Ethics and Culture

Recent events have brought to light an insidious "code of silence" within California's correctional institutions. Although a reluctance to report wrongdoing by co-workers is common in any workplace, the code of silence that has taken hold in the state's prisons and juvenile facilities is deeply destructive, profoundly unacceptable, and symptomatic of an urgent need for cultural reform in the state correctional system.

By allowing misconduct to go unreported and unpunished, the code of silence undermines the very purpose of the correctional system to safely house those committed to its custody and to help them prepare for return to the community. It also damages public safety and erodes the public trust, and demoralizes the majority of correctional officers who perform a difficult job with diligence and professionalism. No positive change can take place in the correctional system until the culture of the entire organization is reformed from the top down and the code of silence is decisively eliminated.


In wrenching testimony to the Legislature in early 2004, correctional employees described in graphic detail the harmful effects of the code of silence in the state's correctional institutions. The department's newly appointed director also acknowledged the code's existence, noting: "Being with the department for 25 years, I have experienced the code of silence first hand. I think there's no question it exists." [1]

Although loyalty among teammates and coworkers who spend significant amounts of time together is natural and desirable, a code of silence that turns a blind eye to serious misbehavior and targets those who try to stop it far exceeds the bounds of tolerance. In effect, the code of silence shifts loyalties from the organizational mission to the organization's members. The code of silence within California's correctional system encourages unethical behavior by allowing it to operate secretly and is indicative of an organizational culture of fear and hypocrisy.

What fosters a code of silence?

Studies have provided clues into the roots of a code of silence. A study by the National Institute of Ethics involving 3,714 peace officers and academy recruits from 42 states found codes of silence to be common in law enforcement agencies throughout the country and also showed that such a code grew out of a belief that reporting misconduct would be futile. The study reported that in one survey that asked 451 officers who had witnessed misconduct but remained silent what they thought would have happened had they reported the misbehavior; only 88 respondents said they believed that those committing the misconduct would have been disciplined. The remaining 363 expressed the belief that either they themselves would have been ostracized, or that the administration would have done nothing about the misconduct. [2]

Administrators may have different reasons for not acknowledging misconduct. Fearing their own termination should serious misconduct be exposed, otherwise honest administrators may choose to hide the misconduct rather than address it. But when subordinates perceive that administrators lack the will or the means to address unacceptable, unethical, and even criminal behavior, employee confidence in the organization erodes. Such an environment may lead some employees to justify their own unethical activities and cause ethical employees to remain silent out of fear of the wrongdoers, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle of misbehavior.

Testimony at the recent legislative hearings clearly illustrated just such a model of self-perpetuating misconduct in the California Department of Corrections, leading senators to describe the department as an institution tarnished from the top down — one that punishes employees who try to do right and protecting those who do wrong. [3] The atmosphere at the hearings was so charged with fear of retaliation by wrongdoers that extra security was provided in the legislative chambers. Witnesses expressed fear for their safety and one senator reported receiving a death threat. [4]

The special master appointed by the U.S. District Court in a lawsuit against the Department of Corrections concerning misconduct by correctional officers at Pelican Bay State Prison described how the department's destructive culture eventually entangles new employees:

The correctional officer recruits who seek employment within the CDC do so with high expectations and positive motives, consistent with other applicants who seek a career in law enforcement. The young men and women who seek CDC employment are not taking peace officer jobs to commit crimes or lie or cover-up the abuses of their co-workers. Somehow, however, the rookie correctional officers who go to work for the CDC are forced to adopt the code of silence. [5]

What can be done?

Transforming the culture of the Department of Corrections and the California Youth Authority into one in which personal integrity and loyalty to the department mission consistently take precedence over loyalty to co-workers suspected of wrongdoing, requires a vigorous, multi-pronged approach. The effort should be guided by quality management principles incorporating clear objectives and purpose; key performance measures; consistent monitoring; and a system of correction and reward. Quality management principles accomplish the following:

  • Provide clarity of purpose in each employee's job;
  • Link each person's work to the department's mission;
  • Foster continual improvement;
  • Bring accountability to all department levels.

Specific tools available in this effort include:

  • A formal cultural assessment

  • An organization's official culture is embodied in its mission statement, procedures, rules and operational routines, and is communicated to its members through official training and written policies. Informal sub-cultures, on the other hand, may run counter to the official or intended culture. A formal cultural assessment, conducted by an outside entity, can identify the values, assumptions, attitudes, expectations, and practices that detract from the mission. Such an assessment can be an effective first step in aligning the informal culture with the organization's mission and helping the organization focus on strategic objectives. A number of organizations, including the National Institute of Corrections, provide cultural assessment services. The National Institute of Corrections has provided such services to at least one California prison in the past.
  • A clear mission statement

  • A well-crafted mission statement defines a common purpose for the organization and is integral to quality management. Clear objectives are necessary in order to motivate members to fulfill an organization's mission, to prevent miscommunication, and create shared values, fairness, and an ethical model at all organizational levels. The present mission statement of the Youth and Adult Correctional Agency falls short of fulfilling that purpose. The mission statement reads:
    Our mission is to develop and implement effective and innovative correctional policy, create a coordinated correctional system which is responsive to the citizen's right to public safety and governmental accountability, and maintain a reputation for excellence and integrity. [6]
  • Integrity at the top

  • Cultural transformation must begin at the highest levels of department management. The chief administrator must be a role model for integrity, must communicate that the department values integrity, and must require the same behavior and philosophy from all managers and supervisors. Commitment by the first-line supervisors to these principles is crucial and deserving of specific training. Such measures are crucial to restoring employee confidence in management's integrity.
  • Recruiting and selecting employees

  • Recruiting practices should select candidates of high moral character. The selection process should include thorough and detailed background investigations conducted by specially trained investigators who are held accountable for the quality of their investigations.
  • Training

  • Indoctrination and training should be designed to prepare recruits to positively influence the correctional environment and to insulate them from negative influences. During the first year of employment, each new academy graduate should be assigned to a field training officer specifically selected and trained for that purpose. The initial probationary employment period should be viewed as part of the recruitment process, with ethical conduct one of the primary criteria by which field training officers evaluate probationers. Field training officers should administer regular examinations to probationers, should themselves be selected for their ethical conduct, and should be rewarded through appropriate salary enhancements.

    Academy ethics training should present relevant, real-life situations commonly faced by correctional officers and should specifically discuss the code of silence. A representative from the Office of the Attorney General could be invited to deliver a presentation to academy cadets on corruption in law enforcement and the consequences of observing a code of silence. Classroom ethics training should be required every two years of all employees, including management, and instructors should incorporate ethical perspectives into all of the classes they teach. Training in ethics must also reach beyond the classroom, with supervisors and trainers taking advantage of "teachable moments" presented throughout in the course of the work day to instruct employees and reinforce ethical behavior. (See Chapter 5, Personnel and Training, for additional discussion in this area.)

  • A code of conduct

  • A clearly defined code of conduct to which all employees, including management, are held accountable should include language specifically requiring employees to report misconduct and a statement to be signed by each employee affirming that they have no knowledge of unreported wrongdoing and will report any misconduct they encounter in the future. The code of conduct can be supplemented by guidelines from management governing situations and circumstances employees commonly encounter. Standards for sworn employees should also define expected behavior off-duty.
  • Disciplinary sanctions

  • Discipline must be fair, timely, and consistently administered to all employees, regardless of rank or position. The department should develop a set of model disciplinary guidelines as a tool to ensure that similar infractions receive similar and fair disciplinary action. Disciplinary sanctions for violating the code of conduct should be clearly defined and included in the code. The department should publicize investigation results and disciplinary actions in a manner consistent with applicable statutes and rules concerning employee privacy. (See Chapter 3, Employee Investigations and Discipline, for additional discussion.)
  • Providing a way to report misconduct

  • Management must provide a means for employees to report misconduct, anonymously if necessary, without fear of reprisal. The process must include rules to protect those who report misconduct. It must also include disciplinary action against those who fail to report misconduct and against those who retaliate against employees who do report it. To avoid discouraging employees who have failed to report misconduct in the past from coming forward, the disciplinary scale should be graduated to allow less harsh sanctions for those who failed to report immediately, but who later volunteer information about misconduct. A report by an independent review panel of an investigation into the Los Angeles Police Department Rampart scandal, noted that harsh discipline for failing to report misconduct, in some instances deterred reporting by those who might otherwise have reconsidered their initial inclination to keep quiet. [7]
  • Monitoring performance

  • Monitoring employee performance is essential to the quality management model. Monitoring should be based on key performance measures and should include an assessment of an employee's adherence to the department's code of conduct. Measuring performance through monitoring or audit techniques provides the evidence for needed improvements and for recognition of excellence. Key performance measures incorporate desired or necessary results that can be evaluated to determine the extent to which an employee's performance meets the organization's mission. Performance indicators might include the number of disciplinary actions involving the employee, complaints from inmates or co-workers, consistency in performing prescribed tasks, involvement in use-of-force incidents, and awards or commendations received. Annual employee appraisals should include a rating of each employee's adherence to the department's code of conduct, and supervisors at all levels should be evaluated annually by employees under their direct supervision, anonymously if necessary. This assessment provides management with an important perspective by which to rate supervisor effectiveness. Having a consistently updated and accurate computer database is critical to monitoring and to evidence-based management.
  • Recognition of meritorious actions

  • Recognizing and rewarding ethical behavior is just as important as disciplining unethical behavior in building a positive cultural environment. Employees who have displayed exceptional moral courage or have been influential models of ethical behavior should be publicly commended.
  • Cross-functional teams

  • Using cross-functional teams to solve problems can foster a positive cultural environment by lessening territoriality, sparking creativity, motivating employee innovation, and leading to an atmosphere of continual improvement. [8;9] In a traditional model, when a problem arises, management assigns the task of resolving the problem to one segment of the organization, even if the problem affects the organization as a whole. In contrast, a cross-functional team, or "matrix management" model, assigns the problem to a manager whose organizational unit most closely relates to the problem. That manager then forms a cross-functional team of members from key parts of the organization and leads the team in a strategic effort to address the problem. The combined expertise of the diverse organizational units enhances the team's capability of solving the problem and helps eliminate barriers that develop when separate divisions act independently. Cross-functional teams are a powerful vehicle for addressing problems common to the whole organization, including those involving organizational and cultural reform. They can be especially effective where the issues to be addressed lend themselves to a project orientation, such as managing specific litigation or monitoring policy compliance.

  • Structuring the organization to promote accountability

  • The organizational structure must closely connect management with staff, clearly define lines of authority and accountability, and support effective communication. (Chapter 1, A Reorganization Plan for Corrections, presents the panel's recommendations in this area.)


The Corrections Independent Review Panel recommends that the new Department of Correctional Services take the following actions:

  • Arrange with an outside entity to conduct a cultural assessment of the state correctional system to identify issues needing reform. Arrange for a follow-up assessment every two years.

  • Ensure that Department of Correctional Services managers and administrators serve as role models for integrity and that they require the same behavior from employees.

  • Provide a means for employees to report misconduct, anonymously if necessary, without fear of reprisal.

  • Strengthen recruiting standards to select candidates of high moral character.

  • Conduct thorough and detailed background investigations of all peace officer applicants. The investigations should be performed by specially trained investigators who are held accountable for the quality of the investigations.

  • Assign new academy graduates to a field training officer during the probationary period. Field training officers should be selected on the basis of proven job experience and positive ethical behavior and should be specifically trained to mentor and critique new employees.

  • Require every employee to sign an official code of conduct that clearly defines cooperating in a code of silence as misconduct. Include in the code an affirmation that the employee has no knowledge of unreported wrongdoing and will report any future misconduct. Accompany the code of conduct with a list of the disciplinary sanctions to be imposed for violating the code.

  • Discipline employees who fail to report misconduct or who retaliate against or harass employees who do report misconduct.

  • Demand that the off-duty conduct of peace officers be identical to the high standards required on duty.

  • Enhance academy training to include ethical considerations relevant to every employee's specific job.

  • Require in-service training in ethics at least every two years for all employees.

  • Invite the Office of the Attorney General to lecture on the "code of silence" and corruption during department training.

  • Establish a system of accountability that includes performance measures by which to evaluate employees and monitor levels of achievement.

  • Develop a new mission statement that succinctly expresses the department's goals and objectives.

  • Include a rating of each employee's adherence to the code of conduct in the annual employee appraisal. Supervisors should be evaluated annually by the staff who report directly to them.

  • Administer discipline fairly, timely, and consistently to all employees, regardless of rank or position.

  • Establish a new commendation: the "medal of integrity," to be publicly awarded to employees who have displayed exceptional moral courage.

  • Publicize commendation and disciplinary actions at a level of detail that will not violate applicable statutes or rules.

  • Employ "quality management" principles and methods, such as the use of cross-functional teams and evidence-based decision models.

  • Develop an organizational structure that supports accountability at all levels.

  • Select and train supervisors to display the leadership and courage necessary to reinforce the ethical principles of the department.

Fiscal Implications

The cost of conducting initial cultural assessments at all California youth and adult correctional facilities and headquarters offices would total approximately $1.6 million dollars. The cost is based on estimates from a nationally recognized expert in conducting cultural assessments at correctional facilities and assumes a cost of $40,000 for each of California's 32 adult facilities and $30,000 for each of the state's eight youth correctional facilities.


[1] Associated Press, "New Prisons Chief Says Corrosive `Code of Silence' Must End," NBC TV Channel 4, Los Angeles (Last visited March 23, 2004),
[2] National Institute of Ethics, Police Code of Silence Facts Revealed, by Neal Trautman [Last visited March 24, 2004.].
[3] Don Thompson (Associated Press), "Prison System Blasted by Lawmakers, New Administration," North County Times (San Diego) (January 20, 2004) /1_20_0422_21_25.txt.
[4] Thompson, "Prison System Blasted by Lawmakers, New Administration," North County Times.
[5] United States District Court, Northern District of California, Special Master's Report Re: Department of Corrections "Post Powers" Investigations and Employee Discipline, by John Hagar, Special Master, January 15, 2004, p. 79.
[6] Youth and Adult Correctional Agency, Mission Statement, [last visited May 11, 2004.]
[7] Rampart Independent Review Panel, Report to the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners Concerning the Operations, Policies and Procedures of the Los Angeles Police Department in the Wake of the Rampart Scandal, November 16, 2000, p. 11.
[8] International Organization for Standardization, Quality Management Principles, [last visited May 4, 2004.]
[9] Strategic Futures Consulting Group, Inc., "Cross Functional Teams," [last visited May 4, 2004.]