The Dilemmas of Prison Guards Who Want to Correct

By · Friday, February 20th, 2009

Andrew commented on an earlier article I wrote about the perceptions I had about euphemistic job titles. I did not strive to disparage the trade of prison guards, though my 21-plus years experience of living in prison did not expose me to any emphasis on corrections. Quite the opposite, in fact, Rather than providing for a system to encourage personal growth and reform, I’ve always felt that the system extinguished hope. Individuals in prison needed to exercise a strong will and personal commitment to grow through the pervasive negativity of the penitentiary.

My own perspectives may have been forged through decades of imprisonment, yet it would seem to me that the high recidivism rates validated this position. This observation I made did not condemn the people who chose to build careers as prison guards. Those individuals pursued employment with the noble aspiration of contributing to society and of providing for their families. On the other hand, I absolutely condemned the system by which they had to abide.

Certainly, I have met prison guards with kind demeanors. Some of them expressed empathy, and agreed that rules that blocked or interfered with family and community ties, educational pursuits, or legitimate preparations for release did not make sense. Many have told me that the system should make changes. Their allegiance, however, was understandably to their careers. Those prison guards had families to support. They had to abide by the culture of confinement in order to advance.

Prison guards who had aspirations of helping inmates would confront and immediate dilemma. The culture of confinement required a clear stand, without ambiguity. Job descriptions required a distance between prisoners and staff members. Without exception, the number-one stated priority was preservation of the institution. Those staff members who pursued their careers with aspirations of helping inmates would be considered misguided. Their colleagues within the clique of so-called corrections would ridicule staff as being “hug-a-thugs” or “inmate lovers” is the staff members expressed concerns for helping inmates or their family members.

No staff member in prison would advance his career by pursuing a path of preparing prisoners for law-abiding lives upon release. They may want to assist, but their jobs required them to protect or preserve the security of the institution. In all cases, the institution trumped the individual. Guards may want to help inmates, but that help would mean opening access for the prisoner to communicate and nurture family ties; it would mean enabling the prisoner to interact with society in preparation for law-abiding lives upon release; it would mean encouraging prisoners’ incentives for positive adjustments.

Prison guards may want to help, but they could not do so without exposing themselves to accusations that they had lost their focus of preserving the security of the institution. Thus there would not be any correcting going on. There would only be guarding of the prison. As a consequence, the system would extinguish hope. The consequence of that loss of hope was prisoners who lived in apathy. That apathy resulted in prisoners losing community support. The loss of community support meant the prisoner returned to society without the skills or resources to function. Such unpreparedness meant the cycle perpetuated itself with seven of every ten offenders recidivating.

People who break society’s laws should face sanctions severe enough to promote the public order. When society determines imprisonment is appropriate, the individual ought to endure the harshness of separation. At the same time, however, I am convinced that prison reforms that encouraged prisoners to work toward earning freedom would lower recidivism rates, lower prison operating costs, and contribute to safer communities. Such reforms, however, would run counter to an emphasis on placing the needs of preserving the prison culture over the needs of a safer society.

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One Response to “The Dilemmas of Prison Guards Who Want to Correct”

  1. Steve Salisbury says:

    March 17, 2009

    Mr. Santos,

    In your article “The Dilemmas of Prison Guards Who Want to Correct,” you mention that seven out of ten offender’s reoffend due to the fact that prison guards must keep the responsibility of protecting the facility, instead of helping or correcting the offender adapt to society for when they will be paroled. My question for you is, are there no prison guards who try and help correct inmates? Is there any way you see prison guards or even the Department of Corrections, developing a system that both corrections and guarding can exist at the same time? There must be some way or some system that can be developed for both techniques to exist. It is my understanding that prisons and jails promote more violence in offenders and actually cause them to come out more of a threat to society, from when then went in. From your inside view of the “Corrections” department, how would you go about helping, correcting, these offenders, so that when they do get out, they stand a chance of living a non criminal life in society? I want to thank you for taking the time to respond to my questions and am looking forward to hearing back from you.

    Steve Salisbury