Guards and Inmates

`WE control the jails, not you!'' Shouting these words, guards at the vast Rikers Island jail in New York City allegedly beat prisoners after quelling an uprising two weeks ago that left 135 inmates and guards injured. The guards deny that, in reprisal for the melee, they lined up prisoners in a hallway and clubbed them with nightsticks. An investigation is under way. If some guards did engage in vigilante justice against inmates, they should be properly punished.

Yet correction officers must indeed control prisons and jails - not only for the officers' safety, but also for the safety of inmates and for the orderly operation of institutions that can quickly become seething caldrons. The Rikers Island disturbance - though it no doubt had complex causes - happened in part because uneasy guards felt exposed in their dealings with inmates.

The spiral to violence began when guards at Rikers Island (with 13,800 inmates, the largest correctional facility in the US) believed that prosecutors were too lenient in charging three inmates who beat and robbed a guard. Fearing that such ``leniency'' put guards at higher risk, hundreds of officers mounted a wildcat blockade on the bridge to the island for 36 hours before a settlement was reached with the city.

Agitated by (or taking advantage of) the turmoil among the guards, some inmates then staged the disturbance that gave rise to the accusations of guard brutality.

Prisons are, by their nature, potential powderkegs. The social dynamics inside the walls have been made even more volatile by overcrowding and by greater violence in prison populations - often reflecting conflict in society at large. Individual and group relationships in prisons are as intricate and varied as in any other large group of human beings. Relations between inmates and guards aren't invariably tense; often a fairly easy sociability prevails. But misunderstandings and hostility can breed quickly, and there are fewer ways to vent pressures than in most institutions.

Prison guards can never feel completely safe. Usually outnumbered and unarmed (lest prisoners capture their weapons), their comfort zones are fragile. They need to feel that behind them is a system that supports them and will punish inmate conduct that endangers them.

In recent years prison administrators have rightly been sensitized by lawsuits and legislation to prisoners' rights. But those administrators mustn't overlook the interests of correction officers on the front line - those who, in their myriad daily transactions with inmates, largely determine whether a prison works or explodes.

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