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Get serious about prison violence

March 03, 2007|by LLOYD WATERS

Our legislators are apparently just now becoming aware of the violence in prisons and want to study the problem. Sen. Vera Jones, with a little help from her friend Sen. Don Munson and others, is trying to determine who should be on this committee. After living through the riots of 1970, 1971, 1972, 1990 and 1991 at MCI-H, and counting the deaths of three correctional officers and many more inmate homicides, I can't help but ask, "Why did it take you so long?"

Violence is something that has been around since Cain and Abel, if you believe that story. Another possibility is that it is something that is learned. Violence is born in a cradle, grows in a home without light, love and parenting, and viciously multiplies in those environments where illiteracy, poverty and drugs are rampant.

Throw in a little greed, an inadequate education system, no supervision and a little hip hop gangster beat and you have the ingredients for the recipe of violence. Let it flourish and the violence then becomes a problem for the community. The police and courts become involved and are overwhelmed by the increasing statistics. Politicians always promise to fix the problem and curb the violence. We'll lock them up, clean up the streets, and decide what to do with them later. How much later is obviously another matter.

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As violence increases in our prisons, we all get concerned and some want to study it and fix the problem, while others want to accept it as a normal happening in a prison. So what's the fix? That may be a difficult question to answer, but in a prison, violence must be controlled. How? You do that with a plan to identify and separate the violent predator from other inmates.

As they leave the courtroom, and arrive at the prison diagnostic center, these individuals should be assessed and those individuals with a violent history should begin their incarceration behind the cell door 23 hours a day in the most secure prison available. If others choose to display violence they should reap the same restriction.

As they begin to understand that violent behavior is unacceptable, let them work their way off this restrictive status by demonstrating good behavior. Absent the demonstration of good behavior, they stay behind the door. By utilizing appropriate positive and negative reinforcement with these individuals, I believe that violence can be significantly reduced behind the prison walls. I have seen positive results in this regard. A highly trained staff is also essential as part of this program, along with strong supervision.

Once the violence is reduced in a prison setting, the other programs such as education, vocational training and self-help are apt to achieve more productive results. Absent control of the violence, these programs are doomed in achieving the positive results desired.

Without strong and effective leadership, violence in the prison environment will not be reduced. During the last four years, if you examine closely the number of assaults by inmates on inmates and inmates on staff, as well as the number of inmate and staff homicides in the Maryland Division of Correction, you must conclude that violence is prevalent in this prison system.

If there are statistics to refute this conclusion, I would like to see them. Are leaders of the Department of Public Safety responsible for controlling violence in those prisons under their supervision? That answer should be obvious. It would seem that the Saar and Livers administration did little to achieve the reduction of violence within the prisons during the last four years. Will the Maynard and Livers team do any better? Time will tell.

Our politicians today have finally recognized that Rome is burning. Whether or not they have the fortitude and wisdom to put out the fire is altogether another matter. Good luck on your study, and finding that bucket of water.

Lloyd "Pete" Waters is a retired prison warden who lives in Sharpsburg.

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