Just who is the inmate’s best friend? Is it a concerned counselor? No. Is it his or her cellmate? No. Believe it or not-in my view-it is the complacent correctional officer (CO) or civilian staff member. As a jail veteran-I have my reasons for this opinion, and I will discuss this problem.
I recently read an excellent article by former Pennsylvania Department of Corrections Secretary Martin F. Horn titled “It’s Complacency, Stupid!” in the August/September 2016 Corrections Managers’ Report. He states, and correctly, that the most serious breach in the obligation of a correctional facility is failing to maintain the secure custody of the inmates confined within. This applies to prisons, jails, juvenile centers and community corrections facilities. Complacency on the part of the facility staff-all staff, sworn and non-sworn, makes that failure a realty.
Secretary Horn discusses several prisoner escapes from the 1970s to the present, where mistakes were made by staff. This gives validity to the old saying that those who do not learn from the past are bound to repeat it. Due to complacency-the mistaken notion that everything is ‘A-OK’, staff gets laid back and lax, and as a result cracks in the security network are exploited by the inmates. Let’s discuss several of these incidents:
All correctional staff must recognize the dangers of complacency. Anyone-sworn and non-sworn-having daily contact with inmates must be tuned in to the dangers of complacency. A few points to discuss at roll calls, academy classes and staff meetings are these:
- In 1979, a convicted murderer escaped from a New York state prison. He smuggled a gun inside because staff would not search him after visits if he soiled himself.
- In 1994, an inmate seduced the wife of the warden and escaped. Upon his apprehension, he bluntly described the facility’s procedures as simply ‘lax’.
- In 1997, six inmates, two which were serving life sentences, escaped from the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution in Pittsburgh. The escape was ingenious-the inmates dug a tunnel almost 65 feet long from the prison laundry, which ran under the prison wall to a warehouse outside the perimeter. The digging took almost 4 months. They took advantages of staff weaknesses such as staff not noticing [or caring] if the inmates were not in assigned areas, using tools lying about from construction workers-in violation of institution policy. Finally, they engaged in inappropriate relationships with civilian employees in the prison engineering and industries divisions. After being on the run for two weeks, they were apprehended in Texas.
- In 2015, in the now notorious prison escape from the Clinton, NY state prison, two convicted murderers exploited the attentiveness and friendliness of a civilian female and lazy and inattentive staff practices. Using tools left behind by workers and also smuggled in, they cut into the steam pipes and escaped through existing tunnels beneath the prison. After being on the run for three weeks, one was fatally shot by law enforcement officers and the other was shot and recaptured. A fascinating read is the official state report of the escape-and trainers could learn a lot from that.
The job of correctional staff is hard enough. The inmate does not want to be there, they as a rule do not like the staff and would rather be on the outside. They love to see complacent staff-their best friends.
- The most common denominator in escapes from correctional facilities is complacency-often as a result of a mindset that “we haven’t had an escape in a long time”. It is thinking that ‘all is well’. In fact the 2015 escape from the Clinton NY prison maximum security unit was the first since it was originally constructed in 1849. Another area is inmate suicide. Some COs may think-“we haven’t had one in several years” and could relax their guard.
- The COs-the keepers are always watching inmates-and the inmates (kept) may be watching the COs more closely. But-COs have many duties and are juggling several tasks at once. Inmates, on the other hand, have the time-24 hours per day/7 days a week-to study the staff. It is not a tiresome cliché-it is the truth.
- What the inmates study: who sleeps on post, who is timid, who seldom gets up and walks around, who skips making rounds, who rushes through headcounts, and who conducts infrequent and sloppy searches. Also, talk about leaving your post for long breaks and supervisors that do not get around the facility and check on how the COs and civilians are doing. These are sensitive topics-but they must be discussed and problems corrected.
- Fraternizing with staff: if there are staff that think that they must be the inmate’s friend-complacency is just waiting to happen. When a sworn or non-sworn staff member becomes too friendly with inmates, too familiar, and let minor infractions slide-objectivity is lost.
- Breakdowns in policies and procedures: sloppy headcounts, lax tool control, equipment failures or malfunctions-such as faulty door locks and non-working closed circuit television surveillance, ineffective inmate movement and accountability.
- No follow ups, reviews and training following a serious incident such as an escape. In other words-no learning from the foul ups. This ‘sweeping under the rug’ approach benefits no one but the inmates. The facility becomes, as Secretary Horn says-“a hollow shell, a tree eaten from within with only its bark showing”.
Horn, Martin F. (August/September 2016). It’s Complacency, Stupid! Corrections Managers’ Report, Volume XXII, No. 2, 17-18, 30.
Corrections.com author, Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. He conducts corrections in service training sessions and has taught corrections classes at George Mason University since 1986. Gary’s books include The Art of the Con: Avoiding Offender Manipulation, Second Edition (2009) from the American Correctional Association and The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide, Second Edition (2010) from Carolina Academic Press.
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