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Motivating inmates with new methods

April 14, 2008

When my wife and I first discussed having children almost 30 years ago, she made a statement that went something like this: "I can foresee no reason that we would ever have to physically discipline a child."

Then came our first child, a tornado on two legs who could get so worked up that sometimes it took a smack on the butt just to get his attention.

Sometimes, given a choice between talking about what he'd done and why - or getting a few whacks on the behind - he would choose the latter.

He certainly got more whacks than I ever did as a child. As a teenager, my friends and I went through one summer that saw us get into one scrape after another - getting people to buy us underage kids beer, making noise after the county's curfew - stuff like that.

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Eventually, most of the parents had had enough. One by one, my pals were punched, slapped or whipped with a belt. The day after, displaying their wounds - black eyes and wounds where the belt buckle had cut small wedges into their skin - they told those of us who hadn't yet gotten knocked around that they were done with mischief.

My father - a talker, not a hitter - tried to reason with me, without much luck. I waited for the beating that never came.

I thought about those days this week when reading about the correctional officers who were dismissed, allegedly for using excessive force against one (or possibly more) inmates.

The correctional system can't fail to deal with allegations of such behavior, any more than the Department of Social Services can ignore a report of alleged child abuse.

But then I go back to my own experience and ask myself: How do you deal with people for whom violence has been a way of life, some of whom would stab an officer just to show their peers how tough they are or to achieve some kind of status within the prison walls.

Over the years, especially during the term of Public Safety Secretary Mary Ann Saar, The Herald-Mail has talked to a lot of officers on an off-the-record basis.

The sources were credible, because they gave us information that proved that prison staffing had been cut. So I'm inclined to believe them when they tell us that inmates will toss cups of their own urine or feces at officers, or begin a violent, unprovoked attack without warning.

Being the target of such an attack would certainly make anyone angry. But under new Secretary Gary Maynard, it seems as if those who (allegedly) return violence after such provocation aren't going to be tolerated.

That's not to say that those who have been dismissed or accused of improper behavior toward inmates are guilty. None of these alleged incidents took place on a street corner in front of a crowd. And the likely accusers - inmates - don't have much credibility as witnesses.

On a recent visit with Herald-Mail reporters and editors, Maynard gave us an example of the how he wants his officers to interact with inmates.

If my brother is in this prison, Maynard said, he shouldn't be treated any differently than other inmates. And in there was an inmate in the prison who had murdered his brother, Maynard said that person should be treated no better or worse than anyone else.

That's a tough code of conduct, but no tougher than what police must do when someone calls them a "pig" or worse during a traffic stop.

Maynard told us that inmates must be shown that negative behavior has consequences and that positive behavior will lead to positive outcomes, even for those with a life sentence.

Perhaps those positive outcomes will include being placed in a prison job such as working at the tree farms and horse-rescue operations Maynard is establishing.

Planting trees and mucking out stalls isn't as much fun as partying at a night club, but compared to being inside most of the day, it's a big step up.

As I said, I've talked to correctional officers and have toured the local prisons, including Roxbury, which, except for the absence of women, reminded me of a community college.

But as nice as everyone was - and I'm sure those inmates likely to act up were put elsewhere for a while - I never forgot that everyone who was not a correctional officer had done something wrong to gain admission.

There were not as many officers as I expected and I mused, though not out loud, about how easy it would be for four or five inmates to overpower a guard. As Maynard said, there are inmates who are tough to deal with because they have so much anger inside them.

I have a good feeling about Maynard - the only question he avoided was about the death penalty, because it's a political issue as opposed to one of prison policy. We pay plenty for prisoners in Maryland and he seems to realize that locking up people without teaching them a trade only leads to ex-offenders who are older and angrier when they are released.

We need to bless and honor all those officers who follow his lead and do their jobs by the book every day.

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