Prisoners Must Learn to Thrive Despite Administrative Obstacles

By · Friday, September 11th, 2009

My lovely wife, Carole, sent me a copy of a legal decision recently published by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. The case of Bonner v. Outlaw illustrates the position I have known many prison wardens to take. Although the inmate prevailed in this case, the warden’s attempted defense evidenced a dereliction of his duty to lead. That is a systemic problem I’ve witnessed throughout the prison system.

The Bonner case described the struggles a federal prisoner was having with the mail room at his institution. The mail room was rejecting mail Bonner had received without notifying him, as is required when inmate mail is rejected. Bonner filed suit, charging that individuals in the mail room, and the warden who set the policies that governed the institution, had violated the inmate’s constitutional rights.

The warden in the case refused to accept responsibility for the culture of failure over which he presided. He set the policies by which all prison staff carried out their duties. The warden was the chief executive officer of the institution, and staff members in all departments followed the warden’s lead. When supervisors of education blocked inmate access to typewriters or computers, it was with the warden’s expressed approval. When unit managers and case managers and counselors blocked inmate access to community programs or preparations for release, it was because the warden authorized and condoned such interferences. And when the mail room caused inmate frustrations by rejecting mail without notifying the inmate, such practices were simply part of the culture of confinement.

It is a culture I have come to know well, as I have been locked within this system for longer than 22 years. Wardens set the tone, and staff members carry out the warden’s mission. I can live with such realities; it’s what I’ve experienced within the prison system, and it’s what I expect from the prison system. Decisions by prison staff members resulted in obstructions to my pursuit of a Ph.D., to the nurturing of my family and community ties, and to my preparations for a contributing, law-abiding life upon release.

In America’s bloated prison system, most wardens instruct and train staff to accept that the highest value is preserving the security of the institution, not preparing offenders for successful re-entry into society. That misguided directive results in preservation of the institution before meeting the needs of society and the individuals it is supposed to serve. Those are management practices, not leadership, and they contribute to higher recidivism rates and higher operating budgets.

In the Bonner case, the warden attempted to extricate himself from the legal complaint by arguing that he did not have any personal involvement in the day-to-day operations of the mail room. Fortunately, the court did not allow the it’s-not-my-fault defense to stand. The warden set the tone, and he had a duty to lead.

My experience has been that most wardens decorate their institutions with platitudes about the importance of preparing offenders for successful re-entry. Yet those signs exist more for visiting dignitaries and tour groups. The actual policies and practices of the institutions interfere with, and even outright obstruct individuals who strive to maintain and nurture family and community ties; they limit inmate access to telephone calls and visits, and they block inmate preparations for release by prohibiting access to computers, or even typewriters in some institutions.

As a long-term prisoner, I’ve devised strategies to thrive in spite of institutional obstacles that block so many of my fellow prisoners from preparing for success upon release. Successful prison adjustments do not materialize by accident. They require prisoners to understand the environment in which they live, to expect administrative efforts to interfere rather than being surprised when they do.

In the twisted world of prisons, the needs of the institution trump the needs of the individual. It presents the classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

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