Deceit Behind Bars: Corruption in U.S. Prisons

Most people understand that corruption is everywhere in our society. From our federal government to our corporations to even the charities we support, people seem to be scamming the system. So it should come as no surprise that our prison systems have their issues with illegal side hustles, especially given the population they serve and the severe conditions prisoners and prison workers endure on a daily basis. However, recent information reveals that corruption in prison may be worse, staggeringly worse, than most people think, as revealed by security video footage and investigative reporting.

According to an investigative report by Judicial Watch (JW), “Security video examined by investigators from the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General (DOJ OIG) shows staff at a high-security facility entering during the night and walking around metal detectors without being screened. The breach is one of a multitude identified recently by the watchdog, which warns the DOJ of ‘urgent security concerns’ in its famously inefficient security system at Bureau of Prisons (BOP) locations nationwide.”

Nor is this an isolated, or temporary incident. JW points out, “The reality is that security failures have long been pervasive within the system.” While there are multiple potential causes of security lapses involving corruption, three primary areas of concern are “the lack of consequences for corrupt behavior, a lack of correction officer supervision, and unclear job expectations,” according to the Center for the Advancement of Public Integrity at Columbia Law School (CAPI). 

As reported by Curbing Corruption, an organization dedicated to prison reform, “Corruption is frequently related to the treatment of and conditions for prisoners. Prison officers or prison staff may seek bribes from prisoners or their families to perform particular services or acts in respect of their required duties. Prisoners in turn may bribe officers to facilitate the smuggling of contraband (mobile phones, drugs, weapons) into prisons, to gain employment opportunities or other privileges, to influence the physical location of prisoners (both within and between different prisons) or parole decisions.” 

It is this type of illicit, endemic reciprocity that is particularly troubling. As indicated by the JW report,” This marks the third scathing federal audit in a year for the BOP, which has a $7.1 million annual budget.” The report also exposes elaborate escape schemes involving “security failures that allow inmates to escape undetected,” including allowing prisoners to slip away by placing dummies in their bed to “deceive correctional officers.”

A perfect example would be the escape of convicted killers Richard Matt and David Sweat from a maximum-security prison in upstate New York in 2015. Although Matt was killed by law enforcement authorities and Sweat was eventually apprehended, there were questions about how much prison staff was involved in their escape, prompting an investigation by the FBI. 

As reported by CNN, an investigation which led to the “arrests of two prison employees charged in connection with the elaborate June 6 breakout highlight a series of apparent security lapses at the maximum-security facility.” According to the New York Post, investigators uncovered that Joyce Mitchell, the prison tailor where Sweat and Matt were incarcerated, “. . .provided tools they used to cut and chisel through walls and pipes at Clinton Correctional Facility.” 

The Clinton Correctional Facility, the prison where Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped in 2015   Source:

Apparently, Sweat and Matt seduced Mitchell and used their intimate relationships to coerce her into helping with their escape scheme. ABC reports that Mitchell confessed that “’She professed her love for Sweat in notes she secretly sent him,’ . . . but she also allegedly ‘engaged in numerous sexual encounters with Matt in the tailor shop.’” Mitchell went to prison for her actions and served five years of a maximum seven-year sense, eventually being paroled for good behavior. 

As sensational as this case was, it was somewhat predictable given the atmosphere and circumstances surrounding many New York prisons, where these problems are becoming increasingly problematic. A 2015 NY Magazine article reports that “A 2014 report by the Correctional Association of New York, an independent nonprofit that inspects state prisons, found that ‘overall, the level of physical violence and staff abuse and intimidation, the pervasive environment of oppression, the lack of proximity to any urban center, and the tensions derived from vast racial and cultural disparities between staff and incarcerated persons at Clinton epitomize the worst aspects of mass incarceration in New York State.’”

In fact, there is a growing list of prisons that have been implicated in corruption charges, including, Los Angeles County, Georgia, Maryland, and the infamous Rikers Island, where  among “150 recently hired correction officers, applicant file reviews showed 54 with red flags that should have precluded hiring, including officers with criminal records.” 

These lapses in security are no doubt tied directly into corruptive practices, leading to personnel being compromised. As CAPI states,” Systemic corruption thus creates a violent and dangerous environment within prisons that affects every corrections officer.” In the Handbook on Anti-Corruption Measures in Prisons Torture, published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the authors write that “ . . .  ill-treatment, human rights abuses more broadly and corruption are inextricably linked; where there are higher levels of corruption, more instances of torture and ill-treatment are usually found. In States where there is corruption, there is less likelihood of ill-treatment being discovered and/or appropriate action being taken against those responsible.”

Yet, corruption is a two-way street in many prisons, as prison staff use a number of unethical means to extort favors from prisoners. As Curbing Corruption points out, “Corruption is frequently related to the treatment of and conditions for prisoners. Prison officers or prison staff may seek bribes from prisoners or their families to perform particular services or acts in respect of their required duties. Prisoners in turn may bribe officers to facilitate the smuggling of contraband (mobile phones, drugs, weapons) into prisons, to gain employment opportunities or other privileges, to influence the physical location of prisoners (both within and between different prisons) or parole decisions.” 

Much of what goes on in the coercion of prison staff, especially correctional officers, is psychological in nature. Because prisoners know they are incarcerated for long periods of time, they play the long game by closely listening in to conversations, monitoring the emotions of staff, and finding emotional soft spots to exploit when the time seems right. Often prisoners will play one staff member against another in an effort to extort favors or privileges. Zohar Zaied, a background investigator assigned to the Corrections Division at the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California, frames it this way:

“Inmates listen to everything staff members say. Some use information strategically in any way they can, whether it’s extra yard time due to lack of staff communication, or a planned attack, when they know a shift doesn’t work as a cohesive unit. Knowing there is internal strife on a shift, inmates will often complain to you about the staff member you just relieved, or will tell you how much better a job you’re doing than your partner, who may be standing right next to you. Others will completely ignore a floor officer and ask questions of another officer who just walked in.”

The reality is that prison corruption is a complex, multifaceted set of problems with multiple causes and layers that have to be directly addressed. In an attempt to unravel this Gordian knot, the Rand Corporation conducted an expert-based workshop which identified the following conclusions: 

  • Understaffing is a major threat; staffing ratio standards are needed, as are recruitment and retention strategies to meet these standards.
  • Supervisors need better training and a manageable span of control in order to properly develop staff.
  • Tools are needed to identify staff prone to compromise.
  • Better technology and best practices are needed to detect drugs, cell phones, and weapons.
  • Fully electronic mail systems should be explored to reduce the influx of drugs and protect staff and inmates from harm.
  • Research and testing centers are needed to evaluate emerging technology solutions to threats (e.g., cell phones, drones).
  • Administrators need greater awareness of cyber threats and information technology–related risks and need increased capacity to address these risks.
  • Best practices are needed to balance inmate access to technology for reentry purposes with security concerns.
  • Best practices are needed for security threat group management.
  • Technology is needed to automate analysis of inmate communications.
  • Best practices are needed for the development of continuity of operations plans.

Anything less than a prioritized, collaborative, systemic approach will fall short of stemming the myriad of problems associated with prison corruption. The Rand report seems like a good place to start. 


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