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Joyce Mitchell appears in court in Plattsburgh, New York on July 28 2015. Reuters

Fishing for favors: how inmates lure prison staffers

New York Clinton Correctional Facility employee Joyce Mitchell – who engaged in a sexual relationship with an inmate and helped him and a second prisoner stage a dramatic escape – ended up pleading guilty earlier this week.

Before this gripping story made national headlines, the idea of correctional employees smuggling dangerous contraband into prisons or having sexual relationships with inmates may have seemed more grounded in the world of fiction than in reality.

However, inappropriate relationships occur with surprising regularity in day-to-day prison operations – a fact supported by research and also acknowledged by those who work within correctional facilities. These types of interactions between inmates and prison employees are consensual, almost always illegal and usually involve some sort of economic or sexual transaction.

In an attempt to ameliorate this problem, virtually every employee who is hired to work in a prison or jail must go through some type of pre-service training. The trainings are essentially designed to indoctrinate staff into a “custodial mindset,” a philosophy that legitimizes and enforces boundaries between prisoners and employees.

Nevertheless, in spite of this training, not all correctional employees respect boundaries; some repeatedly cross the line with the very inmates they’re paid to supervise.

Over the past several years, I’ve gone to great lengths to ascertain how inappropriate staff–inmate relationships unfold: I’ve interviewed inmates who have been successful in establishing these relationships, and I’ve also administered anonymous self-report surveys to both inmates and correctional employees.

It’s evident that some inmates are extremely adept at being able to identify vulnerable prison staffers. After subtly feeling out a target, they’re often relentless in their pursuit of inappropriate relationships with these employees. With nothing but time to pass, a skilled inmate manipulator will make every attempt to turn even the most dedicated correctional employee into a deviant one.

Homing in on a target

I once interviewed Tommy, an inmate incarcerated at a prison facility in the southwestern United States. He told me he preferred to target female correctional employees who were sexually frustrated or in an unhappy relationship. He also pursued women who’d been victims of domestic violence.

For roughly two years, Tommy had a series of inappropriate relationships with female staff members that went undetected. He was able to convince multiple female staff members to smuggle tobacco into the facility, which he would then sell to other inmates at a hefty profit. He also admitted to having had a number of sexual trysts with at least two female correctional officers.

However, his luck ran out when another inmate reported that Tommy was having sex with a female kitchen employee.

Asked how this relationship began, Tommy explained:

I was the one who broke the ice. I just started talking to this female kitchen boss and acting real friendly like. She was married but said her husband didn’t have sex with her and was always cheating on her. It started out just like when you go to a bar. She talked, and I just listened. Soon we began flirting more and more. We’d go to the storeroom where she could lock the doors to give us privacy.

Some inmates have told me that they prefer to establish inappropriate relationships with staff members who they perceive as unattractive, overweight or sexually frustrated.

One inmate, Oscar, explained to me that these types of employees are easy to control and manipulate.

“We like single, older women who are basically tossed out and nasty,” he said, before claiming that women who are neglected in the “free world” will be “worshiped” by inmates.

I also spoke with Philip, an HIV-positive prisoner. Philip casually described having unprotected sex with a female correctional employee on several occasions. He explained that the staff member had recently gone through a nasty divorce and was lonely and vulnerable. He even bragged that she would have brought in a weapon for him if he’d requested one.

Money to be made

Approximately 93% of the inmates who are incarcerated within the United States are males. In male facilities, when inappropriate relationships occur, it’s often the inmate who initiates the inappropriate relationship.

While the majority of the inmates whom I’ve interviewed established inappropriate relationships with female correctional employees, it should be noted that some male prison staff also cross the line with inmates.

One inmate, Richard, gleefully told me that tobacco-free prison policies create the opportunity for a black market, with correctional officers playing a key role.

“There’s a lot of money for bosses [correctional officers] to make,” he said. “Bosses can get rich if they deal tobacco and nothing else. Some bosses make more money from selling cigarettes than they do from their monthly paycheck.”

Time on their side

To help people truly understand the dynamics of inappropriate relationships, I find the metaphor of fishing is often quite useful. Inmates will use a lot of different lures and types of bait to entice staff members into having inappropriate relationships. Often nothing comes of it. But sometimes, it works.

I once had an inmate named Felix describe how he liked to give correctional employees little gifts like food, in an attempt to cultivate a relationship that could possibly lead to “all kinds of things.”

“Sometimes they take it and sometimes they don’t,” he continued. “When they do, it’s like a fish on a hook. You just got to reel them in slow. It takes patience. Hey all I got is time, man, so time is on my side.”

Over the course of months – even years – many inmates learn the habits, mannerisms, likes and dislikes of the staff. And skilled inmate manipulators are extraordinarily adept at convincing correctional employees that they’re in no physical danger and won’t be endangering anyone else by having sex or sneaking in contraband.

At the same time, staff members – especially those who become romantically involved with inmates – may, over time, begin to view inmates as legitimate sexual partners. There’s a normalizing effect that takes place. With the right amount of inmate encouragement, coupled with lax supervisors, some correctional employees may come to see their work environment as nightclubs or places to flirt with members of the opposite sex, rather than facilities that warehouse dangerous criminals.

‘I was caught up in the fantasy’

It’s extremely unlikely that Joyce Mitchell took up employment in the Clinton Correctional Facility in order to have sexual liaisons with inmates, help them escape and use them as pawns in a murder plot. Rather, the inmates she helped – Richard Matt and David Sweat – were adept inmate manipulators.

In her confession, Mitchell stated, “I was caught up in the fantasy…I enjoyed the attention, the feeling both of them gave me, and the thought of a different life.”

Clearly, both men perceived that Mitchell was lonely and unhappy in her personal life. They used both charm and flattery to convince her to cross over that sacrosanct border between correctional employee and inmate. It’s amazing that Mitchell even considered abandoning her husband to go on the lam with two violent convicted murderers. This, indeed, illustrates the power that some inmates hold over their captors.

Even though our nation’s prisons are filled with inmate manipulators, this in no way excuses the behavior of deviant correctional employees, such as Joyce Mitchell. It does, however, help us understand how inappropriate relationships are able to flourish, in spite of strong, organizational cultural norms that discourage familiarity between staff and offenders.

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