Prisoners’ Manipulation of Correctional Workers: Avoiding the Psychological Trap
*Editor’s Note: After this article was published, both escapees were found by police. Richard Matt was fatally shot by law enforcement, and David Sweat was shot but not killed and being sentenced for his role in the escape plot.*
By Michael Pittaro, assistant professor, Criminal Justice at American Military University
On June 6, convicted murderers Richard Matt and David Sweat escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. Two weeks since their escape Matt and Sweat remain at large, despite a massive nationwide manhunt involving local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies.
The primary suspect in assisting the prisoners’ elaborate escape plan is Joyce “Tillie” Mitchell, who worked in the prison as a tailor shop instructor, according to news reports. She has been arrested and is criminally accused of supplying the power tools used by Matt and Sweat to aid in their escape.
Mitchell has been described by close friends and former coworkers as hard-working, responsible, and trustworthy. She is supposedly a churchgoing, proud military mom and the wife of a local firefighter.
It remains undetermined if she was part of the prisoner’s getaway plan. In my opinion, I believe Mitchell was manipulated and used as a pawn to help Matt and Sweat complete their escape plan, which is not uncommon in prison settings.
A research paper by Phill Dodds, Avoiding Setups by Inmates, outlines 14 comprehensive steps that specifically detail the grooming process used by prisoners to manipulate correctional workers. In addition, Dodds also includes a number of important tips to avoid falling prey to psychological manipulation tactics used by prisoners.
When I was in corrections, I worked closely with offenders who told me they try 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 essentially opens the door to further manipulation and starts the grooming process that often follows. Even after many years on the job, I too fell for this simple, yet effective tactic.
The Frequent Occurrence of Sexual Misconduct
While Mitchell and her husband have publicly rejected that she engaged in sexual relations with the inmates, such tactics are a common form of manipulation. 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 worker misconduct, a far-from-glamorous part of the position.
I investigated several correctional workers involved in inappropriate, unethical, and illegal sexual relations with inmates. To my surprise, all incidents involved female correctional officers or staff members engaging in sexual relations of varying degrees with male prisoners.
Despite clear prohibitions and zero-tolerance policies against sexual misconduct of any sort between correctional workers and prisoners, these situations continue to occur. Such policies are clearly outlined within a prison’s code of ethics, the American Correctional Association’s Code of Ethics, and the law—specifically noted within the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).
According to a 2013 U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics report, Sexual Victimization in Prisons and Jails, 4 percent of prison inmates and 3.2 percent of jail inmates self-report experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization. However, these figures are misleading because they include inmate-upon-inmate sexual victimization as well as correctional staff-upon-inmate sexual victimization.
Enhance Training and Awareness about Prisoner Manipulation
One of the common responses to misconduct incidents is to create or strengthen policies or laws in an effort to prevent future misconduct. However, such policies are unlikely to deter someone who falls prey to a prisoner’s manipulative tactics.
The majority of correctional facilities do not do enough to educate officers and staff members about personal, professional, ethical, and legal boundaries with inmates.
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 trainings.
About the Author: Professor Michael Pittaro is a 27-year criminal justice veteran, highly experienced in working with criminal offenders in a variety of settings. Pittaro has lectured in tertiary education for the past 13 years while also serving as an author, editor, and subject matter expert. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in public safety/criminal justice at Capella University’s School of Public Safety Leadership.