|Correctional Officers Deserve Better Equipment for Safety|
|By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ|
Every day correctional officers risk their lives walking the narrow grey corridors to and from their assigned posts having nothing but a radio to communicate with as their life line to safety and help. Every day, they walk among the prison population and handle whatever comes their way in a manner prescribed by law and training. They do this with rarely a pat on their backs and not even as much as a thank you for doing a good job.
Unlike the past, officers are being assaulted frequently as the prison population has turned more violent and more risky in an already volatile setting as it is. The focus on staff safety has been completely ignored as agencies focus on other things inside the prison systems that are listed to be more urgent or more important than staff safety equipment.
Today, it has been reported that one out of three assaults that take place inside a prison is against an officer or prison employee. An unarmed officer who walks among these convicted felons of crimes that makes you have nightmares and sweat in your sleep if you were to be among these violent killers and predators. Staff ratios vary from one to fifty to one to five hundred. It depends where you work and what the activity is at the time. Either way, it’s a dangerous situation to be put in without some sort of safety net.
As former and current correctional officers, we understand that prisons are potentially hazardous, dangerous and unpredictable. We knew that when we took the job. What we didn’t know was how the administration would turn a blind eye to our needs for safety equipment that works, that is practical and that is available.
Reading Bob Ortega’s four day piece on Arizona prisons, it is clear that prisons are deadly. We understand that better since Mr. Ortega took the time to research the conditions inside our prisons with such attention to detail. He didn’t write about the officer’s plight as they are just as important as the prisoner’s dilemma of being safe. In fact, as a former correctional officer, I would say keeping officers safe should be the second priority as public safety ranks number one and a safe work environment equates to a safe living environment for prisoners.
Hostilities and violence go together. Unpredictable, it is important for officers to have the right staffing patterns, the right safety equipment and the right tools to work with. Everyday, we hear staff complain about not having adequate equipment that includes batteries that hold a charge for more than two hours, face shields, gloves, stab vests and stab vest inserts. This list even includes obsolete or non-working hand held scanners that are designed to detect the presence of metal objects such as prison knives before they are used in the assault planned.
They drive vehicles that are dangerously close to being red-lined and without air conditioning in the Arizona heat or vice versa, inoperable heaters in those areas where it is frigid cold.
They have transport vehicles without radios or poor maintenance conditions (e.g. bad brakes, overheating, cracked windshields, broken lights, faulty electrical systems and weak batteries) leaving them stranded on the side of the road exposing both the public and the officer to the risk of danger by those they are transporting to and from hospitals, court hearings and other prison facilities.
It has been pointed out by Mr. Ortega the prevalent use of drugs, the availability of prison made weapons and self made hooch (home-made brew) or alcohol that adds to the environment’s hostilities and unpredictability. Inmates demonstrate violent behavior even if they don’t act out testing the systems in place for an opportunity to retaliate and strike back at the system that put them there.
A correctional officer is at the mercy of the offender’s anger and is often the target for intentional or misdirected harsh and unreasonable anger or mistreatment that includes violent behaviors with sharp instruments, blunt trauma to the head and various methods of kicking and punching those caught off guard or walking into a pre—set trap.
It is an interesting fact that a police officer, assigned to patrol duty on the community streets and deal with criminals for only a few minutes or perhaps all the way up to booking them are equipped with multiple pieces of safety equipment that allows them to remain safe to a certain degree. Their tool boxes are full of equipment much needed and available instantly.
On the other hand a correctional officer’s tool box consists of bare hands, a radio and a flashlight. This correctional officer, assigned to supervise this same individual picked up off the street has to deal or manage with their behaviors with nothing but his or her ability to communicate effectively. They do not even wear protective clothing or stab vests unless assigned to a max custody facility or a detention unit.
With today’s design and manufacturing capabilities to provide correctional staff with protective gear including lightweight trauma stab vests or ballistic vests, you would think there would be plenty on hand when the officers need them and at the same time, if they need to perform an emergency transport in the middle of the night, you would think they had a vehicle that was in proper working condition to take that officer and his prisoner safely to their destination. Some provide these vests but lack the blunt trauma plate designed to be used in accordance with the purpose of wearing such protective apparel.
At least I would hope so but that is not the case in many prison settings throughout the state! Today the corrections unions remain quiet and ask for nothing that makes prison work safe. Ultimately they have the voice to say or demand what is needed yet they remain quiet not using the freedoms they are entitled to in order to protect others they represent.
Today, the voices of sanity as well as insanity remain quiet until a catastrophe occurs and then the finger pointing and blaming language will engulf the media with both sides accusing the other of negligence. Perhaps a pro-active step is needed to avoid this catastrophe that can cost us human lives and tragedies as it has already been established the value of life inside prisons has been deeply marginalized by society and cultural indifferences that has by default, included the courageous correctional officer that walks this tough beat within these penitentiaries unarmed and many times, understaffed and short of safety equipment.
Editor’s note: Carl ToersBijns (retired), worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Carl’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."
Other articles by ToersBijns:
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT