What you don't know about prisons
Corrections work is possibly the least understood and most frustrating function of state government in our country, and the continued increase in the number of inmates is making the job of prison administrators more difficult each day.Skip to next paragraph
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Prison walls keep inmates in but also keep the public out. Citizens simply do not understand what we do and why. The public, therefore, gives us little sympathy, understanding, or support.
For example, telephone calls to any correctional administrator during a typical morning may include:
''Bill, this is Representative Midlands. This Smith fella is doing 25 years for armed robbery, but he comes from a good family and I'd like to see him get a break - maybe work release.'' (Last year Representative Midlands voted for mandatory sentencing of armed robbers.)
''Mr. Leeke, this is Al Deadline with radio news. What explanation do you have for that escape from the new prison?'' (Mr. Deadline wasn't interested in doing a story earlier on construction problems at the prison, or the shortage of correctional officers or overcrowding.)
''Mr. Leeke, this is Mr. Taxpayer. I'm sick and tired of those prisoners being coddled. I think you should lock them up for good.'' (Mr. Taxpayer thinks humane conditions, required by federal courts, is coddling, and he led the protests last year when we tried to build a prison in his county.)
The public sympathizes with law-enforcement officers but not with the correctional people, who are hidden from view. This is partly because of the stereotyped image the public has of prisons:
* Citizens want inmates to work, but are shocked to learn that each inmate is not locked in a cell by himself 24 hours a day as in the television portrayal.
* Taxpayers expect inmates to work, but cannot understand how an inmate can obtain a sliver of steel from a prison industrial plant to fashion a homemade knife.
* The public wants long sentences, but does not want to hear about spending more tax dollars to build more prisons.
* The public cannot understand why escapes occur even though there are too few security personnel.
* Most taxpayers do not understand that a national ranking at the top for the highest per capita incarceration rate is not necessarily a good thing when there is little deterrent to crime. The federal courts can rule our prison systems unconstitutional at any time because of overcrowding.
* Most citizens do not want to hear about safe alternatives to locking up nonviolent offenders, such as properly supervised parole.
Prisons are country clubs unless it's your kid who is being locked up. Then they become dungeons. Fortunately, neither assumption is accurate, but prison still is not pleasant.
The risk of an inmate being overpowered and sexually or physically assaulted by a large group of predators is low, but it does happen. Then there is the dehumanizing daily experience for everyone of being forced to live in a 9-by-7 room with two total strangers, one of whom refuses to bathe and the other so emotionally disturbed that he cries most of the night.
For the corrections personnel assigned to a major institution, the underlying risk of violence is always present and certainly in the back of everyone's mind. The contingency training you receive in preparation for hostage situations you hope will never occur is a grim reminder that you work in a potentially explosive world - one in which you're outnumbered 10 to 1 by a group of people who are awfully unhappy about their circumstances.