The Keepers: Returning Citizens’ Experiences With Prison Staff Misconduct

Published date01 July 2022
Date01 July 2022
Subject MatterArticles
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND BEHAVIOR, 2022, Vol. 49, No. 7, July 2022, 1010 –1030.
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© 2021 International Association for Correctional and Forensic Psychology
Returning Citizens’ Experiences With Prison Staff
Cleveland State University
Sam Houston State University
University of Miami; Monash University
Correctional staff play a major role in the incarceration experience for millions of U.S. adults each year. While much research
has addressed misconduct perpetrated by incarcerated persons, less has systematically addressed rule-violating behavior by
correctional staff and how such conduct is perceived by formerly incarcerated individuals. Using qualitative data gathered
from 38 interviews with men and women recently released from prison, we examine their experiences with prison staff mis-
conduct. Respondents shared observations of staff misconduct related to medical neglect, violence, and contraband, but
experiences differed for men and women, raising concerns regarding conditions of confinement. We caution that such con-
duct has the potential to undermine the legitimacy of correctional authority in prison settings, which is troubling because
heightened legitimacy is an important aspect of legal socialization that helps to reduce offending. Research and policy
development on the frequency and consequences of prison staff misconduct is warranted.
Keywords: correctional officers; prison misconduct; prisons; reentry; legitimacy
Approximately 423,000 correctional officers are employed throughout the United States
today (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018). These officers are responsible for maintaining
custody of incarcerated persons, assessing and addressing threats to safety, and sustaining
institutional order. These responsibilities are accomplished, in part, through the enforce-
ment of rules. Correctional facilities are governed by two overarching sets of rules and
AUTHORS’ NOTE: The authors would like to thank Criminal Justice & Behavior Co-Editor Beth Huebner
and the three anonymous reviewers for their comments, all of which helped to make this article considerably
stronger. This research was supported by a Cleveland State University Faculty Scholarship Initiative (FSI)
grant. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Meghan A. Novisky, Department of
Criminology, Anthropology, and Sociology, Cleveland State University, Cleveland State University, 2121 Euclid
Ave., RT 1721, Cleveland, OH 44115; e-mail:
1028895CJBXXX10.1177/00938548211028895Criminal Justice and BehaviorNovisky et al. / The Keepers: Returning Citizens’ Experiences
guidelines, one set that must be obeyed by those incarcerated and another that must be
obeyed by their keepers—the correctional officers themselves. The latter group play an
important role in ensuring that institutional rules are followed by incarcerated persons, and
the ways in which they enforce these rules have been studied in the last several years (Bauer,
2019; Conover, 2001; Narvey et al., 2021). Less is known regarding the extent to which
correctional staff follow institutional rules themselves.
It is important to understand more about correctional staff adherence to institutional rules
for at least two reasons. First, “the fabric of life within the correction system is shaped inti-
mately, and daily, by the system’s employees” (Cullen et al., 1989, p. 33). This places cor-
rectional staff behavior at the center of individuals’ conditions of confinement. By
implication, the behavior of correctional staff sets the tone for the institution and the behav-
iors that will be tolerated. Second, experiences during incarceration can predict multiple
important outcomes. Factors such as incarceration length (Toman et al., 2015), acute health
distress (Grosholz & Semenza, 2018), participation in educational programming (Pompoco
et al., 2017), exposure to solitary confinement (Butler, 2019), and victimization (Toman,
2019) are all related to increases in misconduct perpetration among incarcerated individu-
als. In prisons where correctional officers are more lax about rule enforcement (Wooldredge
& Steiner, 2013) or more hostile in their interactions with incarcerated people (Listwan
et al., 2014), victimization risks among incarcerated persons are higher (Wooldredge &
Steiner, 2013). Moreover, in prisons where incarcerated individuals feel they are treated in
a procedurally just manner, they are less likely to engage in misconduct and receive disci-
plinary reports (Beijersbergen et al., 2015a).
It is likely that incarcerated individuals’ experiences with witnessing rule violations by
staff predict outcomes such as misconduct, perceptions of legitimacy, and, in turn, the like-
lihood of recidivism. However, the extent to which antisocial behavior on the part of staff
can play a meaningful role in shaping the (legitimacy-related) perceptions of those incarcer-
ated is less documented in the correctional literature. Although recent work has begun to
examine the issue of staff misconduct, this research has not been as comprehensive as it
could be. Accounts of staff misconduct have been offered from the perspective of under-
cover journalists working as correctional officers (Bauer, 2019; Conover, 2001), in narra-
tive books written by incarcerated individuals (George, 2010; Hassine, 1999), and in
anecdotes provided by popular media (O’Brien, 2020). However, research on prison staff
misconduct has not been approached in the same systematic or voluminous manner that
research on misconduct committed by incarcerated individuals has, limiting a full under-
standing of the nature and extent of misconduct that occurs inside prison walls.
Using original data gathered from in-depth interviews with 38 formerly incarcerated men
and women, we extend the literature in three important ways. First, we address staff mis-
conduct from the perspective of persons who were recently incarcerated, which is different
from the majority of prior work on staff misconduct that focuses largely on staff perceptions
of misconduct or on official reports of misconduct. Second, we employ a qualitative
approach, providing a more in-depth look at the different types of staff misconduct that are
difficult to describe in comparable depth using past quantitative data. Finally, we offer a
comparative analysis, documenting the ways in which experiences with prison staff mis-
conduct were both similar and distinct between men and women. These contributions are
significant and underscore the powerful role of prison staff in influencing not only condi-
tions of confinement but also long-lasting perceptions of legitimacy toward the criminal
justice system and its actors.

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