Prison Staff Can Help Prisoners Emerge Successfully

By · Tuesday, March 10th, 2009

Stephanie asked several questions about my perceptions of correctional officers, or guards who take a sincere interest in helping prisoners emerge successfully. During the 21 years that I have served, I have interacted with many, many people who pursued careers with the prison system. Although the system itself is designed in such a way to extinguish hope, I’ve known many people who worked in prisons yet lived with more noble aspirations.

While I was confined in a high-security penitentiary, for example, I created a niche for myself by finding the right job. I worked in an office of the prison factory. My staff supervisor was a wonderful human being. She understood that I was striving to educate myself. Despite regulations of the prison system that blocked prisoners from reading or writing during the work day, she authorized me to study once I completed my assigned duties.

In many ways, that supervisor influenced who I am today. Because she provided a sanctuary, I was able to avoid the pressures that interfered with so many other prisoner adjustments. During the hours I spent at work, it was as if I were not in prison at all.

My supervisor’s relationship with me was personal. She treated me as a human being, as if I were a son or a younger brother. Her colleagues did not appreciate the special treatment she gave me, but she enough seniority that she could be indifferent to their influence. She was not interested in advancing her position, so she did not have to worry about evaluations from supervisors who said she coddled inmates. Newer or more ambitious staff members could not make such concessions.

I would not say my supervisor was truly dedicated to corrections. She was simply a nice human being, and she treated me with dignity and humanity. She was an exception to what I usually encountered, and she frequently expressed her disagreement with the policies of the penitentiary.

At a different stage of my confinement I served time under the leadership of a progressive warden. He believed in the power of incentives and encouraged prisoners to grow. He was very supportive of those in prison who prepared themselves for release; he created a culture within his prison that required staff members to do the same. Many staff rebelled. Three months after the warden retired, the staff quickly removed all incentives and turned the prison into a more oppressive environment that was consistent with other prisons in the federal system. Prisoners responded with a riot that caused more than $1 million in damages.

Administrators set the culture of every prison environment. They have a huge influence on prisoner adjustment patterns and on staff perceptions. Generally, I have not sensed much of an emphasis on corrections. Prisons are all about warehousing human beings. Those who take a personal interest in prisoners were the exceptions, and they were not well received by the system.

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