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Melting pots boiling over
By Brian Dawe
Published: 06/23/2008

0623boilingpot Heading from the parking lot to the gatehouse, the roar emanating from the prison yard sounded different that day. It wasn’t the usual noise generated by an excited crowd enjoying an inmate softball or flag football game. This sound was much more ominous and unnerving.

The captain told us at roll call that there was trouble in the yard and to be especially aware and observant. We were not told the reasons behind the “trouble”, we seldom were, but just that we needed to be extra diligent that day. Little did we know as we headed for the sally port to begin our 3 to 11 shift that it would be three days before any of us would see our homes again. The good news is that all of us did get to go home; it could have been quit different.

Passing through the administration gate and onto the main yard, which consisted of a quadrangle rimmed with ten housing units, the roar heard from the parking lot became a distinct and chilling chant, “Attica, Attica, Attica.” More than 300 inmates with fists raised high were marching in unison around the inner perimeter of the ‘quad’, hundreds more hung out of windows in the housing units fists raised in support.

It was the mid 1980s, and I was still a ‘newjack’ correctional officer with less than a half dozen years under my belt. The Attica riots had occurred over a decade ago, still any American over 20 years old who heard that name knew exactly what it meant; mayhem, murder, riots and death.

To hear 300 inmates chanting ‘Attica’ in unison with fists raised sent a chill through all of us as we entered the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Norfolk, the largest prison in that state at the time. Even on a day that looked as ominous as any in the history of Norfolk we were unarmed entering that thundering yard as we always were.

But it wasn’t just that chant and it wasn’t those fists raised in unity that made my blood run cold. It was the fact that the inmates participating weren’t all white or all black or all Hispanic. They were mixed. They were marching together - unified, shattering the racial and ethnic barriers that traditionally separated these groups behind the walls.

Even though we were grossly outnumbered by 30 or 40 to one, this culturally self imposed separation is usually one of the best tools we have in controlling these volatile inmates. Yet on this day the inmates themselves broke down the very barriers they created. They were unified, and we were very concerned.

This experience was not about the niceness or important roll that cultural diversity can play in a functioning society. Academia and the courts may aspire to a utopian world where the distinctions between cultures are a source of pride and not violence, but on this day, that didn’t matter, as it was about survival in the real world of America’s prisons and jails.

Court decisions mandating inmate desegregation in housing units and cell assignments flies directly in the face of common sense when it comes to correctional and public safety interests. In the real world, people seek out those cultures they are familiar with. In most cases that is not a decision based on racism. It is not usually the result of an individual’s aversion to other races or cultures. It is a matter of nurture rather than nature, a product of one’s environment, not one’s DNA.

This is no different in a prison environment. Behind the walls inmates not only seek out those similar to themselves for cultural reasons, but they also do so for their own personal safety. Our job behind those walls is to promote safety, not cultural diversity.

The inmate population naturally divides itself among cultural, ethnic and geographical lines. To force them out of those comfort zones in such a hostile environment is just inviting trouble. There are too many inmates, not enough beds and not enough staff to seek utopia.

“Divide and conquer” is not just a phrase in our nation’s prisons and jails, it is one of our best management tools we have. We are trained to not give the inmate population a common thread to unite on. That is why issues such as food, mail and visits are not to be unduly trifled with. It is much easier to control 400 angry inmates of one race than it is to control a united front of 1,200 inmates of differing races.

It is also important that officers and staff are as diversified in their cultural and racial backgrounds as the inmate population. Inmates are much more likely to talk with a staff member of their own race than with someone of a different background. This isn’t racism or segregation. This is dealing with the world as it is behind the walls, not as we would like it to be. When deciding on population diversity, courts need to understand the consequences of promoting or enforcing well meaning, yet, misguided policies. Prisons aren’t melting pots, they are boiling pots.

Brian Dawe is co-founder of the American Correctional Officer Intelligence Network. He also is a founding member of Corrections USA and served as their Executive Director until August, 2006. He has been in corrections for more than 24 years, and served as a Massachusetts CO from 1982 to 1998. Dawe co-founded the Massachusetts Correctional Officers Federated Union where he served on the statewide Executive Board for nine years, and served as Grievance Coordinator, Executive Secretary and Vice President. He can be reached at ACOIN1@aol.com.

Other articles by Dawe:

Dungeons for dollars, 4/7/08

Behind the walls, 2/4/08


  1. americanman on 11/28/2008:

    I was impressed and in agreement with your most recent article regarding divide and conquer and dealing with diversities in dangerous correctional environments. I served at the United Disciplinary Barracks, Fort Leavenworth from 1969 until 12-1971 and then entered the Federal Correctional system from 1972 until 2004. I could not help but recall a most recent court decision in California which called for not only quotas within institutions and housing units but also was to include placement within 2 man cells and 2 to 4 man cubicles. In one specific time period I ran cell blocks which may have included pretrial and unsentenced Inmates from as many as 20 different countries and cultures and you can imagine that the differences were many and the common ground was often difficult to find for many. I was able to run these blocks thru and variety of measures and practices which I employed to " Keep the Peace ". I was constantly aware and continued learning the groups, often distinguished by country of origin, and who they could get along with and who they could not. Some of these " Groups " were United States citizens but from different geographical areas. Keeping abreast of how they felt about each other was crucial and was of utmost importance when assigning housing. Had this ability been taken away from me I seriously doubt that I would have had the succeses which I did. I wasn wondering if you knew of or had heard of anyt recent situations developing in the state of California and withing their institutions and based upon that court ruling. Thankyou very much..take care and continued good luck.

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