A life behind bars can breed deception.

A life behind bars can breed deception. Image source: Flickr user Dave Nakayama.

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil—surviving in prison means keeping your mouth shut. With almost one and a half million people locked up in state prisons, over 200,000 in federal prisons, and another 600,000 plus in local jails, there are a lot of secrets. It’s a dangerous place to work and live as intimidation keeps crimes against prisoners and correctional officers hidden.

Correctional officers who police the population are at risk of abuse by prisoners, but some of those officers also commit crimes such as assault, rape, or bribery. This adversarial relationship destroys trust on both sides. In a place where criminal organizations often wield the power and those who come forward may be threatened or attacked by their fellow inmates, it’s much more difficult to discover the truth than it is in a police interview room.

Any inmate who does report a crime isn’t going to be a reliable witness in court because they are a criminal. A con may lie to get a break on his sentence or they may want to be moved to a different prison. The only way to verify statements about crimes or violations they have witnessed within prison is by using a truth verification examination. After all, although there are many debates on how prisons should be managed—from pure places of incapacitation to rehabilitation facilities—one of the overarching mandates is keeping prisoners safe by developing clear processes where prisoners can report crimes committed either by each other or by staff members.

Breaking Through the Culture of Deception

Some think justice is best served by criminal-on-criminal violence and that correctional officers should be immune from using restraint when it comes to dealing with inmates, but we can’t forget that not everyone incarcerated for a crime is an evil, violent criminal. Many end up in prison because of a drug or alcohol problem. Those who committed non-violent activities, such as white collar crime, may have once been your accountant or even the church treasurer. Some are even innocent people who were convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. Regardless of the specific crime, everyone paying their debt to society deserves to be protected from rape, assault, and murder.

The challenge is to provide a means of reporting prison violence that inmates feel secure using. Convicted criminals are often wary of “lie detection,” and those who are already imprisoned may see the polygraph and the Reid Technique as accusatory and invasive. Some may have been given a polygraph prior to their incarceration and may even have learned countermeasures to skew the polygraph results. That said, most polygraphers don’t work in institutionalized settings such as the prison system.

Instead, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and the Missouri Department of Corrections are utilizing the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer (CVSA®) truth verification system. California has over thirty of these systems in their prison—which is the largest in the world—and has had great success with the technology.

CVSA Examiners take a different approach than that used by polygraphers. The tone is more conversational and less accusatory, making defensive inmates feel their concerns are being heard with fairness. The CVSA is also a more appropriate tool than the polygraph in this setting because it is non-invasive and easily transportable, only requiring a microphone. The entire process of the polygraph—featuring sensors and uncomfortable bands—can feel like an act of intimidation, particularly when your freedom is already limited in other ways.  

When Law Enforcers Break the Law

Correctional officers also must police their own and ensure that their fellow officers aren’t becoming part of the problem. According to a U.S. Department of Justice report, in 2011, there were 8,763 allegations of sexual victimization in adult correctional facilities, and 902 were substantiated. Almost half those substantiated reports involved staff members. And, just like in the outside world, many sexual assaults go unreported. It’s not surprising when angry convicts commit crimes in prison, but correctional officers have a duty to manage the population and their safety. When a correctional officer engages in unethical or illegal behavior, it negatively impacts the entire organization.

Laura E. Bedard, Executive Director of Corrections for the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office in Sanford, Florida, addressed some of these issues in an article focusing on how inmates manipulate correctional officers or what is called “downing a duck.” Correctional officers or prison staff such as maintenance are targeted by inmates who determine they are likely to be manipulated into doing favors or failing to report violations. Some of the staff members who are vulnerable to this manipulation “over-identify” with the inmates because of self-esteem issues or other factors such as gang affiliations. Bedard recommends strong pre-employment vetting for correctional officers to ensure that the right people are hired for this emotionally and physically challenging job.

Correctional facilities in California and Missouri which are already using CVSA require their staff to take the examination as part of the recruitment process. If a correctional officer is under suspicion or accused of a criminal act, they can also take a CVSA exam to clear their name. The goal in hiring good correctional officers is to ensure those who have a propensity to be influenced by the criminal culture don’t make it into the system.

We can never wholly remove violence from the prison system, but we can address the underlying culture of mistrust—between inmates and of the system. Lying is not only accepted in this environment; it means survival. Transforming such behavior doesn’t happen in one day, but each step—whether it is selective hiring of correctional officers or using an empathic approach to interviewing inmates who report violence—makes a difference.

Please reach out to us at NITV Federal Services to learn more about our CVSA systems and training programs.