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Correctional officers must maintain higher level of authority

April 15, 2013

With a government uniform comes a higher level of authority. And with that authority comes a higher level of responsibility to use that authority in a civilized and legal way.

No one has ever suggested the job of correctional officer is easy. They are subject to frequent insult and abuse from inmates, who sometimes make a game of goading an officer into acting unprofessionally.

The men and women who staff the prisons and jails deserve more respect than they can ever hope to receive. Not only is the job thankless, but they are asked to do something that could be construed as superhuman: Ignore normal human emotions and act in accordance with the authority to which they have been entrusted.

Yet in corrections, as in any profession, there are those who cannot rise to the demands of the job.

Such is the case with at least five officers at Roxbury Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown who over the course of three shifts beat (or were complicit in the beating of) an inmate beyond recognition five years ago.

The wheels of justice have been slow to turn, but it is proper that the day has arrived that guilty pleas are being announced by the U.S. Department of Justice. Five former officers have pleaded guilty and 10 more are charged in connection with the beating.

To be certain, a prison inmate cuts an unsympathetic figure. The fact that he is serving time to begin with costs him the benefit of the doubt.

But if our Constitution means anything, it is that even those least deserving of due process have the right to it anyway. This means that, of all people, an officer of the law has no right to administer that law on his own, or with a group of his cohorts.

There are formal disciplinary procedures within prison walls and those channels must be respected, no matter how egregious or insulting an inmate’s behavior might be.

Without this structure, anything goes. And with no safeguards in place, punishments can go from deserved to excessive to sport.

Plenty of people will contend that an inmate loses his rights at the prison doorstep, or that people who do not want to open themselves to this abuse should steer free of crime.

But we live in a civilized nation of laws, one that has evolved from the thuggery and brutality of centuries past.

In bringing these officers to justice, federal agents have affirmed that no one can expect to be above the law. Further, those rare correctional officers who ignore their responsibility to the law do an unforgivable disservice to the great majority of men and women who do their jobs in the prisons and do them well.

So we take the occasion of several of the officers’ guilty pleas to both thank the majority of corrections officers for their service, and to thank the Department of Justice for affirming that those who wear a uniform must adhere to the law of the people, not to a law of their own making.

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