In October, two employees at a prison in North Carolina were killed in the latest example of uncontrolled violence in the nation’s penal system. And undoubtedly, it will only get worse. The numbers speak for themselves, yet what else these grim statistics purport is that the prisons of America are turning into a burial grounds for prison employees.
After spending 35 years of my life in some of the toughest prisons in the country, I can honestly testify to the fact that prison is the most inhumane place in the universe. It is not Disney World. Instead, it is an incubator, a sprawling pressure-cooker infested with an apartheid-like authoritarianism that leaves no room for the milk of human kindness. In such an oppressive environment, death is the door-keeper.
For quite a long time, prison violence was primarily sponsored by one convict against another. Guards, though not exempt from violence, were not routinely killed unless for the most flagrant disrespect. Guards, in prison, were not singled out for murder for basically the same reason, cops in the street are not gunned down. The long-term consequences of such acts are so disruptive and punitive that it usually is not worth it.
What else provided guards with an extra-layer of protection in those early day of modern penology is that they were professional, meaning they had absorbed some semblance of being trained specifically for the job at hand. Given this advantage, guards were just as aware and as sensitive to place as the convicts were. Everyone knew their place, and everyone understood that it was in the best interests of everyone to “stay in their own lane.” Though not perfect, this highly symbiotic mode of existence awarded both convicts and guards the benefits and privileges of a semi-peaceful co-existence. Again, while not absolutely ideal, what this succinctly proved was that a little training went a long way because as long as the guards were trained, and the convicts institutionalized, the level for violence and the potential thereof was negligible.
However, over the course of a few decades, this delicate balance eroded, and the spirit and soul of the preexisting peace accord was incrementally challenged. To date, I haven’t a clue as to what sort of experimental research it took for penologists to come up with the clever idea to lock men up, and then to deny them any incentive to behave. When parole was abolished, this blunder was perhaps the “straw that broke the camel’s back” and kicked opened the door for what was to come next which was the slaughter of hope, and there is nothing more sinister and unforgiving as a prisoner who has no hope. What can literally be touted as an undisputed truth is the fact that when a prisoner reaches the point where he doesn’t believe that shit stinks, then he is a clear and present danger to all, staff included.
In the turbulent transition that followed the country’s ‘get tough on crime’ mandate, prison staff became the standard-bearers for one misguided policy after another. Let me clarify a thing or two. In the early years of the modern-day prison era, the guards maintained strict control of the prison population by the sheer menace of torture where beating convicts to death was routine. Most of he prison wardens during the ‘chain-gang’ years ruled over the prison with an iron fist as if it was their personal fiefdom. Their primary penal objective was simply to break the prisoner physically. The taming of wild horses was probably more humane.
In the 70s, penologist huddled together and after review of the brutality of America’s prison decided upon a new, revolutionary course. They would give the prison of America a make-over. Suddenly, in an effort to make a more kinder, gentler prison environment, the entire vocabulary of penology changed. During this shift to more humane incarceration, the grand scheme of prisons was now to rehabilitate rather than to punish. Prisons were now called Correctional Institutions, and guards were now correctional officers. Vocational and educational opportunities, as well as other programs were ushered in, all of which provided prisoners with an incentive to exhibit good behavior because many of these programs awarded prisoners good time or gain time which helped reduce their sentences. During this time, training of staff remained a top priority. It was also during this time that psychologists were more rapidly hired, and better medical and dental services were provided.
What happened in the 90s was that politicians, such as Jesse Helms of North Carolina, were infuriated at the gentle treatment prisoners were receiving. It raised their ire to unspeakable levels when it was discovered that prisoners could take college classes via Pell Grants, could watch color TV, could shoot pool. Following this outcry, prisons got tough again, and what was so problematic about this stringent effort to put the prisoners back in their places, resulted in a lot of the hard-fought for gains were taken away. Of course, the prisoners were furious.
For years, the resentment seethed, and what we are now experiencing is the spilling forth of this resentment. It is not going to get any better.