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Hornet’s Nests and Corrections’ Hidden Hazards
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 05/23/2011

Hornetsnest Hazards in corrections are like hidden hornets nests. It is quite natural to feel safe and secure if one is oblivious to any potential danger. However, we are frequently right near a hive of illicit activity without realizing it. Design and building flaws contribute to the prospective peril. We inadvertently supply opportunities that are later utilized for unintended, dangerous purposes.

This important corrections lesson came to me in an unusual way. You see, as I mowed my lawn one day, I felt a sudden, sharp jab on one of my fingers. I was stung. I discovered that above my head, on the branch of an apple tree, hung a basketball-sized hornet’s nest. The noise of the lawn mower engine was stirring up the colony. Buzzing around the nest (and me) was an angry assembly of winged terrors.

The solution was simple. I had to disengage, assess the situation, and remove the menace at a more optimal time. Also, I have to remember that just because I cannot see the danger; it does not mean that it is not there.

The elation of complacency is intoxicating. There is nothing like the feeling of business as usual. In the corrections profession, when all goes well, we appreciate it. After all, with so much that can possibly go wrong, we should always soak up the smooth-running periods of our work. But, we usually take for granted lulls in the action. This is a time to trouble shoot and plan for the next disaster.

From the inspiration of one hornet sting, I have compiled a few concepts to apply when designing a new facility or when engaging in additional construction. They follow:

The notion of low price always competes with long term security. Administrators and physical plant managers have to assess the immediate savings of furniture, fixtures and construction against potential harm later. For example, reasonably priced shelves with vertical metal braces may seem prudent. However, one has to consider how easy it would be to remove the braces. How pliable is the metal? Are we providing shank stock for future weapons makers? Is a lower initial cost worth the long-term potential for danger?

Remember blind spots. When direct supervision is obscured, danger lurks. This danger is not only in the form of a potential assault station. Blind spots provide cover for a workshop. This is a place where enterprising offenders can manipulate weapons stock and hide other contraband. Eliminate as many blind spots as is structurally possible.

All fixtures and furniture are fair game. There is nothing sacrosanct for the opportunist. Anything in a correctional facility will be assessed for use. The promise of dismantling is ever-present. The statement “no one will ever tamper with this” is a short-sighted declaration.

Aesthetics versus utility should be considered. I once saw a beautiful piece of oak trim transformed into a formidable eight inch wooden dagger. That caused me to wonder if the trim was absolutely necessary. It looked good, but it became dangerous.

Looking at it through experienced eyes is always helpful in securing a blueprint. Veterans who recall the past clearly can bring plenty of cautionary tales to the construction and design table. However, we must be careful of building by committee. Sometimes we over think and over design things. In the end, it is a matter of balance in the name of security and durability.

As Murphy’s Law dictates after it is built, you will see flaws. You can never get all of the bugs out of a system, no matter how thorough planning may be. It is best to accept this, but not as a final fate. Contingency plans and post construction patching will always be the way of corrections.

No one respects the flame like a careless person who gets burned. Trauma is a good teacher. Yet, we should continue to carry all lessons after the wound has healed. New construction is never without possible danger later.

Eliminating hornet’s nests and other hazards takes patience and experience. Whether you are building a new facility or adding to what you already have, it is important to consider perilous mistakes in design and structure. We must act as though we have already been stung and have learned the lesson. This will benefit current staff and all successors.

Editors Note: This article was featured in American Jails January / February 2011. Thanks to the editor for kind permission for reprint. The American Jail Association is a national, nonprofit, educational organization representing more than 50,000 jail professionals and focusing exclusively on issues affecting today’s jail professional.

These are the opinions of Joe Bouchard, an employee of the Michigan Department of Corrections. The department is not responsible for the content or the accuracy.

Joe Bouchard is an adjunct faculty member of criminal justice and corrections at the Gogebic Community College in Michigan. Since 1993, Bouchard has been a prison librarian at a state maximum security facility. Bouchard has served as editor for The Correctional Trainer (for the International Association of Correctional Training Personnel) and of MCA Today (for the Michigan Corrections Association). Bouchard is a prolific writer in the field of corrections, with five books and over 700 articles to his credit. He has been featured in numerous corrections journals including his corrections website Foundations and Contraband and Communication. Joe Bouchard is a veteran correctional trainer who has been invited to speak in venues all over the country. He has presented on various topics. His specialty topics are recognizing and repairing staff division and contraband control. You can reach him at bouchard@up.net.

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  1. adjinstructor on 05/26/2011:

    Great article, Joe! Thought provoking and it is a good tool to combat complacency. Well done!

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