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Prison force - excessive or necessary?

April 27, 2008

We asked members of The Herald-Mail's Opinion Club the following question:

About two dozen corrections officers have been fired from Western Maryland prisons in recent weeks for alleged use of excessive force. It doesn't take much imagination to think of situations inside of prison walls that may call for severe methods of discipline. On the other hand, a prison that fosters high degrees of tension between inmates and officers can quickly spiral out of control. With that in mind, when does "excessive force" become a fireable offense?

Here are their responses"

I think excessive force becomes a fireable offense whenever the Maryland Division of Corrections officials investigating allegations of inmate abuse determine it is a fireable offense!

This isn't something the general public can speak intelligently on, mainly because we do not go through what correction officers go through on a day-to-day basis.

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I don't believe the officers would be fired solely on an inmate's allegations of abuse. This one needs to be left to the professionals and if the ongoing brutality investigation determined there was due cause to terminate the officers for excessive force, the public needs to accept it.

- Jonathan R. Burrs

The prison environment is so complex that I find it hard to believe that a fixed set of "rules of engagement" for officers would be easy to draft. Everything depends upon the conditions and situation in which actions take place.

Perhaps a good investment would be explosion- and tamper-proof CCTV (Closed Circuit TeleVision) constantly monitoring every space in the facility, bar none. Then fairly good evidence would be available upon which to base after-the-fact judgments and decisions.

Officers must be free to exercise their own judgment. Their lives are "on the line." Should an inmate be armed with knife, gun, club or other weapon, homemade or not, then it seems reasonable to me that an officer might just possibly fear for his life.

Should there be limits on force when an officer's life is in dire distress? I think not.

Otherwise, when inmates behave properly, no force should be necessary. If not, then only so much force as necessary to move the inmate to the desired location.

- David Michael Myers

I'm not sure that any of us who have not personally experienced what life is like inside a prison can fully understand the environment well enough to pass judgement on this issue.

The plain fact of the matter is that it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect that the societal standards that govern our behavior outside such facilities can be applied inside them with comparable success.

The mere fact that those that are incarcerated were unable or unwilling to live within those standards means that they are unlikely to have a positive effect inside the prisons. We as bystanders must remember that what is effective at influencing behavior on the outside will often fall on deaf ears on the inside.

- Paul Belella

Any force that goes being what is needed to protected staff and other prisoners is excessive. If it is deemed excessive, you should be fired.

Guards are there to protect and must represent a higher standard. When it gets to a point in which a guard has acted in a way that is excessively below that standard, that guard should be fired.

There are consequences for inmates who use force to settle differences and the sanctions may often include additional criminal charges. Prison employees should be held to the same guidelines.

- Joe Jefferson

I would say that if an inmate had to be hospitalized for serious wounds of some sort that would signify "excessive force."

Otherwise, I can imagine that in many cases the corrections officers have the right to protect themselves with whatever measures are needed at the time and seriousness of the situation.

- Ginny Cook

It is much easier to speculate on excessive force in prisons from the safety of one's home than from the front line In a prison itself. Presumably guards have weapons and inmates do not. Yet, from time to time, inmates seem able to locate unexpected weapons.

As a general rule, a guard should not be attacking a prisoner with a club of any sort. Yet if an inmate attacks a guard with a previously hidden knife, the guard would seem to have the right to defend himself or herself with whatever may be available.

Perhaps the best rule is to have supervisory guard personnel observing any physical transaction going on between guards and prisoners. The greatest problems seem to evolve whenever there is a lack of credibility in the chain of command of prison guards.

Generally, however, the guards are more likely to be honest and above board than the prisoners. The fact that two dozen prison guards have been fired within recent weeks seems disturbing, however.

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