Reduced prison staff can lead to trouble

February 22, 2004|by Lloyd "Pete" Waters

Recently, on the front page of your newspaper, I read with interest and concern the article that quoted a study which suggested that "Prisons need fewer guards, and more counselors." Deputy Secretary of Public Safety Livers further commented that "the climate in the prisons has been good" and that she has "talked to wardens across the state."

When I read this article, I actually thought the report was transmitted from the rover on Mars since her comments are so far removed from reality. Since my retirement as a warden in July of 2003, many, many staff from the local prisons have expressed to me an increasing concern about their safety within the prison environment as a result of overtime and staffing reductions.

I know for certain that staff around the state do not share the deputy secretary's optimism about the prison climate. I wondered to myself if she ever walks the prison corridors, and if she does, why is it that staff are reluctant to tell her how they really feel about their safety? I realize that some people only like to hear the good stuff and some people refer not to engage at all in a healthy discussion and debate about the issues especially if it represents an opposing view. Unfortunately, in my humble opinion and observation, the expression of different views seems currently limited in the Department of Public Safety.


Since I no longer work for the Division of Corrections, but am very much concerned for the staff who do work in our prisons, I needed to respond to this article.

Staffing is always in the eyes of the beholder. One expert may see too many staff and another expert may see too few. It is not an exact science. Differences in the architectural design of prisons can impact a staffing analysis as can many other factors.

If Deputy Secretary Livers would study the history of her department, she would note some serious past disturbances at several of the prisons, some lengthy consent decrees and federal court interventions, and at least one correctional officer death and many other staff assaults.

As the number of staff positions decrease, one should anticipate the number of problems within the prison to increase much in the same fashion that occurs when you remove the policeman from the corner and the criminal assumes control. People who believe otherwise are in for a rude awakening.

Many states have become trendy in their thinking. Not so long ago some states thought that a criminal should have three strikes (or criminal convictions) and be locked up forever afterwards.

Since they can no longer afford that position, they now proffer that it makes little or no sense to incarcerate the individual with a drug problem. We can save millions of dollars if we treat these individuals instead of locking them up and we can reduce our public safety budget, many states have now concluded.

These experts surely know, however, that once the individual is treated and released and returns to the same drug-infested environment, cannot secure a job, or have the community support necessary to result in success, programs like RESTART become just another just another catchy political phrase without results. Ten million Eveready batteries will not make your program start without some major work in the communities especially in the area of meaningful jobs, individual values, and the reduction of drugs.

Untreated drug problems for the individual can also result in more serious escalation of criminal activity.

In the meantime, the reduction of custody positions in the prisons is not a good idea not only because of staff safety but inmate safety and security as well. It is also contrary to the governor's pledge that he would not impact the budget of public safety if elected. The governor, secretary, deputy secretary and others would be wise to further review this matter before more serious consequences occur.

Also, Deputy Secretary Livers should fully understand that unless you permit and encourage good open discussion and debate among your staff, especially for those in the category who work "at the pleasure" of the boss, that these individuals will never tell you what their years of experience have taught them. You really can't blame them, can you? Listening to opposite views, although sometimes difficult, can be an enriching experience.

The decision to reduce staff at the local prisons does not suggest an open discussion of the real issues and as soon as you have a major disturbance, serious injury or death, there will be other experts calling for an increase in staff numbers as they have done in the past. I thank you for the opportunity to share an "opposing view" as it truly represents a "pleasurable" experience for me.

Lloyd "Pete" Waters is a retired state prison warden living in Sharpsburg.

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