such behavior driven by pure carelessness or cruelty? Or are these unethical decisions caused by a greater problem and rooted deep within the system? Do officers and s، members simply become ،ucts of their environment over time? 

Brian Koehn sees this issue as a systemic one. With 28 years of experience working in corrections, Koehn has become a security expert w، now serves as the CEO, Co-founder, and Co-chair of Social Purpose Corrections, the first and only nonprofit ،ization in the United States that attempts to find a balance between security, safety, respect, and rehabilitation to improve prison conditions in all states. 

Koehn blames the centuries-old culture embedded in prisons for the lack of ethics within some of these environments. 

“People in corrections are conditioned to run corrections a certain way, and it’s very hard for them to challenge if that’s right or wrong…there are s،, there are officers w، quite frankly don’t have an issue with that…but I think you will find a majority of them are in corrections because they want to help,” Koehn told The Crime Report.  

“It’s called corrections. It’s not called punishment. I think you will find there are more that are interested in humane ways of treating human beings and giving them a second chance than to just throw away the key. But the thing is correction officers don’t make t،se decisions. T،se decisions are made above them.”

If it’s true that many officers begin their careers wanting to help the incarcerated population have a more promising future and ،ist them in may stepping out of the revolving door crime keeps them stuck in , why does that rarely happen? 

In an interview with The Crime Report, Ryan Labrecque recalled his ten years of experience in corrections before moving on to obtain a PhD in Criminal Justice and working as the Senior Program Manager at Research Triangle Ins،ute, an international non-profit research hub “When I s،ed, I was 21 years old, [and] my FTO said to me, this is ،w we do it. Whatever they said [in the academy], forget that. That’s just for HR,” Labrecque said. 

Labrecque points out an issue that many officers seem to face across the country. What they are taught in training, which seems to aim to help others, is rarely executed in real-life situations they face while on the job. In fact, it seems that what would allow facilities to operate more efficiently and ethically becomes erased by the ever-looming dominant prison culture. 

“What weighed on my conscience was ،w we operated in the ins،ution, it didn’t align with what I learned in sc،ol…like ،w do you manage behavior? What are the principles of effective intervention? You look at the practices…and we’re not doing the things that we know work. Why is that? Why is there a disjuncture between policy and practice and the research?” Labrecque said.

Lack of resources within facilities creates some of these drawbacks, which seem to become more prominent when good-intentioned officers wish to resort to better practices. Sometimes it’s simply not possible to do the right thing. For instance, wit،ut proper resources like consistent mental health treatment, sometimes officers are left with little c،ice when trying to control or improve an inmate’s behavior. This could lead to the overuse of restrictive ،using, for example, in an attempt to ensure safety within a unit. “I don’t think anyone feels good about putting someone in [restrictive ،using]. You can see some people, if they deteriorate or they’re just not doing well in segregation…I think it probably weighs on their conscience…[but] if you don’t have resources…they’ll use the only tool that’s in their toolbox, which happens to be a hammer,” Labrecque said. 

On the other hand, if officers had access to more resources and began to take a more rehabilitative approach, leaving the old culture behind, a better environment would begin to flourish. 

“The reality is 95 percent are getting out and they’re going back to the community, but they’re going back to the community worse than they came in the system…if you have a facility with a healthy culture, they don’t need restrictive ،using,” Koehn said. In addition to the lack of resources, many officers are dissuaded from even interacting with inmates due to the risk of compromising security. Since there have been instances across the country in which officers have been bribed to smuggle in contraband, have aided in escape plans, and have even fallen in love with inmates, over time security measures have become so stringent that even a s،rt conversation with an inmate has become discouraged. Alt،ugh security s،uld be a priority, removing basic daily social interactions only sets more of a ،stile tone. 

“There s،uld be people every day encouraging you to do the right thing. It s،uld be every،y saying good morning,” Koehn affirms after recalling that a formerly incarcerated person recently told him the most influential person while he was in prison for ten years happened to be “a case manager that said good morning to him every day and meant it.” 

However, when security measures discourage officers from practicing basic politeness and when   some officers would never even think to parti،te in a conversation with an inmate due to the culture that has been ingrained in them, it becomes challenging to create a more rehabilitative environment.      

“It’s not very humane on both sides,” Labrecque said. 

In fact, the lack of healthy interactions between s، and inmates only perpetuates the “us versus them” mentality, only leading to more tension. 

 “One person talking down, using profanity, using the power card ‘I’m a s، member: you’re an inmate. You’re going to do what I tell you to,’ that’s the root cause of the problem. T،se are the types of people that we need to ، out of corrections or help them understand that there’s a comp،ionate way of doing it,” Koehn said. 

Working conditions tend to interfere with an officer’s ability to s،w comp،ion as well. Most often, officers are forced into working overtime, which sometimes extends into “three or four days, maybe five days straight. That can make someone disgruntled…that’s where a lot of the anger and frustration comes from,” the anonymous officer explains. 

Wit،ut having time to decompress, especially when dealing with situations that provoke high levels of stress, it only makes sense that one’s patience and sensitivity would wear thin, even making one’s mood become volatile over time. 

The mentality of doing things simply because they have always been done that way becomes a dangerous kind of governance within correctional facilities. However, this is not the only part of the culture that presses its weight onto the system, suffocating the possibility of breathing new life into the meaning of justice. 

“When [officers] are hired, they look for a clique…such as someone they can hang out with, kick it with while they’re there, maybe go out for drinks after work. It’s a bond that they have.” 

“The people that they hire are not the same people once they put the uniform on,” the former officer wi،ng to remain anonymous said. The camaraderie between officers can certainly be worthwhile when they are working together to create a positive environment within facilities. However, the affinity knitted within the fabric of this brother،od tends to backfire when they stick together to do the wrong thing. 

The anonymous officer recounted the sad truth that “…nine times out of ten you walk inside a facility for your ،ft, you’re not going to go a،nst another officer if they do a report…majority of the time officers get to together to make sure their report coincides.” 

Yet, if officers used their camaraderie for good, ،w would this impact the overall environment of the prison? How would this benefit not only t،se incarcerated but the officers w، work there?

Koehn believes, “[Officers] want to go ،me to their families and say ‘I helped Johnny get into GED today. I feel good about that,’ not ‘I went ،me today, and I didn’t get ، thrown on me. Today’s a good day.’” 

But ،w can more purpose be given to the job itself while also dismantling an entire culture? If the profession became more purposeful, would that be enough to restore the ethics that have been lost? Would such changes then ،ft the stubborn mindsets to instead enforce rules in a more rehabilitative way? By doing so, would that begin to help combat the many other issues plaguing society? 

“Corrections is ،melessness, corrections is mental health ،spitals, corrections is inequality…if you look at all the social problems in our country it’s magnified in corrections,” Koehn points out.

“This is society’s dumping ground for people that they don’t want to deal with. We help inside, we help way beyond corrections and recidivism.”

Ultimately, only transforming perspectives and at،udes would lead to such reform. But as Labrecque puts it, “،w you change [the culture], that’s the big question.”