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Model to Increase Understanding of Boundary Violations: Female Correctional Employees with Male Inmates - Part 1
By Dr. Susan Jones
Published: 06/19/2017

Prison-at-night The following is the first in a three part series.

The corrections profession has been plagued by instances of boundary violations between their employee and inmates. Stories of corrections employees who have been fired for having sex with an inmate or of a corrections employee who fell in love with an inmate and helped the inmate escape from a correctional facility have been widely publicized. The boundary violations that occur in correctional facilities involve a wide range of behaviors but the violations that seem to get the most public attention are ones that involve sexual contact between inmates and correctional employees. Sexual contacts between corrections employees and inmates have included both male and female employees with male and female inmates, including same sex incidents (Guerino & Beck, 2011). Although sexual abuse of inmates by employees is a serious issue, this type of behavior is merely one stage on a progression of boundary violations. Each time a sexual boundary violation between an employee and an inmate is discovered in an institutional setting, there is often a whole list of boundary violations that occurred prior to the actual sex act (Blackburn, Fowler, Mullings, & Marquart, 2011; White, 1993). Cheeseman and Worley (2008) found that the majority of all boundary violations in correctional facilities did not include sex. As a result, the very limited research that has been done in this area is normally limited to boundary violations that include sexual misconduct (Blackburn et al., 2011).

All boundary violations, even those that do not include sexual activity, create safety and security risks (Blackburn et al., 2011). Incidents where an employee has “crossed the line” and threatened the safety of the institution and the public include aiding an inmate to escape, introducing contraband or weapons and facilitating violence within a facility. These types of incidents are easily seen as dangerous because they have a direct impact on safety, but other boundary violations may seem less harmful. When a correctional employee falls in love with an inmate, some may equate this to an office romance. What often is not understood is the range of possible consequences related to this relationship within the correctional environment. The correctional environment makes every act more intense and each act is often magnified (Schafer, 1997). This intensity changes the impact of many day to day actions that would not be an issue in free society. Many seemingly normal interactions between employees and clients could have dramatic and dangerous repercussions inside a correctional facility. As a result of this intense environment, all boundary violations place correctional employees and inmates at some form of risk in an institution. Therefore, public safety is at risk.

The boundary violation model presented in this article focuses on explaining the dynamics of the relationship between a female correctional employee and a male inmate. Relationships that have developed between employees and inmates of the same sex or between male employees and female inmates were not the focus of this work.


The methodical framework for the dissertation study was conducted by using the portraiture framework. Portraiture has been described as a method that “capture[s] the complexity, dynamics, and subtlety of human experience and organizational life” (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997, p. xv). The ability to place the issue into a social and cultural context is a primary strength of this approach (Lawrence-Lightfoot, 1994). Through the process of portraiture, the stories of four female former correctional employees that developed relationships with male inmates, was described. The process that leads a female correctional employee into a relationship with an male inmate is a process that can only be understood within the cultural context of corrections work. Therefore, the use of portraiture provided the researcher with the ability to understand and describe the process within this context.

A key component of this approach is the use of “voice” (Dixson, Chapman, & Hill, 2005). The correctional system effectively silences the voice of the female employees that develop such relationships (Young, 1989) as these female employees are seldom asked for their story or they are only asked details in the context of a criminal investigation. The portraiture method is more than just recording the stories of the participant, it goes beyond to incorporate the voice of the researcher, the voice of the participant, and the context into a thick, rich description that may allow the information to be generalized to similar settings (Geertz, 1977).

The researcher’s voice is a key component to this process; therefore the threat of bias is a concern to the validity of the research. As the researcher, I entered into this study with a clear understanding of my experiences that could influence the data. As a former correctional employee (positions ranged from entry level officer through prison warden) I undertook an examination of my reactions to incidents of boundary violations throughout my career, which included my changing attitudes towards the women involved in these violations. As I analyzed the data provided by the participants in this study, I was diligent to be aware of my current and past attitudes regarding this issue.

Approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB), was obtained on August 2, 2012, for this study. Participant selection was based on informal communication from members of the prison town in a western state. No official state department of corrections records were used in this selection process. The ability to identify potential participants in this manner was not difficult because the prison culture extends into the community. Community members had information regarding many potential study participants which provided details regarding many different relationship processes. The final sample for this study included four women who developed different types of relationships with inmates, and who were in different types of personal relationships at the time of the boundary violations. Other differences included the type of contact the participant maintained with the inmate at the time of the study, how they left corrections work (resigned, terminated, etc.), the type of preparation for corrections work they possessed, their age when the boundary violation occurred, the security level of the facility where the violation occurred, the number of years they had worked in corrections, and their job title when the boundary violation occurred.

Four unstructured interview sessions were conducted with each participant that covered the following topics: the path that lead each participant to corrections; the correctional environment; the relationship process; and the effect on the participant’s life. The use of open-ended questions encouraged participants to provide information in their own words, pace and style (Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). Emerging themes were discovered through an open coding process (Corbin & Strauss, 1990) and these themes were discussed with participants at each subsequent session to increase the validity of the process (Newton, 2005). During the composition of the portraits demographic or other identifiable information was changed to protect the identity of the people described. Each participant was then asked to read their portrait to provide feedback regarding accuracy of details and to ensure that changes made to mask the identity of the participants or others described in the process did not change the meaning of the portrait.

This use of member checking with the participants, examination of disconfirming evidence, and the development of a portrait that included a thick, rich description were part of the process to ensure validity of the data (Bamberger, Ruch, & Mabry, 2012; Creswell & Miller, 2000). The data presented in this article is limited to that which helps to illuminate the construction of the model.

Boundary Violation Model

The data collected in this study led to the development of a boundary violation model (see Figure 5.1). The development of this model was a built upon the data from this study, guided by the theories of social identity theory, boundary theory, and power theory. The model was developed to describe the boundary violations process which includes the relationships between, the community, the correctional organizational culture, and relationships within the prison environment. Each component of the model was derived directly from the data provided by study participants. Even though the stories revealed different details, consistent themes, such as lack of fit in the environment, were found in each portrait.

Prison Town

Many prisons in the United States are located in rural areas which result in the development of prison towns. The prison towns are not merely towns that have a prison, but they have a history, economy, and social structure that cannot be separated from the corrections industry. In addition, this intertwined structure, coupled with the remoteness and size of these communities may magnify the amount of scrutiny that boundary violations receive. Residents of a prison town possess a great deal of knowledge about events that happen within the prisons, including everyday routine functions, incidents of violence, and details of staff misconduct. Consequently, when a boundary violation occurs in a prison town, the judgment from members of the community plays a role in the process. The interplay between the participants, the relationship with the inmate, and the community was clearly communicated by each participant. One study participant talked about how she felt when going into the community after her relationship with an inmate was known:

That doesn’t bother me as much, I mean I do get nervous, because I think, oh my God, they know what I did. It is not enough to make it drastically affect me more than the moment, but I find myself thinking that I used to be an officer until I did that. There is one officer that when I run into him in Wal-Mart, he won’t look at me or talk to me.

Surprisingly, three of the four participants chose to remain in the same community after they developed relationships with an inmate. Only one participant left the area, to start over. All participants divulged information about encounters that caused them to feel moments of shame, judgment, and embarrassment when interacting with members of the community in this prison town.

Check back next week for the second installment in this three part series.

Dr. Susan Jones retired from a warden’s position within the Colorado Department of Corrections. She worked in a variety of corrections positions in Colorado for 31 years, including: community corrections, correctional officer, sergeant, lieutenant, manager, associate warden and warden. Dr. Jones research interests have focused on the issues that correctional employees face on a daily basis. Visit Dr. Jones's Facebook page "A Glimpse Behind the Fence".


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To view Figure 5.1: Boundary Violation Model click here.


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