Dirty work and discipline behind bars

Sarah Tracy, Clifton Scott

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

17 Scopus citations


Over quesadillas at a local mexican restaurant, Nouveau Jail Correctional Officer Rick Neod described the most disgusting incident of his first six months working behind bars. I was working in disciplinary, and I had an unprocessed person. . . . Big guy, probably about 250 pounds, maybe 5'8", kind of short, stocky. . . . The guy, who was breaking me for lunch, comes back and says, "Our guy in 12 is smearing shit all over the wall." And I've heard stories about people with excrement issues, but this was the first time I had dealt with it . . . I almost had a reflex. I almost threw up, just seeing it. . . . He was actually writing on the wall names of girls that he had dated in the past. So me and Derrick went to get him out of his cell to move him up to isolation where he could be seen by crisis management, since he wasn't all there. We started talking to him, real laid back, like, "Whose are those names up there? Are those your girlfriends?" And he said, "Yeah." And Derrick was really good about it. . . . And the guy inserted his fingers into his mouth. And sucked on them. And that was just like, oh my gosh! It was a shock, but it's . . . kind of like a baptism for me, being exposed to that. He ended up, I mean, he was not combative with us. Derrick just opened up the door and the guy kept on licking his fingers. You can't stop him from licking his fingers. Working as a correctional officer-the euphemistic and workerpreferred label for a "prison guard"-is a dirty job. Past research has classified the profession as a type of "dirty work" (Ashforth & Kreiner, 1999), and officers' activities are dirty physically, socially, and morally (Hughes, 1951). Officers have to work in a dreary environment imbued with the constant threat of violence and must engage in materially dirty activities such as cleaning up after inmates and conducting strip searches. They also deal with a socially stigmatized segment of the population (Davis, 1998), and therefore deflect the taint that rubs off from their inmate clients (Brodsky, 1982). Last, because officers feel disdain and moral questioning from the larger public, as well as from other criminal justice employees, officers continually have to make sense of, manage, and deflect moral taint associated with their job. In this chapter, we provide a descriptive picture of the various types of dirty work correctional officers face and repeatedly combat. Examining dirty work among correctional officers is a particularly important issue, given the profession's high level of burnout, emotional stress, employee shortages, and turnover (Tracy, 2004b; 2005). Many of these problems are directly related to difficulties officers have in managing a preferred identity in the face of work duties and societal perceptions that suggest correctional officers are no more than "professional babysitters" and "the scum of law enforcement" (Tracy & Scott, 2006). In providing a description of officers' dirty work, we highlight the organizational practices and communicative interactions that continually reconstruct the filth associated with correctional work and the ways officers engage in "taint management" techniques to negotiate and temper the threatening "stain" of their work. Taint management occurs through dayto- day practices such as reframing dirty tasks as valuable and focusing upon positive aspects of the job.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationDirty Work
Subtitle of host publicationThe Social Construction of Taint
PublisherBaylor University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Print)9781932792737
StatePublished - Dec 1 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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