|“Anticipate and Coach”, Preventing Escapes, From Frontline to the Politicians|
|By Gary York|
Legislature takes the steps to reform corrections and pass new laws. Politicians also expect correctional officers to perform their duties in a professional manner in order to protect the private citizens. We as correctional officers are a very important part of the criminal justice system. Correctional officers place their life on the line every day in order to keep some of the worst people on earth from escaping and harming innocent people. If this is the case, then why does legislature from state to state become closed fisted when asked for more money to buy new razor wire or new locks for cell doors? Why does legislature forget about so many correctional officers when the words “Pay Raise” comes across their desk? State correctional officers year after year perform their duties with minimal supplies, old or outdated equipment as well as a low-end salary in many states. Correctional officers are exceptional people who keep convicted felons behind the razor wire so politicians can campaign for their votes every four years. Indeed the correctional officers are the ones working hard. More emphasis needs to be placed on the issue of preventing prison escapes. In order to accomplish our mission, officers need the proper training, manpower and equipment. Politicians need to hold up their end of the responsibility to the officers and public and see to it that our staff and prison facilities receive the proper security equipment necessary to perform our job.
During my years of investigating prison incidents I have sat with several wardens after the recapture of inmates who successfully escaped from prison. While wrapping up my investigation in one particular case the warden handed me documents and purchase order requests proving he had been requesting funds for new razor wire for a section of the perimeter fence he and his front line staff knew to be weak. The same location an inmate had chosen as his escape route. Each of the wardens requests were denied by the state office, which we called “Central Office”. The next year another warden requested to upgrade his razor wire and also his perimeter chase vehicles, he was turned down on all counts. An escape attempt transpired and the perimeter chase vehicle would not start. The perimeter officer did fire two shots to no avail. Luckily the inmate did not make it far and was recaptured within minutes at the “Oak Hammock” after receiving “OO Buck Shot” to his lower legs. During my taped interview with the inmate he told me the inmates knew the perimeter vehicle was down so he decided to take advantage of that opportunity as well as the weak area of the perimeter fence. He simply waited for the right time and a bed mattress to throw over the razor wire.
These are just a couple of examples proving it takes the involvement and cooperation of all levels of security and legislative funding to make our system work. In both these cases the wardens feared for their jobs. Neither warden lost his job and very quickly funds were released and shipments of new razor wire were in-route to several prisons. Newer vehicles were replacing older vehicles as well. We cannot always put the blame on front line staff or the warden.
Staff-Inmate relationships have caused many escapes across the country. A staff member in love with an inmate will do almost anything. Just look at the Clinton Correctional Facility escape. Over 23 million dollars was spent on the manhunt, investigations and court proceedings. Joyce Mitchell pleaded guilty to seven years prison for aiding two convicted murderers in a prison escape by bringing in tools and hacksaw blades for inmate Sweat. She also had sexual relations with one of the inmates and conspired to have her husband killed. Please report any un-ethical conduct you see between an inmate and a staff member. It is part of your job and could save the state millions of dollars as well as a life. “Love is Blind, It will take your Mind” is no excuse. Having a personal relationship with an inmate endangers not only yourself but all of your fellow officers. We have prison cells available for officers who aid inmates during an escape.
The Texas 7 escape resulted in the ruthless murder of Irving Texas police officer Aubrey Hawkins. It is alleged that complacency and negligence on the part of the correctional officers was to blame. Plywood was used by the inmates and a stolen maintenance truck. Complacency kills more than you can imagine. We can see it in others but not in ourselves. We must police each other by watching out for our fellow officers. If you see a co-worker becoming complacent please talk to them and let them know you care about their safety. Supervisors get out and move around. Talk with your staff not only at briefing but individually at their assigned duty stations. Supervisors must be able to anticipate and coach the team, but it cannot be done from behind your desk. We are all responsible for keeping the team pumped and ready for action. We are trained to take our mission seriously, do not allow complacency to lead to an escape.
“Complacency”, “Just because things are going well now, doesn’t mean they can’t suddenly go horribly wrong”
The front line staff will work hard for the safety of the community by conducting frequent security checks of the perimeter fence, prison grounds, housing units and the outside perimeter areas to prevent escapes and the introduction of contraband. Officers will look for items out of place or missing. Items left to close to the perimeter fence that can be used as a ladder or escape paraphernalia should be reported and moved immediately. Officers will conduct frequent surprise pat searches of inmates going to and from recreation, the chow hall, inside work squads and educational classrooms. Strip searches will be conducted of all inmates going to and from visitation or outside grounds work crews. Frequent inventories of tool rooms, food service equipment and caustics areas will be conducted on a daily basis and locked down at the end of the work day.
Officers will conduct surprise random cell searches and pre-planned housing unit shakedowns for contraband. A written report indicating the results of these searches will be sent up the chain of command all the way to the warden for review. Remember any type of search is never a waste of time in the prison environment. Officers have found names and addresses hidden by inmates that have led to some great investigative findings preventing contraband and escapes. Remember if an inmate hides it, we need it and we want to know why it was hidden.
Officers will continue to report any unusual activity such as an unknown vehicle hanging around the exterior of the prison. Report immediately to the shift supervisor before investigating and do not approach the vehicle alone. Report any flying objects over the prison grounds such as aircraft, helicopters and drones. Obtain any identifying numbers on aircraft you can see.
One of the most important jobs officers have is “Accountability”. Officers must conduct inmate headcounts on a regular basis and the counts must be done correctly. Inmates at a minimum should be sitting on their bunks if not standing. Attempting to count inmates lying down on their bunks causes nothing but problems. You need to see a face and skin. The minute it is determined an inmate is missing the name of the inmate must be reported immediately. A facility lockdown must occur and a master count conducted. If the master count confirms the inmate is missing the emergency escape plan must go into action. Identifying inmates and knowing their assignments and daily schedule is very important. We must be sure to positive ID each inmate before allowing the inmate to enter into different areas of the prison. Officers should always ask themselves, “Is this inmate approved to be in this area?”
Administration and Legislature must listen to front line staff that walk the beat daily and know the prison inside and out. Take the front line staff suggestions seriously. Many administrators forget where they came from and think they know it all. None of us know it all and we must always remember that. We learn from each other. I was never ashamed to ask an officer about something I never experienced before. Many of those officers I learned from are retired today or at the end of their career and they are still learning just like I am from corrections articles and officers comments from around the country. We have to work together and teach each other.
Legislature needs to hear our voices and provide the proper funding so we can have safer prisons for everyone. When we call for assistance to aid in the prevention of an escape or the safety of prison staff, we expect the assistance the same as we are expected to respond to an emergency call.
The safety of our citizens is one of our goals. Safety and Security of the prison is our daily duty. Make it your personal goal to get everyone home safe at the end of the shift.
Gary York is a retired Senior Prison Inspector and is an Ethics and Crisis Intervention Instructor. He is also the author of the books "Corruption Behind Bars" and "Inside the Inner Circle".
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