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Prison Corruption: A Glimpse Into Manipulation Tactics

The recent Alabama prison escape could have been prevented.

Key points

  • The elaborate escape plan of an inmate and a county jail official in Alabama suggests how complacency can lead to corruption.
  • It's important for correctional staff to receive additional training on the consequences of inmate manipulation.
  • Correctional leaders need to create zero-tolerance policies addressing inmate-staff fraternization breaches.
Larry Farr / Unsplash
Prison Yard
Source: Larry Farr / Unsplash

The 11-day fugitive hunt for Vicky White (56), the former assistant director of corrections at the Lauderdale County Jail in Alabama, and the prisoner, Casey White (38 and no relation), whom she helped escape ended on May 9, 2022, when law enforcement apprehended the fugitives in Vanderburgh County, Indiana. Casey White was immediately taken into custody, and Vicky White, who is thought to be the mastermind behind the elaborate escape plan, is assumed to have died by suicide due to a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Close friends and former coworkers have described Vicky White as hardworking, responsible, and trustworthy. Prior to this incident, she was an exemplary employee with an unblemished employment record who had plans to retire soon. Casey White, nearly two decades younger, was brought back to Alabama and arraigned by Judge Ben Graves, who informed the defendant that he will be charged with escape in the first degree in addition to the capital murder charges he was already facing from the 2015 death of Connie Ridgeway.

There are so many unanswered questions, most of which will remain unanswered since Vicky White, who is thought to have organized the complex escape plan, died before law enforcement authorities could question her. Investigators must now rely on Casey White’s interrogation, and then corroborate his version of the events with the evidence uncovered in their investigation.

For those of us who work in criminal justice, namely corrections, most criminal offenders are master manipulators. While this is not necessarily a new or groundbreaking insight, it is something correctional staff must understand and acknowledge. In his book, Inmate Manipulation Decoded: A Definitive Guide to Understanding the Manipulation Process, Anthony Gangi emphasizes that inmate manipulation is a slow and subtle game. Understanding how that game works is essential to surviving a career in corrections. Gangi highlights how an inmate chooses a target, how the game plays out, and most important, how staff can defend themselves, especially since the consequences can result in disciplinary action, including termination and, in some cases, imprisonment.

 Bill Oxford/Unsplash
Handcuffs
Source: Bill Oxford/Unsplash

In a 2002 publication, "Avoiding Setups by Inmates," Phill Dodds outlines 14 comprehensive steps that specifically detail the grooming process used by prisoners to manipulate correctional workers. In addition, Dodds also includes several important tips to avoid falling prey to prisoners' psychological manipulation tactics.

When I was in corrections, I worked closely with offenders who told me they tried to establish a common, innocent bond with correctional workers. This often starts with an informal conversation, often about the correctional worker’s personal life. This conversation opens the door to further manipulation and begins the grooming process that often follows. Even after many years on the job, I, too, have fallen for this simple yet effective deceptive tactic.

The frequent occurrence of sexual misconduct

For a brief time during my years in corrections, I served as an internal affairs investigator. I investigated allegations of prisoner misconduct and conducted in-depth background investigations of correctional officer candidates. I was also responsible for investigating allegations involving correctional staff misconduct, a far-from-glamorous yet incredibly important part of the position.

During my time working in Internal Affairs, I investigated several correctional staff, officers, and ancillary staff involved in inappropriate, unethical, and illegal sexual relations with inmates. To my surprise, most, but not all, incidents involved female correctional staff members engaging in sexual relations of varying degrees with male prisoners.

Despite clear prohibitions and zero-tolerance policies against sexual misconduct or fraternization of any sort between correctional workers and prisoners, these situations continued to occur. Such policies are clearly outlined within the correctional facility’s code of ethics, policies that are often replicated from the American Correctional Association (ACA) Code of Ethics and outlined within federal and state law with language from the Prisoner Rape Elimination Act (PREA).

According to a 2018 U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics report, "Sexual Victimization Reported by Adult Correctional Authorities, 2012-15," 58 percent of substantiated incidents of sexual victimization in 2015 were perpetrated by inmates, while 42 percent were perpetrated by staff members. The number of allegations in prisons increased from 6,660 in 2011 to 18,666 in 2015 (up 180 percent).

Enhance training and awareness about prisoner manipulation

One common response to misconduct incidents is to create or strengthen policies or laws to prevent future misconduct. However, such policies are unlikely to deter someone who falls prey to a prisoner’s manipulative tactics.

 Carlos Rabada/Unsplash
Prison Interior
Source: Carlos Rabada/Unsplash

Most correctional facilities do not do enough to educate officers and staff members about personal, professional, ethical, and legal boundaries with inmates. For starters, I suggest correctional administrators offer ongoing and repeatedly reinforced training, rather than just conducting training once during a correctional workers’ probationary period. This training should also be woven into other training sessions, particularly since corruption continues to be a significant problem throughout our nation’s jails and prisons.

Addressing corruption in corrections

Corrupt behavior also results from the breakdown of a correctional employee’s internal ethical barometer and their ability (or desire) to distinguish between right and wrong, legal and illegal. When individuals engage in corrupt behavior, they often override their personal values, such as morality, adhering to high ethical standards, and abiding by the law. For those interested in learning more, I highly recommend Gangi’s book, as well as Gary York’s book, Corruption Behind Bars: Stories of Crime and Corruption in our American Prison System. The three of us have worked tirelessly to address this topic at conferences and in training sessions across the nation, and will continue doing so in the future.

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