Prison Guards Interfere with Corrections

By · Thursday, March 5th, 2009

Brenda asked me two questions with regard to my article entitled They’re Prison Guards, Not Correctional Officers. Brenda wanted to know whether I thought guards were trained to harass prisoners or whether the culture conditioned them to abuse their authority. She also asked whether I came across any prison guards who were not abusive.

When I wrote the article to which Brenda referred, I was not striving to disparage those who chose careers in corrections. Rather, I was expressing what I had observed and experienced through the 21-plus years I have served thus far in prisons of every security level. What I was trying to express was that I did not perceive any emphasis on corrections.

The people who work in prisons are charged with the responsibility of protecting the security of the institution. They guard the prison. They don’t think in terms of preparing prisoners for law-abiding lives upon release. There is no correcting.

Let me provide an example of a story I heard yesterday. Another prisoner, Rod, was telling me about an encounter he had with the chief security officer. Rod had participated in a seminar offered by Scott, a community volunteer who led a course within the prison on steps inmates could take to prepare for success upon release. The course lasted for two hours, and Rod found some value in the lessons Scott taught.

With hopes of building a relationship with the community volunteer, Rod wrote Scott a letter. In his letter, Rod expressed gratitude to Scott for making himself available to the prisoners at Taft. Rod placed the sealed envelope in the outgoing mailbox and sent it to Scott’s address.

The chief security officer of the prison, known as the SIS, summoned Rod to an office. A guard in the prison had intercepted the letter Rod had attempted to send to Scott. The guard gave the letter to the SIS. The SIS then interrogated Rod, trying to ascertain why Rod was attempting to communicate with a community volunteer.

Rod pointed to the letter, which showed he was expressing gratitude and trying to cultivate a relationship with a citizen who might befriend him. The SIS said that rules prohibited inmates from cultivating relationships with anyone affiliated with the prison. Such relationships interfered with the security of the institution, the SIS said. He let Rod off with a warning, but said disciplinary procedures would follow if Rod ever tried to circumvent rules again. Rod was trying to prepare for the challenges he anticipated upon release. The SIS and other prison guards did not have an interest in corrections, however. Their job was to guard the prison.

That is the reality of what I have experienced as a long-term prisoner, and I believe it is the type of culture that influences high recidivism rates. I have known many guards who were civil. The guards who interfered with Rod were civil. They were not abusive. Their responsibilities, however, were inconsistent with correcting anything. They guarded the prison and the people prisons held.

We need prison reforms to change the goal of confinement.

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