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Balancing the many issues involving use of force in corrections

With the recent news in New York City regarding the push for changes to the present use-of-force guidelines, I hope that the new guidelines leave officers with enough authority to protect themselves. If a use-of-force policy is too vague or unclear it can lead officers to hesitation, resulting in the loss of a correctional officer or inmate’s life.

The new policy allegedly prevents officers from hitting inmates and would end solitary confinement for inmates under 21 years of age. This arises from allegations of officers “brutal behavior” on behalf of officers against inmates.

Improper Staff Conduct
As a former Prison Inspector I do agree when allegations of abuse arise they should be investigated. If the allegations are substantiated with tangible evidence and eye witness testimony then the proper discipline should be administered.

What I do not understand is supervisors and administrators losing control of their jail or prison and control of their staff members. It has occurred more than once in several states. A jail or prison should never get to the point of having to install a federal monitor to oversee federal court-ordered reforms. Every agency needs to deal with out-of-control staff members and remove them in order for the hard-working, honest officers to continue their work in a safe and secure environment.

Removing the cancer before it spreads will help make the jail or prison a safer place for everyone. Allowing or ignoring staff misconduct weakens the agency and places everyone in danger. Supervisors and managers have the responsibility to ensure negative activity of staff members is controlled with zero tolerance.

Officers Have to Protect Themselves First
If we hesitate when an inmate attacks it can cost both the officer and the inmate their lives. Correctional officers need to know their agencies use-of-force policy and know the agency will back them up as long as they follow that policy. The policy must allow officers to defend themselves or another against the use of unlawful force by inmates. Brutal attacks by inmates on officers occur weekly in our jails and prisons.

Unlike officers on the streets, correctional officers have no handgun, TASER, or baton accessible for quick use against an attack. Correctional officers have to rely on interpersonal skills, their pepper spray, or self-defense training to stay alive during a verbal or physical attack. Take away any of these and they have nothing to protect themselves with.

Weakening the use-of-force policy will only endanger more lives. Going backwards is not the answer. Staff shortages have already made a huge impact on corrections and the safety and security of staff and inmates. Weaken the very policy made to protect the officers and we will see more officers leave the corrections field for a safer place to work. We do not ever want our officers to have mixed messages or the feeling of not being supported.

Inmate Violence
Inmate violence is on the rise not on the decline. There may be many different reasons for this. Like it or not the large number of inmates with mental health problems is one reason. Another reason is younger inmates have a blatant disrespect for any type of authority.

Gang members in prison are putting out “hits” on correctional officers just like they do with law enforcement officers on the street. Many inmates act before they think and this is especially true with younger inmates who fight first and think later. Removing disciplinary tools such as segregation or solitary confinement for the younger inmates in my opinion is not the answer.

By removing this tool the inmates have won and it will not calm the younger inmates down. The younger inmates need more structure and discipline than the majority of the inmates. Confinement is a tool to remove an inmate temporarily from the population to protect them from harm or harming others. It is also a tool for the safety and security of the jail or prison. If an inmate is involved in smuggling contraband or is planning an escape they need to be removed from the general population pending investigation no matter how old they are.

If used properly and not excessively confinement will save lives. I do not believe long periods of confinement is the answer but I do believe it should be used for short periods of time in conjunction with counseling by professionals in the mental health field, anger management counselors or drug counselors.

Reality training is a must and some agencies are not doing it. Cell extractions are very common in our business therefore we must train in this area of using force. Annual training at a minimum for cell extraction using one officer as the resisting inmate and a five person extraction team works great. Go through the entire cell extraction and teach everyone when to start and stop using force. During self-defense training go over the use-of-force policy and conduct real life scenarios having each and every officer participate and demonstrate knowledge of when and when not to use force. We must ensure all officers know their boundaries when it comes to use-of-force.

Administrators have the responsibility to support their officers and provide the time for proper training. Supervisors also need to provide training in short segments such as reviewing the use-of-force during roll-call while everyone is present. Get the shift to participate with feedback. Remember training shows the officers we not only care but we are serious about doing things properly.

Training is so important that the reflection of your agency depends on it. Do you want a positive or negative reflection of your jail or prison?

Controlling Contraband to Save Lives
Anytime we remove contraband from a jail or prison we have saved someone from serious injury and probably have prevented a use-of-force incident. Contraband enters our prisons through many avenues. Visitors and vendors both have a history of finding ways to smuggle drugs and weapons into our prisons.

Another way contraband comes in is through staff members who have chosen to cross the line. These corrupt staff members place all the honest staff members in danger. Conducting shake-downs of the dorms at un-announced times will prove to help clear out contraband. Surprise pat searches of inmates at odd times — such as before they are released for the noon meal or recreation — will keep the inmates guessing.

Inmates learn routine and we never want to fall into a routine. It also lets the inmates know they are not in charge. If we as officers become complacent the inmates will take advantage of us. Controlling contraband helps maintain a safer environment for the staff and the inmates.

Remember: “Control of your organization begins with control of yourself. Be disciplined.”
Correctional officers are trusted public servants to the state and the citizens of the state. We are expected to uphold the law and provide honest, loyal and dedicated service to the state and people. In return for our services we expect our prison administrators to provide us with the opportunity to protect ourselves and other inmates from unlawful force used against us. We must all work together on the same team. Remove the bad apples but do not jeopardize our safety with weak policies that will fault us for protecting ourselves or make us hesitate in a life threatening situation.

Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.