Alaska became the first state on Monday to receive certification from the National Institute of Ethics for fighting corruption in its prisons and jails.
Studies show corrections and parole officers face stress not only from inmates, but also from office politics, unfairness and corruption on the job.
The Alaska Department of Corrections is halfway through a three-year ethics training course designed to improve integrity in a place where temptations are high, said Neal Trautman, director of the National Institute of Ethics. The institute is a nonprofit organization that develops seminars and programs for public safety departments.
To receive ethics certification from the institute, the state met certain criteria that demonstrates integrity within the department.
The Department of Corrections is implementing methods suggested by the institute to deal with problems ranging from stealing inmates' personal items to stealing lunches out of the employee refrigerator.
Unethical practices committed by prison employees include violence against inmates, theft and sexual offenses with prisoners, according to the institute.
When convicted felons are released, they are more likely to return to a life of crime if they observe officers being corrupt on the inside, Trautman said.
"We want to create a positive environment which helps them reform," said Stephen Smith, the department's special assistant for training and development.
A high percentage said they had difficulty with discussing ethical breeches with their superiors, according to a survey of a third of the department's corrections and parole officers and the support staff.
Trautman's research shows employees observe a "code of silence" to protect one another. But this is not specific to correctional facilities, he said.
"Every workplace has a code of silence," Trautman said.
The survey also showed high percentages of officers calling in sick when they aren't ill, showing up late and leaving early. And in a few cases, officers used force against prisoners and stole from the department, other employees or an inmate's cell.
Solutions to these problems include better hiring methods, ethics training and setting examples through role models.
"The goal is to create a culture where loyalty to honesty and integrity are more important than loyalty to a person," Trautman said.
Lemon Creek Correctional Center Superintendent G. Scott Wellard said he asks different questions during job interviews than before.
"What is your definition of integrity?" was a sample question he uses. As a result of the new questionnaire, all interviewees since May have passed their psychiatric evaluations, which usually occurred in one of every five applicants, Wellard said.
An officer mailing a letter for an inmate was one example of temptation, Wellard said.
"It's easy to get wrapped up in the manipulation of an inmate," Wellard said. "Once they have you, your career is over."
Trautman applauded Alaska for participating in the program. Most correctional facility systems would not subject themselves to the surveys, being afraid of what they would find, he said.
"The honesty of Alaska's department is exceptional and rare," Trautman said.