Cells for Suites: Why Corruption in Prison Matters, and What To Do About It

In the latest chapter of Philippine corruption drama, a police raid of a large prison complex revealed the lavish accommodations enjoyed by several drug lords. The luxury cells included jacuzzis, strip bars, and marble-tiled bathrooms. Police also uncovered methamphetamines, inflatable sex dolls, and a small concert stage, complete with strobe lights and a disco ball. The prisoners involved were found with over $40,000 each in their pockets, which they had kept on hand in order to pay off prison officials. It is incredible that such a blatant abuse of the system took place under the watch of government officials. As one anticorruption advocate noted, the scandal highlighted the frustrating truth that, due to widespread corruption in the prison system, even a conviction does not guarantee that justice has been done.

The Philippine example may be extreme, but the issue of prison corruption is an important one, and it receives far less attention from the anticorruption community than it should. To be sure, there have been a few studies about this topic, including the U4 Issue Report on Detention and Corrections, released in January 2015. But the U4 Report, while helpful in some ways, contains only broad, general assessments about the possible causes of corruption among prison officials. Moreover, the report considered the issue of prison corruption in isolation—it focused only on the effects of such corruption on the prison itself, without addressing the effects on the broader fight against corruption in society at large. While prosecutorial efforts and institutional reforms are crucial to anticorruption efforts, it is also extremely important that prison officials act in accordance with the law, and ensure that justice is, in fact, done.

Prison corruption–especially on the grand scale revealed in the Philippine case–can undermine the deterrent effects of criminal punishment, as perpetrators know that the most unappealing aspects of prison – isolation, lack of privacy, separation from loved ones – need not exist for those who can afford to pay bribes. This, in turn, may lead some potential criminals to view the expected costs of criminal activity as minimal, and to undertake illegal actions so long as they can generate enough revenue to sustain a comfortable lifestyle in prison. This is particularly troubling when one considers the type of behavior that is most likely to be affected by corruption in prison. As the outrageous Philippine scandal demonstrates, the criminals who benefit the most from prison corruption are well-connected individuals whose criminal activity can generate enough money to fund large bribes. Thus, corruption in prison can encourage crimes involving activities such as drug dealing, human trafficking, and, indeed, other types of corruption.

If prison corruption has the potential to encourage not just criminal activity, but also corruption in other sectors, why have studies been so limited, and focused primarily on the effects on the prison community alone? One reason may be that prisons tend to be more sheltered from the public view. Fewer people are likely to observe suspect behavior, and fewer still are likely to have paid a bribe to a prison official. Thus, even in communities where corruption is rampant in other areas of government, concerned citizens will be less likely to call for action in prisons, which remain largely out of sight. Additionally, as the U4 Issue Report noted, prisons tend to function like mini-governments within themselves. The incentive to intervene for a sector perceived as separate and apart from the rest of the community is limited when compared with the corrupt actions that are a part of more people’s daily lives. Measures to address the issue of prison corruption must account for the unique challenges presented by the isolation and secrecy that protects prison officials. With this in mind, here are a few potential steps that could be taken to alleviate the problem:

  • Increase access. In order deal with the isolated nature of prisons, governments should grant access to media and civil society groups. Such groups would not only serve an important role in monitoring activities within the prison; they could also inspire the larger community to call for action by bringing corrupt acts to the public’s attention. Over time, more anticorruption organizations may become more cognizant of the need for reform.
  • Targeted oversight. It may be helpful to increase oversight of the inmate populations most likely to take advantage of corrupt prison officials. As I discussed above, bribery in prison requires a strong network and access to financial resources. Perhaps, to decrease the opportunities for corrupt exchanges, anticorruption agencies and oversight bodies could pay particular attention, or even physically separate out, well-connected politicians or individuals tied to large criminal syndicates.
  • Reporting incentives. Tactics used to persuade confidential informants to work with law enforcement might be utilized in the corruption context. Anticorruption agencies could negotiate deals with inmates who are willing to present credible claims against corrupt prison officials in exchange for shorter sentences, protection, or other benefits. Such efforts, however, must be subject to adequate oversight, to ensure that agency officials also refrain from abusing the system.
  • Surveys. To improve information on the prevalence of corruption in prison, anticorruption agencies and watchdog organizations could also conduct corruption perception surveys specifically targeting incarcerated individuals. Such research would aid governments and activists in diagnosing, evaluating, and addressing the issue.
  • Reentry outreach. Despite the isolation of prison itself, many incarcerated individuals will eventually be released back into the community. Organizations may find it useful to reach out to former prisoners to report acts of corruption, serve as witnesses, and even become advocates for reform. Ex-convicts could share their own personal experiences with bribery and expose injustices suffered by those who could not afford to pay bribes. This could provide individuals with a productive and empowering path to reentering the community.

Recognizing the problems the corruption in prison issue poses to broader efforts, the anticorruption community should work harder to remain vigilant and develop better solutions. The insidious nature of this issue demands a stronger response.

9 thoughts on “Cells for Suites: Why Corruption in Prison Matters, and What To Do About It

  1. As you note Bea, this is clearly an issue that needs more attention, particularly as prisons are so vulnerable to all types of abuses. Anecdotally, I lived in Cameroon for a few years and the prison for the subprefecture was in my village. Family members of prisoners would often bribe officials in order to give their relatives food, medical supplies, and clothing. Prison conditions across the board were so horrendous, that these bribes/gifts were often necessary to meet the prisoners’ basic needs. To be sure, the presence of corruption still undermined the rule of law (and was certainly of no benefit to the prisoners’ whose family could not afford to bribe officials and provide resources), but this still puts the anticorruption advocate in a difficult situation. The type of bribery you describe should definitely be tackled, but the anticorruption world also needs to put some thought into how they allocate resources and approach the issue. In situations where prison conditions are below a certain basic standard (for example if medical attention is unavailable, if physical abuse is a constant threat), it could be difficult to argue we should be focusing on stamping out the bribes which allow people to improve these conditions for themselves.

    • Important point, Melanie. It shows that, in prison, there are bribes and then there are _bribes_. They seem to differ in degree, rather than form – both go to maintaining a certain standard of living; it’s just that, in Cameroon, it is a basic standard of living that should be guaranteed by any state incarceration institution. I’m not sure whether a systematic anticorruption approach or a targeted approach aimed at the well-connected individuals would be the best early strategy. In light of the your and Bea’s discussion, I’m inclined to think the latter. Bea’s recommendation for physical separation could be important. I don’t know much about prison systems but I expect organized crime kingpins recreate their syndicates in prison, establishing a hierarchy that depends heavily on low-level members of the group/gang, as well. Cutting off communication between the people at the top and their potential cronies might at least isolate the problem and make it a question of penalizing the right person, rather than dismantling an entire structure.

      However, this strategy would undermine the last three recommendations, which require voluntary reporting. I can understand how a prisoner who does not have resources and cannot benefit from the system would be willing to provide information to authorities. If they are physically unable to observe their better-connected inmates, though, they will have little information to provide. And I think you would have to offer the prisoners with the disco balls a lot in order to get them to talk and I’m not sure this is the right move – it sounds like a win-win for the corrupt actor.

    • Melanie, that’s a great point, and certainly one that many countries will have to keep in mind when addressing the issue. I don’t think, though, that addressing one type of bribery is necessarily at odds with the type of bribery you describe. Most of the suggestions I raise really aim to shine a brighter light on what’s happening inside the prison. Part of the problem is that prison officials are able to wield their power in two very powerful ways–as a carrot and as a stick. Bribes might be solicited for extravagant favors, as was the case in the Philippines, or demanded as payment to avoid further punishment, as seems to be the case in Cameroon. Liz’s point–that basic standards of living should be guaranteed by any state incarceration institution–is key, and one that the anticorruption community should certainly keep in mind going forward. Certain necessities, like food or medical supplies, should be provided to all equally, rather than subject to pay. I would think that requiring payment for those things necessary to survival would similarly constitute corruption, and perhaps a stronger case against the official, rather than the person paying the bribe.

  2. This is a great post highlighting an important issue. Your highlighting of the (at least) dual way prison corruption contributes to overall corruption–by decreasing the deterrent effect and by increasing the likelihood of prisoners engaging in corrupt activities that have spillover effects outside of prison–seems spot-on, as does your observation that people tend to be more worried about the corruption issues they perceive as affecting their daily lives directly. What sort of access to Phillipine NGOs and civil society currently have to prisons? Anything? Also, though of course it’s a problem that needs to be addressed on both the “supply” and “demand” sides (i.e., the people giving the bribes and the people receiving them), do we need to particularly focus on the prison officials and employees in some way beyond monitoring? I’m a bit hesitant to bring it up, since the monitoring-type techniques you suggest do seem to be the most effective solution, but are there any other reforms that could be instituted on the guards-and-officials side of things to make it more difficult to engage in corruption or to find/create employees who are less corruptible (the latter might be so difficult and require such large-scale action that perhaps it’s not really even on the table)?

    • Katie, I do think there are other reforms that could be instituted on the guards and officials themselves, although these could be far more difficult to implement, as you seem to suggest. In particular, better training and salaries come to mind, but, as is the case in other contexts, it’s a question how effective such measures are in reducing corruption. I do think that the monitoring techniques will have an effect on the guards and officials though– monitoring third parties, may make it more difficult for them to engage in corruption, and targeted oversight could give institutions a more effective way to place “less corruptible” employees.

  3. I particularly think that your idea on increasing access is important. Both media and civil society groups could assist in raising public awareness of what happens in the shaded areas of the society. Not only in the Philippines, but my intuition tells me that there are many other societies around the world where people don’t have enough access to prisons to allow them to fully understand the prison operations. This rose as an issue in South Korea very recently as well and many were concerned that the non transparent nature only furthered the possibility of corruption from lack of monitoring.

    • I agree, and one thing I did not bring up that was a big issue for oversight in the Philippine case is the sheer size of prisons. The prison in the case I discuss housed 23,000 inmates at the time, which made it easier for the drug lords to build such extravagant structures. Size might also be an issue we’ll need to consider in addition to access — are prisons small enough that media and civil society could plausibly monitor the entire facility?

  4. Bea, the facts from corruption in the Philippines are always mind-boggling, and I think your recommendations all make a lot of sense. I do wonder, however, whether the lavish conditions that some can bribe their way into while in prison really do eliminate the deterrent effect of prison itself. Presumably those with blow up dolls would rather be with their families and those with disco balls would rather be going to a full concert on the outside. While it is mind-boggling that such blatant and large scale corruption was able to occur in what is supposed to be the most regulated of environments, I wonder how much the existence of bribeable jails decreases the perceived cost of crime. After all, presumably those who have $40k within the prison walls presumably had far, far more on the outside. There has been a flurry of news coverage lately about the radical humaneness of Norway’s Super Max prison, but their ‘comfortable jail’ model (though there is no corruption) does not seem to be decreasing the deterrence of criminal punishment.

  5. It’s so horrifying to think that these individuals have managed to circumvent the very system we would celebrate as an anticorruption victory. I agree with all your recommendations and everything that was said above! I was just wondering if you had any knowledge about the logistics of how this happened? How was the money transferred? How did the actual construction of these luxury cells and event stage happen without anyone noticing? Is there a prison account system as there is here in the U.S.? I think that could also give important insight into combatting this in the future. Perhaps establishing targeted oversight into money entering and leaving the prison system would help? Or maybe abolishing it altogether?

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