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It’s Dirty Work but Someone Has To Do It: An Examination of Correctional Officer Taint Management Techniques

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Published onOct 01, 2019
It’s Dirty Work but Someone Has To Do It: An Examination of Correctional Officer Taint Management Techniques


Since the 1950s scholars have applied the term dirty work to occupations that society views as demoralizing or disgusting. Occupations are labeled as dirty when they require work which is physically, socially and/or morally tainted. Correctional officers experience pervasive levels of all three types of taint while working in a low prestige occupation. This article relies on ethnographic data to examine how occupational stigma management techniques are taught to new officers and what techniques are most prominent. The findings indicate that new officers are taught occupational ideologies regarding stigma management primarily through sense-making and storytelling. We find that officers manage stigma primarily through reframing their work.


According to the most recent data, there are approximately 428,870 correctional officers working in American prisons and jails (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2017). These officers are responsible for the safety and security of approximately 2.2 million inmates in a variety of federal, state, county, and municipal institutions (Kaeble & Cowhig 2018). One especially problematic occupational concept for correctional staff is the necessity of engaging in dirty work (Hughes 1994). Dirty work is conceptualized as including moral, social, or physical taint such that society views the work as disgusting or degrading (Hughes 1994.) An individual, whose job requires the performance of dirty work, is stigmatized by that work.

Dirty work requires members of an occupation to engage in some form of stigma management in order to protect their identity. The exigent literature has examined stigma management in regard to dirty work in a wide variety of professions including, home health workers, sex workers, nurses, funeral home directors, firefighters and garbage collectors (Bolton 2005; Cahill 1996; Grandy & Mavin 2012). The research has also examined stigma management techniques for law enforcement agents (Dick 2005), private security officers (Lofstrand, Loftus, & Loader 2015), and federal law enforcement (Rivera 2015). The existing literature has examined a great deal of correctional officer perceptions on issue ranging from fear, to officer deviance, gender differences, work-family conflict, power dynamics, stress, and burnout among other issues (Burdett, Gouliquer, & Poulin 2018; Garland 2004; Gordon & Baker 2017; Gordon & Stichman 2016; Lambert, Cluse-Toler, & Hogan 2007; Lambert, Minor, Wells, & Hogan 2015; Worley & Worley 2016). However, to date there has been only minimal discussion that the author could find of stigma management among correctional officers (Tracy & Scott 2006, 2007).

Individuals in a given occupation tend to use the same or similar stigma management techniques. We argue that stigma management techniques are taught to new members through sense making activities; primarily storytelling. The current research in this area focuses solely on informal storytelling among occupational members. We find similar storytelling patterns, which communicate appropriate stigma management techniques, embedded in the formal training process. This is an addition to the existing research that expands our understanding of how stigma management is learned in tainted occupations.

Literature review

The nature of dirty work

Dirty work is a term first coined by Everett Hughes in 1951 (Hughes 1994). Hughes concluded that dirty work was work that society wanted done, but that most citizens were unwilling to do. In 1958, Hughes provided a definition of dirty work as, “occupational activities that are physically disgusting, that symbolize degradation, that wound the individual’s dignity or that run counter to the more heroic conceptions of our moral compass” (Hughes 1958: 50). In 1971 Hughes simplified dirty work, saying that it was work that in some way is viewed as tainted, unpleasant, or undesirable (Hughes 1971). The idea of dirty work as tainted leads to two outcomes in the research; first a typology of dirty work focusing on the origin of taint, and second, the impact of stigma attached to dirty work.

Building on Hughes’ concept of dirty work, Emerson and Pollner drafted a framework of three types of “taint” (Emerson & Pollner 1976). If an occupation falls into one of these three types, it is then deemed dirty work. The first level of taint involves work with garbage, sewage, bodily fluids, or other physical dirt, and is labeled physical taint (Emerson & Pollner 1976). The second level of taint involves work that requires a servile relationship to others or jobs that require frequent contact with stigmatized populations and is labeled social taint (Emerson & Pollner 1976). The final level of taint involves work regarded as “somewhat dubious of virtue or sinful,” and is labeled moral taint (Ashforth & Kreiner 1999:415; Emerson & Pollner 1976).

Correctional officer work fits all three categories (Tracy & Scott 2006). Ashforth and Kreiner (2014) include correctional officers with garbage collectors, exotic dancers and street vendors as examples of dirty occupations. Despite the uniqueness of the work associated with each occupation, each is associated with various types of physical, social, and moral taint. The result is that each occupation is stigmatized by society, which views them as dangerous, immoral, demeaning, or contemptible (Ashforth & Kreiner 2014: 82).

Officers are asked to ensure that inmates do not attempt to hide contraband on or in their bodies by conducting strip searches after each visitation. Officers are also responsible for cleaning up any messes that are made by inmates, both literally and figuratively speaking. Examples of such messes include inmates who swallow foreign objects, sexually abuse each other, trash their cells, throw food at officers, or play with feces (Tracy & Scott 2006). Such duties demonstrate the occupation is physically tainted.

Correctional officers acquire social taint by their interactions with inmates who are, arguably, the most stigmatized in society. Referred to as a contagion effect, criminal stigma “rubs onto” officers, and outsiders sometimes regard officers as being not so different from the population they control. This effect is prolonged because officers not only interact with the inmates, but often also serve as inmates’ “glorified maids” (Tracy & Scott 2006).

Bittner argues that police officers are morally tainted because, “their very existence attests that the nobler aspirations of mankind do not contain the means necessary to ensure survival” (Bittner 1970: 8). Correctional officers have the same impact of reminding society of its failures except on an even greater level. Correctional officers bear the burden of denying the most basic liberties from citizens.

In addition, the literature demonstrates a common occurrence of officers engaging in boundary violations; instances where they engage in inappropriate relationships with inmates (Worley & Worley 2016; Worley, Worley & Hsu 2018). The literature focuses on sexual relationships between staff and inmates despite moral and legal prohibitions against such relationships (Blackburn, Fowler, Mullings, & Marquart 2011; Dial & Worley 2008; Ross 2013). The literature also suggests that over half of staff sexual misconduct involves female officers, and that male offenders often encourage and initiate taboo sexual relationships (Blackburn et. al. 2011; Marquart, Barnhill, & Balshaw-Biddle 2001; Worley & Cheeseman 2006). The risk of moral taint from engaging in inappropriate relationships with offenders marks the occupation.

Due to the various forms of taint, individuals who conduct dirty work are often stigmatized by their occupation (Ashforth & Kriener 1999; Bittner 1970; Bolton 2005; Cahill 1996; Dick 2005). Goffman defined stigma as, “an attribute that is deeply discrediting” (Goffman 1963:3). Once a stigma is attached to an individual they must develop a method of managing that stigma.

Stigma management

Subsequent research into the stigma associated with dirty work has focused on techniques of stigma management; how do individuals deal with the stigma of their job? (Ackroyd & Crowdy 1990; Goffman 1963; Thompson, Harred, & Burks 2003; Thompson 1991; Tracy & Scott 2006). Depersonalization is a stigma management technique in which workers try to create social distance between themselves and the stigmatizing aspects of their job. Most correctional officers try to maintain a social distance from inmates to avoid “contamination” (Lombardo 1989; Conover 2001; Britton 2003). New officers are warned to keep a distance from and never trust inmates (Jacobs & Retsky 1980; Rhodes 2004; Crawley 2006).  Social distance can never be fully achieved because officers must rely on inmates in varying degrees to maintain order (Liebling 2004; Sparks, Bottoms & Hay 1996). Social distancing from inmates is also difficult because officers generally share much in common with the inmates they supervise (Jacobs 1978; Jacobs & Retsky 1980; Morris & Morris 1980; Poole & Regoli 1981; Worley, Marquart & Mullings 2003). Despite these challenges, depersonalization remains the primary stigma management technique in the exigent literature.

A number of other occupational stigma management techniques have been identified, most prominently in the seminal work of Ashforth and Kriener. These authors point toward the development of occupational ideologies to reframe, recalibrate, or refocus the meaning of the dirty work that employees of stigmatized occupations must do to successfully perform their duties (Ashforth, Kreiner, Clark & Fugate 2007).

Reframing an occupation instills the work with positive value that overpowers the negative value (Ashforth et al. 2007). For example, a firefighter may cope with occupational taint by recognizing that children idolize the heroic work firefighters do and many children say they want to be firefighters when they grow up (Tracy & Scott 2006). In correctional work, officers may choose to focus on how their work creates a barrier between dangerous offenders and the public.

Recalibrating adjusts the implicit standards that are used to evaluate the scale (how much) and/or valance (how good) of the tainted components. This may be achieved by making seemingly trivial tasks appear important. For instance, exterminators may revel in their extensive knowledge of entomology (Ashforth et al. 2007). A correctional officer may emphasize her ability to count inmates quickly and efficiently.

Refocusing shifts the attention off of the tainted aspects of the occupation onto the non-tainted aspects. For example, a sex worker may emphasize that most of her time with a client is spent speaking to them, with only a small portion of time engaged in actual sex. A correctional officer might emphasize how most of his day is spent in routine and boredom, and how rare use of force is.

Although these three techniques are presented as distinctive, the lines among them are often blurred in the research. For example, Mills (2007) discusses how truck drivers emphasize that they are often the “white knight” who provides assistance to motorists. Mills classifies this as refocusing, but the example also fits a recalibrating strategy. Others have pointed out the blurring of these distinctions as problematic for the use of the typology (Meisenbach 2010). Despite, its issues these three strategies remain dominant in the literature.

Most of the exigent literature on correctional officers focuses on the individualized technique of depersonalization to manage stigma, instead of the occupational ideologies of reframing, recalibrating, and refocusing. Tracy & Scott (2007) however, found that correctional officers’ primary method of stigma management was reframing. Specifically, they found that officers stressed that it took a special skill set to perform successfully in the occupation (Tracy & Scott 2007). This work is instructive but limited as it examined officers at two relatively small (less than 500 inmates each) facilities. Further, the two facilities were a county jail and a women’s prison. It is reasonable to assume that the culture, and therefore the stigma management techniques, of a larger, all male, state level facility may be quite different.

Additionally, there is little in the existing literature on the method of transmission of stigma management techniques among correctional officers. The current research examines the utilization and transmission of the three primary occupational ideologies by correctional officers through the use of storytelling.


Storytelling is an essential part of the human experience (Frank 2010; Presser & Sandberg 2015). Further, stories are an important form of symbolic communication within occupational culture that is especially useful in transmitting cultural values (Taylor & Van Every 2000; Brown, Denning, Groh, and Prusak 2005; Neuhauser 1998; Mohan 1993; Denning 2005). Stories serve as sense-making devices that allow occupational members to create shared understanding and transmit that understanding to new members (Gabriel 2004; Cassell & Bishop 2014; Ugelvik 2016). The creation of shared understanding is indirect, and storytelling is only one of several potential methods used (see Murphy 1998 for a discussion of various techniques).

The key to storytelling is the active involvement in the sense making process. The new member is told a story and left to interpret the story and decide what values are being promoted (Gabriel 2004). New members must be able to discern the moral of the story, if they cannot, they may fail to adopt the appropriate cultural values and will risk being ostracized. If new members are able to correctly discern cultural values, they are more likely to internalize the values due to the active role involved with interpreting the story (Denning 2005; Gargiulo 2005; Mohan 1993; Neuhauser 1998).

Storytelling has been identified as an informal method of teaching expected occupational behavior among detention officers (Ugelvik 2016), court personnel (Drew 2007), police officers (van Hulst 2013), and private security officers (Lofstrand, Loftus & Loader 2016) among other occupations. Specifically, Ugelvik found storytelling as a primary method for teaching legitimation techniques to immigration detention officers in Norway. The existing literature frames storytelling solely in terms of informally communicating stigma management techniques. Our research examines the presence of storytelling within formal training of new officers. The article now turns to a brief review of the methods used before exploring the findings.


This article utilizes data from a larger ethnographic study of correctional officer culture in a Midwestern state (for a discussion of gaining access to the organization please see Chenault 2014 & Chenault 2012). Data were derived by using participant observation and semi-structured interviews.

The participant observation stage of the research included 25 days of observation at a correctional officer training academy and 31 shifts at four institutions. In addition, officers were observed in social settings outside the correctional institutions. In total, 290 officers were observed during the research. While conducting participant observation, the researcher relied on an extensive use of field notes (Berg 2007; Emerson, Fritz, & Shaw 2001; Geertz 1973). The field notes were designed to be descriptive accounts of daily activities (Emerson et. al. 2001). During the initial academy training the researcher was able to take notes in the field without being obtrusive. Once the academy training became more hands-on, the researcher relied on memory to collect data. Upon leaving the academy setting each day the researcher used a digital tape recorder to capture the events and stories of that day as close to verbatim as possible from memory. Throughout the academy training war stories told by various personal were noted in the field notes and written down as close to verbatim as possible.

The research also relied on ethnographic interviewing to supplement the observed data. Ethnographic interviewing depends on a high level of rapport with the subjects and an insider’s knowledge of the symbolic and real language of the subjects (Becker & Geer 1957; Berg 2007; Hammersly & Atkinson 2007). This makes ethnographic interviewing well-suited for use in conjunction with participant observation, in which rapport is established and an understanding of subject language is developed. A total of 40 semi-structured interviews were conducted, including one with each of the nine officers in the researcher’s academy class. The interviews ranged from 50 minutes to approximately two hours. Each interview was recorded, with subject permission, and was later transcribed by the researcher. To ensure confidentiality, once all data was collected the researcher replaced each name with an alias, which is used in the presentation of quotes here.

In the course of the larger project, the theme of storytelling and its importance in the transmission of culture emerged. Over the course of the five week correctional officer training academy, a total of 110 stories were told to the new recruits. The majority of the stories were told by either the training specialists assigned to the class or by one of a variety of guest instructors. The guest instructors are typically subject matter experts who teach a specific section of the training. A few of the stories were told by members of the training class who possessed prior correctional experience and attempted to share this experience with the new officers.

Each of the 110 stories were pulled out of the ethnographic field notes and compiled into a list. A few of the stories were told multiple times during training (this suggests an added importance which will be discussed later). The stories were analyzed using an inductive content analysis approach, whereby researchers performed a close reading of the war stories, searching for key themes and patterns (Patton, 2002). This method aims to capture rich detail and interpret the range and diversity of experience within the data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The analysis led to the development of 39 codes that were then applied to the stories.

Although dirty work appeared as just one of the themes in the analysis several other themes (i.e. us vs. them, view of inmates) also revealed themes consistent with stigma management issues. After coding the stories the prevalence of the stigma attached to correctional work and the need to manage that stigma became clear themes. The exigent literature on dirty work and stigma management was then applied to the data to seek deeper meaning.


Although the moral taint associated with correctional officers is largely due to their duty of restricting freedom, the majority of occupational taint comes from the inmates themselves. The physical taint (i.e. cleaning of bodily fluids), and social taint (regular associating with stigmatized groups), are both a direct result of working in close proximity to convicted felons. The article now turns to a discussion of the role the presentation of inmates plays in the occupational ideologies of stigma management among correctional officers.

Inmate mindset

Stories that illustrate the inmate mindset make new officers acutely aware of the social taint they will have to navigate in the correctional field. The focus of these stories is to prepare officers for the worldview of their new clientele. Inmates are portrayed as being untrustworthy, unable to take responsibility for their actions, manipulative, lacking in empathy and violent.

These characteristics are presented as core personality traits of inmates which led to their conviction and incarceration. The traits of the inmate mindset are the reason the inmates are stigmatized by society and the war stories ensure that officers realize how stigmatized the offenders are.

Carlson, a psychologist with 20 years of correctional experience spoke to the training class during the third week of the academy. Carlson was officially offering training on mental health issues among offenders. Informally he offered a great deal of insight into the inmate mindset for new officers. For example, he told the following story:

An inmate tried to hang himself from his toilet with his feet and hands bound behind his back. He was lying in a prone position with hands and feet bound, when an alert officer saw him. The staff saved him, and preserved the knots to indicate that he had done it himself. The inmate tied his hands like that to try to get staff in trouble after his death. The position of the body would have made it look impossible for the inmate to have hung himself, and the logical conclusion would be that the staff had executed the inmate in his cell. This inmate was not a good guy, he told me once he was mad that when he shot a girl in an office the gun jammed so he couldn’t empty it into her.

This story teaches new officers the extent of moral dirtiness of inmates. Carlson says the inmate was committing suicide in an attempt to manipulate officers and get them fired. Even in death the inmate was untrustworthy and manipulative. The story illustrates that the negative personality traits of offenders are so pervasive, that even in death, inmates remain morally reprehensible. For officers, the primary take away from this story is that inmates should never be trusted, and that the job requires working with individuals who are capable of such immoral acts. This realization solidifies the notion of moral taint for new officers, due to the pervasiveness of the immorality inherent to the inmate mindset, no one can work as a correctional officer without being stigmatized by association.

The idea that inmates are capable of excessively immoral acts is expanded by various training instructors and experienced officers. Although Carlson made the point through an in-prison incident most others accomplished the same goal by discussing various inmate free-world crimes. Stories about inmate crimes drew clear connections between the actions of the inmates prior to prison and their current status as morally tainted.

A series of quotes illustrates the approach of using inmate’s crimes to demonstrate their moral dirtiness. Flanders, a guest instructor from the victim’s services office with 10 years of correctional experience, told the following story during the 3rd week of training:

There is an inmate who is in prison for shaking his infant son. He kept the child on life support so he would not be charged with murder only assault. Once the child pulled through he signed away his legal rights so he wouldn’t have to pay the medical bills. The child is now in a vegetated state and just sits in a wheel chair all day with a feeding tube.

This story focuses on an especially heinous crime, with an especially defenseless victim. These two traits are common in stories demonstrating inmates’ moral dirtiness. Crimes that victimize children, and sexual crimes are the most common means of communicating the moral dirt of inmates. The moral dirtiness and possible contamination inmates present is not limited to male offenders. Corporal Nicker, a female officer with over 25 years of correctional experience at the Prairie Correctional Center for Women, expanded the theme of moral taint to female inmates. The following statement was made to a group of new officers during their first day of on the job training:

We have a woman here that worked at a daycare and just bashed this kid on the floor until it was dead. We have women here that killed their own kids, we have a woman here that punched this three-year-old until it died and then shoved a quarter in its mouth so it would look like it choked to death.

The quote again focuses on a child victim of a heinous and violent crime. Previous research on correctional staff has found that officers and inmates often have very similar socioeconomic and educational backgrounds (Jacobs 1978; Jacobs & Retsky 1980; Morris & Morris 1980; Poole & Regoli 1981). These similarities could cause new officers to empathize to a degree with inmates and see their crimes as necessary in context. However, children are the most innocent and helpless members of society, which removes virtually any room for interpretation regarding moral taint. This story takes the additional step of showing the offender as lacking remorse. Instead of reporting the crime and showing a remorse for her actions, this offender takes additional steps to conceal her actions. The story shows inmates as morally dirty due to the nature of their victims, and continues to emphasize their untrustworthy and manipulative nature.

Finally, officer Amodopolis, an officer with six months of experience, expanded the moral dirtiness of inmates to the offenders’ families. The following excerpt was told to a pair of new officers during their first day of work:

There’s an inmate that just got here who is 19 and got thrown in here because they caught him butt fucking his sister. It was consensual, but still he was butt fucking his sister. He just couldn’t understand what was wrong with it. You know you would think that since that is what he’s in for they would ban her from his visiting list but oh no she comes in and wears these tight little jeans. The thing of it is, it was his brother that turned him in because he wanted to butt fuck her too but she wouldn’t let him. The brother comes down to visit with the sister and they’ll go into the little vending room and he’ll be trying to feel on her while they’re in there. She always turns to him and says now what would Jesus do? I mean holy shit! What’s wrong with these people?

Unlike the other two quotes this story lacks a child victim. However, incest is fundamentally immoral. The officer goes further in the telling of the story by emphasizing the act as anal sex, which has traditionally been seen as deviant. This means the inmate committed two deviant acts at once making him especially morally dirty. The quote is also distinct in that it expands the moral taint beyond the offender to the environment the offender came from. By asking “what is wrong with these people” the officer is suggesting that it is not just the offender that is tainted but their entire social milieu. In contrast to the other two quotes which focus on child victims, who are especially defenseless but relatively rare, this quote demonstrates that even offenders with adult victims present moral taint.

All three of the preceding quotes ensure new officers realize how morally stigmatized the inmate population is. These are not the most common inmate offenses, at the time of the research possession of a controlled substance, followed by possession with intent to distribute were the two most common incarceration offenses, but they are extreme examples of immoral behavior. In order for new officers to engage in effective stigma management they must first recognize that the work is dirty, and where that dirt comes from. These quotes stress to new officers that the “customers” they serve are morally objectionable people by stressing the most heinous crimes among the offender population. Society has mixed views regarding the morality of drug use and distribution but virtually no such ambiguity exists regarding crimes against children or incest. The point of the stories is to show officers that inmates are not just people who were unlucky in terms of getting caught committing crime, but rather morally inferior and tainted beings.

People outside prison often view officers as very similar to inmates due to their close proximity (Jacobs & Greer 1977). The risk of contamination is the core of social taint associated with dirty work. Several officers discussed the risk of contamination during the research. Some focused on the way the job, and the constant exposure to social taint, changes a person’s behavior. For example, Lieutenant Lisa who had 16 years of correctional experience told the story of her first Thanksgiving after starting as an officer:

I have a big family and they were all gathered around for dinner, and no one would give me the stuffing. I kept asking and asking but no one would give it to me, so finally I said, Give me the fucking stuffing. My family was all in shock because no one talks like that, especially at a family gathering. After hearing that language every day you are going to pick it up even if you don’t want to.

This story illustrates a minor instance of contamination where the officers adopt the language of their stigmatized clientele. Although the story is told in a humorous manner the point is clear that working with inmates will lead to involuntary changes in the officer’s behavior. The majority of officers are acutely aware of this risk and while they cannot avoid the taint of working with offenders they try to avoid contaminating their families. Although some officers speak with their significant others about parts of the job virtually all officers avoid discussing the dirty parts. The rationale for this avoidance is summed up by Atkins, an officer with three years of experience. When asked if he tells his wife about the job he said:

No matter what kind of day it’s been whether good or bad, boring or exciting I tell my wife it was a boring day when nothing happened. I don’t avoid talking about it on purpose it just kind of happens. It’s not fair to her to have her worrying. When I was assaulted by an inmate who punched me in the eye I didn’t tell her because she would assume the worst.

Atkins frames his avoidance of telling his wife as a means of protecting her. Telling his wife all the details of his day would expose her to the same social taint that he must face daily. Officers also avoid discussing the physically dirty aspects of the job with their families, as illustrated by Corporal Hutz (two years of experience) who responded to a question about discussing the job with his wife as follows:

I stayed at work until four in the morning doing forced cell moves at the youth facility. Then I had to go sit at the hospital for two hours after that getting blood drawn because I got piss thrown all over me. I try to leave that stuff out. You know, she doesn’t want to know that I was covered in shit and piss that’s just gross.

Like Atkins, Hutz avoids discussing the physically dirty component of the job with his wife to protect her. In this case the protection is not from worry about her husband’s safety but rather from the contamination that comes from knowing about the dirty nature of the work. He concludes that this situation was gross when discussing his wife knowing about it. However, in telling the story he laughs about it and much of the officers’ humor is focused on exposure to various bodily fluids.

Contrary to the desire to protect their immediate families from the social and physical taint of the job officers reframe these aspects of the job in order to manage the stigma when talking with each other and outsiders. The ability to face immoral, violent inmates and to perform physically dirty work are seen as sources of pride, which set officers apart from the rest of society. The common refrain that “not everyone can do this job” is centered on officers’ ability to manage the physically dirty and dangerous aspects of the job. This reframing allows officers to manage their stigma with outsiders even while being acutely aware of it when interacting with their own families.


Virtually all of the stories pointed to the notion that “not just anybody can do this job” or that it takes a “special” individual to successfully work as a correctional officer. The prominence of this theme is consistent with the work of Tracy & Scott (2007) and Ugelvik (2016) who both found officers stressing the unique characteristics necessary to work in secure institutions. The viewpoint encompasses all three occupational ideologies, but is most dominantly driven by reframing. Three quotes from two different academy instructors and a Field Training Officer (FTO) illustrate the emphasis on this idea. The first quote is from the second week of academy training and was spoken by Officer Akira, the primary training instructor assigned to the class:

If at any point you realize this is not for you come talk to us. We will talk to you and give you some insight, but I’m not going to try to force you to stay. Corrections is not for everybody.

The second quote comes from a guest training instructor, Gumble, during the final week of academy training. The instructor, a late fifties male with over 20 years of experience as an officer, was teaching a course on cell extractions and took the opportunity to compare correctional officers to police officers. He said:

Truly I think that police officers have it easy, they play cops and robbers and deal with the criminal for just a few minutes then they drop them off with us. We have to deal with them every day. The other difference is that a police officer deals with someone and they get rid of them we have to deal with the same people again and again, so this is a much more difficult job than being a police officer. This is a tough job and it’s not for everybody, and I don’t think that most police officers could do what we do.

This quote creates a comparison between police work and correctional work. Gumble suggests that correctional officers have a much more difficult job that police officers could not effectively perform. Previous authors have noted selective social comparison as a method of managing occupational stigma (Ashforth et. al. 2007). However, Ashforth suggests that individuals will compare themselves to “dirtier” occupations and create an air of superiority through the comparison. Although police work is dirty it is seen as more socially acceptable than correctional work. Gumble is actually comparing correctional officers to a less dirty occupation in an attempt to manage stigma.

The theme of needing a special skill set to work in corrections is prevalent in interviews with officers who directly state this view. In terms of story telling the sentiment is not often directly stated as in the above examples but is typically conveyed by stressing all of the abnormal aspects of the job the officers must learn to process.  While the exclusivity of the profession is not directly communicated in most stories, the following exchange between a Field Training Officer (FTO) with over 20 years of experience and a group of new recruits illustrates this concept perfectly.

On the first day of on the job training (during the fourth week of the academy) Christian addressed the new officers:

On average about 50% of the people who complete the academy are no longer with the department within a year, and if you make it to 4-5 years into your career you will look around and be the last person out of your class still here. It’s a high turnover rate but that’s okay it’s a tough gig, and it isn’t for everyone.

Christian then asked Bouvier (a new officer) what she did before this and she replied that she was a certified nurse’s assistant in a nursing home. Christian responded: ““Did you ever have an old person try to kill you? Cause they will here.”

Christian then asked Martin (another new officer) what he did before this and Martin replied that he worked for an insurance company. Christian responded: “When they tried to leave did you shoot them? Cause we do here. The point is that it is a very different job and not everyone can handle it.”

All three of these quotes are in line with the work of Stacey (2005) on home care workers, and Cahill (1996) on funeral home directors. In both instances, individuals who work in stigmatized occupations manage the stigma by taking pride in the “dirty” nature of the work. Specifically, Stacey found that “workers draw meaning from their willingness and ability to perform dirty and mundane tasks that others avoid, knowing that their efforts improve the lives of clients” (Stacey 2005: 845). Individuals reframe the stigma of their occupation into a point of pride by justifying their work as something that only a chosen few could successfully navigate.

Akira, stresses the exclusivity of working in corrections. Despite an ongoing staffing shortage he stresses that he will not force anyone to stay because it takes a “special” person to work in this occupational field. Specifically, the elements of the profession that taint it morally, physically and socially are held up as sources of pride.

The quote from Gumble takes the concept of corrections as something to take pride in a step further by comparing it to police work. Correction officers often compare themselves to the police due to the higher prestige afforded police officers by the public. Gumble’s conclusion that most police officers are not capable of doing correctional work demonstrates the truly exclusive nature of the occupation. Even members of a prestigious occupation could not adequately perform the dirty work required of this job. In the quote Gumble points specifically to the fact that correctional officers must interact with offenders for extended periods of time (i.e. caretaking duties). These caretaking duties, and the extended exposure to social taint are sources of dirty work for correctional officers, yet Gumble suggests these very issues are what cause police officers to be unable to perform the job. This is an instance of reframing, the mundane tasks of caregiving (i.e. providing for the day in and day out needs of a captive population) are elevated to a place of honor. Something as trivial as making sure an inmate has toilet paper is seen as a source of pride because others could not deal with the stress of caring for inmate needs.

The final quote from Christian again reiterates the idea that corrections work takes a special kind of person. Christian also begins to address the specifics of why the job is so unique. He specifically addresses the perception that the job is exceedingly dangerous, “did you ever have an old person try to kill you?” Dangerous occupations are commonly afforded a level of prestige and honor in American society. For example, firefighters could be considered a stigmatized occupation, but they overcome this stigma by pointing out the extreme danger and courage of their work. The common refrain, “it takes a different type of person who wants to run into a burning building” emphasizes the courage required to perform the occupation (Tracy & Scott 2006). Christian is making a similar statement here regarding the ever-present danger in corrections and the special courage it takes to face that danger. Christian is also delineating previous employment experience from the correctional context. He specifically delineates from working in a nursing home, which is typically viewed as dirty work itself, by adding the issue of danger.

Although the exclusivity stressed in these stories illustrates all three stigma management techniques reframing is most prominent. This goal is achieved by stressing the notion that the majority of society could not effectively cope with the moral, physical and social taint associated with correctional work. The stories illustrate that the dirty nature of the work is exactly what makes it a unique profession that should be a source of pride. As discussed above, there is some disagreement in the literature about the precise application of the stigma management terms. Thus, while Tracy and Scott (2007) found similar stressing of the dangerous aspects of correctional work and labeled it as recalibrating, we argue the officers are actually reframing their occupational experience.


The primary method of teaching new members appropriate occupational ideologies regarding stigma management among correctional officers is storytelling. The stories used focus on the inmate mindset which serves two purposes. First it ensures that new officers perceive the correctional officer role as dirty work thus making the need for stigma management clear. The perception is fed by tales of the depravity of inmates both in the crimes they committed and in their institutional behavior. Additionally, stories are told which emphasize the potential for the social taint and moral depravity of inmates to contaminate both the officers and their families. The previous literature on stigma management has focused only on informal storytelling among occupational members. However, in our research we find formal training of new officers to be infused with the same storytelling. This allows stigma management techniques to be both formal and informal in nature which is a key distinction from previous work in this area.

The common thread through most of the stories is the refrain that “not everyone can do this job.” We argue this is an example of reframing, which is the primary stigma management technique among officers. The occupation emphasizes the dirty work of corrections and turns the stigma into a source of pride. Society in general would regard the ability to effectively restrain people, view nudity and clean up fecal matter as extremely stigmatizing. The correctional officer culture instead celebrates the individuals who are most adept at these tasks. This reframing results in officers taking pride in their ability to handle the most stigmatizing aspects of the job.

One final aspect of reframing is the emphasis on the danger of the correctional officer job. The job is seen as dangerous due to the proximity to violent felons, which is also the source of social taint for officers. Officers turn this source of stigma into a source of pride by emphasizing just how dangerous the job is. Several of the stories convey the message that inmates are dangerous, and an officer never knows if they will make it through their shift alive.

There are some limitations to the research. First, the focus was on officers in this research but there are a variety of non-custody personnel working in institutions as well. Future research may explore if non-custody staff utilize the same stigma management techniques as correctional officers. Additionally, the research is from a small Midwestern department of corrections. The culture of this department could be unique and similar research on stigma management is needed in larger and geographically diverse departments.


Correctional officers perform a critical function in the criminal justice system. Although America’s prison population has leveled off over the past five years it remains the largest per capita in the world, five times larger than England’s, six times larger than Australia’s and twelve times higher than Japan’s (Wakefield & Wildeman 2014). This article has explored a critical element of officer culture: stigma management. The modern correctional officer embodies all three forms of taint that label a profession as dirty, and does so in a low prestige occupation.

This research adds to the existing research on dirty work by exploring how occupational stigma management ideologies are transmitted to new members, both formally and informally. Previous research has focused on the informal transmission of culture, and specifically stigma management techniques, through storytelling among veteran and new occupational members. The current research relies heavily on stories taken from the formal training process for new officers. This sets up stigma management techniques as being conveyed in part through formal modes.

Further the article expands on the work of Tracy and Scott (2007) who explored correctional officer stigma management techniques in a small jail and women’s prison. The current study examined stigma management techniques across various security levels and larger state level prisons. Although the findings are similar this expansion to new settings is an important contribution to our understanding of correctional officers.


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Scott Chenault is an Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Missouri. His primary research is in the area of correctional staff and programming. He has published research in the Journal of Qualitative Criminal Justice and Criminology, the Journal of Criminal Justice Education, and in the Sociology journal Symbolic Interaction. 

Brooke Collins holds an MS in Criminal Justice from the University of Central Missouri but is not currently employed in the criminal justice field.

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