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Consistency for life
By Brian Dawe
Published: 08/11/2008

0811dart board When you start your career in corrections, most administrators will tell you that to be a successful correctional officer you must be firm, fair and consistent in your dealings with the inmate population. It’s unfortunate that these same administrators fail miserably across the board on these very issues especially when it comes to consistency.

How can corrections be consistent when we see the turnover of more than half of the State’s Commissioners of Corrections in just the past three years? Or nearly a 30 percent increase in the turnover rate of security staff in the past five years. It is a model for inconsistency.

We all agree that uniformity is critical in dealing with the inmate population, yet policies and procedures designed to accomplish that vary widely from one jurisdiction to the next. Let’s face it, a prison, is a prison, is a prison.

More than 90 percent of the issues we deal with on a daily basis are universal regardless of geographical location. In the past year we witnessed two tragedies that left two CO dead. Policies that are incompatible with public safety goals played a major role in those officers losing their lives.

In Maryland and Utah, two officers on hospital detail had their service revolvers taken from them by the inmates in their custody. They were both shot and killed. In one instance the inmate fled to a nearby Arby’s restaurant and if not for the heroic actions of a civilian many more lives could have been lost. Outrageously in both instances the officers were alone.

In my home state of Massachusetts, inmates classified as medium security or higher are always escorted by two officers. One is armed and never comes within arm’s length of the inmate.

The armed officer stays outside the hospital room at all times. The other officer is unarmed and is responsible for maintaining control of the inmate. That officer performs all searches, secures the inmates restraints, etc. This insures the safety of the public during transport, the safety of hospital personnel and the safety of the officers.

In 2007, with gangs rampant, transporting inmates outside of an institution had become more dangerous then ever. Why on earth did the DOCs in Maryland and Utah provide for only one officer on these details? Was it a staffing issue, a cost cutting measure, failed policies or just negligence?

We will probably never know because in both instances any review is more likely to be geared towards covering the department’s respective backsides than uncovering their glaring failure to properly staff outside details.

It is not often that a CO is called upon to be armed. Outnumbered 60 to 1, or better, we rarely, if ever, have firearms behind the walls. However, there are times when officers are called upon to use deadly force. Yet even in these situations we find gross inconsistencies in the policies that pertain to matters of life and death.

In California, officers are required to qualify with their weapon four times a year; in Arizona twice a year. In most states officers are required to qualify once a year.

Our research has found that in many jurisdictions, although the policy requires yearly qualification, a lack of staff to allow for proper training to meet these requirements results in many officers never meeting this critical standard.

In Rhode Island they have just changed the standard from qualifying every year to every other year. The reason is money. The Rhode Island DOC went to the state legislature after the governor told all agencies to reduce their budgets. The DOC proposed this change as a cost savings measure which the legislators, in their ignorance, adopted.

Is this in the best interest of public safety? We have armed officers whose familiarity with a weapon may be limited to qualifying once in the past 24 months transporting or guarding felonious inmates on outside details.

We need to have a national dialog on this and many other inconsistencies within the profession. We need to have department heads and the unions and associations who represent the officers, sit down to address the life and death issues we deal with every day.

We need to mandate that all statewide elected officials spend four to eight hours behind the walls of the medium or maximum security prison in their jurisdiction within the first year of their term. I don’t mean having coffee with the warden in the administration building. I’m talking about being on the blocks, in the yard and in the chow halls.

Put the politicians behind the walls for eight hours and watch how quickly the amount of training officers receive and staffing levels increase. It’s easy to establish policy and slash budgets from an ivory tower.

Legislators need to come on down to where we work before they make those decisions. If you want change in corrections; put a uniform on a state representative for eight hours.

Two officers have died, two families have lost their loved ones and it’s long overdue that the Departments of Correction and our legislators act and attend to these glaring inconsistencies.

People get killed where we work and it’s about time that these issues are addressed. We need to establish best practices especially with regard to life and death situations, before we have another tragic funeral to attend.

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:

Melting pots boiling over

Dungeons for dollars


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