When I worked on Rikers Island as a mental health professional, one of the clinic supervisors used to muse about our fellow employees: “Don’t blame me, they work here because they cannot work anywhere else.”
Since we both worked there, I found the perspective humorous — but not entirely untrue. After all, who wants to work in prison? Indeed, it is not the career choice of most of my criminal justice students. Prisons are fierce instruments of punishment, and they often house dangerous men and women.
Prison worker Joyce Mitchell allegedly aided two such dangerous men in their escape from a maximum-security facility in upstate New York and had prior inappropriate relationships with them. But we miss the point if we make Joyce Mitchell the story.
As the case continues to unfold, the media hurricane will probably target her weakness, her vulnerability and her foolishness. She was foolish. But informal and inappropriate relationships do and will happen in these environments unless overseers design and enforce strict precautions and regulations. It takes an entire culture to defend against these misplaced alliances. The prison itself must demand and inspire professional conduct.
This is no easy feat. Although it is preferable for prison workers to detach themselves emotionally in the prison setting, daily interactions with confined populations make many people realize that prisoners are people, many of whom have suffered incredible disadvantages and lived tragic lives. Different opportunities may have generated very different outcomes for these men and women. It is easy — perhaps even humane — to see them for whom they could be.
Acting on this vision, however, as Joyce Mitchell allegedly did, is severely misguided. Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine if hired workers will become susceptible to such manipulation, and screening applicants more thoroughly will likely not prevent this behavior. Prison workers spend a great deal of time in close proximity to prisoners. It is likely that boundaries begin to erode long after the initial interviews.
Prison impacts both workers and prisoners. If we make Joyce Mitchell the story, then we make the story too simple — about a vulnerable female prison worker in a maximum-security, male facility. We isolate her as the embodiment of defenselessness while somehow excusing and overlooking the remaining workers. But there are no exceptions in prison work — everyone is susceptible to manipulation, and the best defense against it is intensive supervision and a strong cultural dynamic that the prison administration generates.
We must learn from her highly publicized and dangerous mistake. This is about promoting a culture that defends itself — not about isolating and targeting an individual as the problem.
Since prison administrators can only hire those who apply, it is necessary for them to supervise and train with the understanding that some individuals who join this applicant pool could compromise effective prison management. The solution is to ensure those who work in prison are monitored closely — given weekly or even daily briefings about the specifics of their tours and daily challenges — and are empowered to make decisions that reflect the needs of the state and not their individual desires. If the charges are true, it appears Joyce Mitchell elevated her own needs over the needs of the state.
Prison administrators can dictate culture through intensive supervision and training. But in order for this effort to work, the culture requires a fair and consistent message from administrators that prioritizes the work of correctional officers, emphasizes humane treatment, understands the hardships that workers face, rewards workers for quality oversight through advancement and disciplines negligent and inappropriately physical supervision.
Prison workers will subscribe to the mission and purpose of the prison if they perceive that it is legitimate, fair, equal and empathetic. If supervisors work to empower prison workers and elevate their service work, prison workers will be dedicated to its purpose and ensure that the formal and official culture is maintained.
In this climate of improved oversight, Joyce Mitchell’s conduct would have likely been formally recognized, and administrators would have dismissed her.
Ultimately, to protect prisoners and prison workers, the culture of the prison must police itself.
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