Prison Guards - As Role Models? 

Why can't prisons, guards be role models?
By Jean Arnold -- Special To The Bee - (Published February 1, 2004)

A San Quentin guard moves a Plexiglas screen past cells to protect himself from items tossed by inmates. 

The first time I heard this I was appalled, but if you hear something often enough, in different versions, it starts to lose its sting. Besides, it was true.

Even during the depths of this recession, California had difficulty filling correctional officer positions. The jobs have great pay, benefits and retirement, but few want them. Potential applicants may be scared off by television and film versions of prison life, with the stereotypical rapes and shankings, but my guess is that there also is a fear of getting no respect, not at work and not at home. Correctional officers have been demonized. If teachers had to hold back a certain number of children every year to keep their jobs, they might be demonized, too.

The recidivism rate for parolees in California is proof of how backward California's correctional system has become. The legal mandate is to punish, not rehabilitate. And that is what is wrong with California's correctional system. The best analogy would be a hotel where the worse the service, the fewer the amenities, the crummier the food, the more repeat business it gets.

In the California Department of Corrections, it's been going on so long that it's generational, with children who go in as visitors showing up a few years later as "customers." The budget crisis has created an opening for change, but that opening won't last long. The latest statistics show sizable reductions in California's projected prisoner population for the first time in years. It's projected that there will be more beds than prisoners, even that a couple of institutions will shut down.

The question is: Which ones? What if correctional institutions had to compete against each other to stay open?

A large portion of the infrastructure needed to judge institutional competence is already in place. As each prisoner enters the system on fresh charges, he or she (typically he) is given a new CDC identification number and is classified.

During the initial classification, his age, crime, sentence, criminal history, educational level, military service (and whether honorably or dishonorably discharged) and so forth are assessed, and he is assigned a number of points to determine to which type of institution, and which security level, he should be assigned, with higher points requiring higher security.

The process is repeated every year in an Institutional Classification Committee, where the prisoner's points are adjusted downward for keeping a clean record, reaching education milestones or obtaining vocational certificates, and upward for disciplinary troubles.

This system was designed to determine each prisoner's initial security risk and, over time, which prisoners are ready to move into lower security levels (or must be moved to higher ones). Each prisoner holds onto his CDC identification number until he has successfully completed parole.

But what if these two keys - the CDC numbers and the classification points - were used to track each institution's rate of success? What if similar institutions had to compete with each other for prisoners, based primarily on parolee outcomes, so that those institutions with the fewest recidivists would stay open, while those with the fewest programs and interventions would close?

What if, to be bold, the prisoner's, the prisoner's family's, society's and the correctional officers' interests were in alignment? The officers are on the tier every day; what if it were in their interests to be a positive influence on their charges, seen as role models instead of as the enemy? What if correctional officers got promoted for encouraging prisoners to get an education or a vocation, maintain family ties, stay clean and sober, get treatment for addictions. What if doing the right thing were the same as doing the "smart" - self-interested - thing?

Any institutional grading system should use this as a primary but not sole assessment tool. Other criteria might include operating costs (as compared to institutions housing similar populations); percentage of the prisoner population actively engaged in education, vocation and self-help programs; the number of Form 602s filed to initiate complaints against staff, lawsuits filed by or against staff; quality of health care; number of suicides, riots and violent incidents; community involvement with the institution as reflected by the number of volunteers and nonprofit organization staff members entering the institution to provide services; and number of prisoner visitors.

Certain correctional institutions could not be easily replicated, in particular those providing hospital and hospice care. The grading system probably would need tweaking over time, and there would be great debates over which factors to use and how much weight to give those that are chosen.

But there is no question that the system must be changed, and that all of us would be the beneficiaries of a system that provided positive reinforcement, not just to prisoners and parolees, but to correctional officers. It might even make it easier for California to fill those correctional officer positions. It might even mean we won't need them filled.

About the Writer

Jean Arnold, a Bay Area writer, taught literacy and writing classes at San Quentin State Prison for more than six years. 

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