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Prison harmony

September 02, 2007|By Lloyd Waters

As a former prison warden, I read with interest the three-part prison series recently published in The Herald Mail. Most of the articles centered on prison violence, gangs and safety issues, which are so important to the welfare of staff and inmates alike.

For just a moment, I would like to share a few things that are also noteworthy and can occur if there is a little harmony within the prison.

In 1991, I was reassigned to the Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown after a major prison riot with many injuries to staff and inmates and a great deal of physical destruction. The prison was in serious distress and fear was rampant.

With the help of many fine professionals and a cadre of community volunteers, we set out to build a team that could make a difference. Taxpayers today spend some $22,000 a year to incarcerate one prisoner. What are you getting for your money?

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Many in our society would like to lock up the criminals and throw away the key. Reality, however, suggests that 99 percent of all inmates will be released back into the community. How would you have them return if they were to live next door to you upon their release?

Another glaring statistic is that within five years of release, 60 or more of every 100 will return to prison. Are you getting the most for your tax dollars?

A lot of prisoners enter prison with more violence in them than some of Michael Vick's fighting pit bulls. These individuals are housed routinely in the same prisons with some prisoners who do not have the same amount of violence and are trying to do their time and go home.

I wonder what might happen in Vick's dog pound if you housed some very violent dogs with some others a little more docile. Might the docile dogs become a little more violent?

I then thought of the vicious murder of a family in Connecticut, allegedly by two career criminals who had previously served time for burglaries. What did they learn in prison? And from whom?

Violent predators, in whatever environment you find them, must be controlled, separated and confined. We routinely did this in the aftermath of the riot at MCI-H.

Like the mythical phoenix, MCI-H would rise from those ashes of the 1991 prison disturbance and become something special and different from its peers.

Shortly afterward, the prison operation was returned to normal and a course was charted to create a safe environment for staff and inmates. A second objective was to make the individual leaving prison a little better off than he was when he arrived. I believe we were successful on both fronts.

We were very creative and did some things that few people ever read about on the street. Many administrators today would not even attempt some of these things.

We had an institutional Jaycee group that washed employee cars and collected aluminum cans to make money. The money was placed in a Jaycee account and at the end of the year this money was distributed to various charity groups in the community.

An estimated $100,000 was donated over a 10-year period. The lesson of giving something back to the community, I thought, might be useful for the inmate.

Ira Avance, a singing, dancing machine, put together a music group called "Harmony" which we adopted as our jailhouse band. We encouraged people to promote their talents in a positive way.

Harmony did a fundraiser show after the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy and we raised some $5,000 for the firefighters and Todd Beamer foundation of New York City while charging admission to the inmate population as well as staff, volunteers and their families to attend the show. All were seated in the same auditorium.

Imagine inmates donating their limited funds to victims of the 9/11 tragedy.

Our volunteers participated in many self-help programs, but one program, an "Alternative to Violence" group, was very helpful in conjunction with the other things we were doing.

At one time, our disciplinary segregation numbers were fewer than 10 for a population of 1,862 inmates. No other institution in this country will ever see a number like that.

I remember one day standing in the middle of my courtyard surrounded by 700 inmates watching a staff verses inmate softball game, while our concession stand sold hot dogs and sodas.

Staff won that game and I suspect staff and inmates alike learned a little something about relationships and respect. Later, we would had staff-inmate basketball games and the inmates would usually win those. My staff couldn't jump as high.

We were the first institution to invite victims of the Stephanie Roper committee to confront inmates and share the victim's story.

Although a few states had experimented with similar programs, this was a first for Maryland. I believe both inmates and victims benefited from this effort.

Gospel music shows were held with the various groups participating. Teaching right from wrong always seemed reasonable to me.

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