Enlightenment is well and good, but a prison is still a prison

March 20, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

Few people in Washington County have better stories to tell than the correctional officers who serve at the state prison complex south of Hagerstown.

They recount these tales of prison life with an almost bored, "nothing new here, happens all the time" detachment. Yet to someone unfamiliar with the happenings behind the high walls and concertina wire, they are jaw-dropping.

Every so often we get a glimpse. An inmate is murdered on a bus, a hearing officer is briefly held hostage by an inmate with a knife. But you can be sure, these are the iceberg's high-profile tips.

I hear fewer of these stories now, because a number of my correctional officer acquaintances are now former correctional officers. They viewed the situation on the inside as too hot or too hopeless. One was a whistle-blower who found himself in hot water with the administration for making waves. The lucky ones have some other vocation to turn to, but most don't.


Although they're out of our sight, these officers shouldn't be out of our minds. A confluence of events dating back more than a decade has put them at increased risk, and it would be far better to right the ship now than to wait until something terrible happens - which at the rate Maryland is going, it almost certainly will.

The (Baltimore) Sun reported last week that the Maryland prison system is becoming one of the more violent ones in the nation. Since January 2004, there have been six inmate murders. New York has a prison population twice the size of Maryland's, but since 2002, it's had only four, according to the Sun.

The thought of inmates carving each other up won't elicit more than a shrug from the public, but we should be nervous that it's only a matter of time until an officer gets caught in the crossfire.

The roots of the problem took hold in the '90s when the state happily went along with the trend of locking up everyone for everything, putting the clamps on parole and eliminating any serious attempts at education that might give a few inmates a chance at rehabilitation.

Predictably, the inmate population soared - from 16.600 in 1990 to 24,000 today. Predictably the state didn't allocate money to handle the increase. And predictably, today, lawmakers are nowhere to be found to address an impending crisis of their own making.

In fact, the state is cutting correction officer positions to save money, a procedure euphemistically referred to as "right sizing." So the prison population grows by 50 percent and the state concludes the staff that watches them needs to be cut?

State Correction Commissioner Frank Sizer Jr. essentially says that the quality of the staff is more important than quantity. He says violence can be reduced through an atmosphere that stresses inmate-guard communication and mutual respect. "We need to raise our expectations of inmates," he told the Sun. "No matter where you are in life, a certain amount of dignity and respect is expected as a human being. You treat him like an animal, he's going to act like an animal."

The older and wiser among the correction-officer population understand what Sizer is talking about, and they understand its overall importance. But they also understand that prisons are not touchy feely places, and that some who are treated as human beings will still act like animals. As they said in "Coolhand Luke," some men you just can't reach.

Others, you can. A minority will use the education and social work they are availed of in prisons and make themselves into productive citizens where, without the help, they would have become lifelong criminals and eventually a lifelong inmates.

In between these extremes are thousands of men, no two of whom will react in the same way. It's up to officers to determine what percentage of carrot and what percentage of stick will produce the desired result.

A prison staff consisting solely of psychology Ph.D.s would have a tough time figuring it out, much less a kid out of high school who's putting on the uniform for the first time.

Sizer is right, of course. Education, understanding and communication are important and should be part of any modern penal system.

But in a prison, discipline and control come first. Sizer says a smaller staff doesn't mean less control; correctional officers disagree. Not being in the business, I don't know who's right - but I do think this is a case where you should do some very serious listening to the men and woman who are on the front lines.

Because if the correctional officers say it matters to them, it should matter to the state. If the best, brightest and most experienced among the staff become fed up and leave, Sizer will have lost the very people - perhaps the only people - qualified to successfully carry out his ideas of communication and understanding.

Rehabilitation efforts and maintenance of control should not be an either/or proposition. But thanks to the General Assembly and its propensity to order everything on the menu and then walk out of the restaurant without paying, this would appear to be the case. If something bad happens, the legislature will want answers - and they will be the answer to their own question.

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