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Dannemora escape: One ‘bad apple’ doesn’t spoil the reputations of all staff

In the wake of the Clinton Correctional Facility escape, the media has been quick to paint all of corrections with the same brush; here’s an inside look into what it’s really like to work inside a facility


The Clinton Correctional Facility is shown, Wednesday, June 17, 2015 in Dannemora, N.Y.

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

For the last few weeks, much of the country has watched with anticipation, the unfolding story of the two escaped convicts from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, NY. There always seems to be a draw toward what goes on inside America’s prisons, primarily because of the mystery and the relatively unknown secrets of life behind bars.

The general public’s knowledge of prison life is based on movies such as Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and others. I too followed the story with a keen interest, not because of my desire to peek into the unknown, but because I spent my entire career working inside the walls in the prison system.

I began my career in 1982 as a corrections officer and retired in 2009 as a regional deputy secretary. I was a superintendent (warden) at two prisons; one a medium-security prison with 900 inmates and the other a maximum-security prison with 2000 inmates.

This Ain’t Shawshank
If you’ve been following the story of the two escaped convicts from New York, you’ve noticed all of the big news channels have invited “experts” to weigh in on what went wrong, why it went wrong and how to right those wrongs. Even former inmates have been given air time to inform the information craved public just how corrupt it is inside the walls of our nations prisons. I would expect those who have never stepped foot inside a jail or a prison have a very biased opinion about prison life and prison staff, thinking it’s all corruption and drama.

It’s unfortunate but the one bad apple spoiling the whole bunch theory applies especially to our profession. When prison staff cross the line and do bad things, we are all painted with the same brush. One of my primary reasons for writing this article is to create a better understanding of life inside the walls and to provide the reader with an answer to the questions of “why” and “how” this happens. Using a phrase from a wise man by the name of Paul Harvey, I would like “to tell the rest of the story.”

There are thousands of men and women across this country that walk the beat in our nation’s prisons every day and do a commendable job keeping peace and order. As long as there are prisons and as long as there are staff working with prisoners, there will always be a small percentage of staff that become compromised and, subsequently, cross the line.

From my prison experience, I can attest to the fact these individuals are by far the minority. It’s unfortunate but those who cross the line take away from the credit deserved by those who perform one of the toughest most thankless jobs in law enforcement. One of my primary reasons for writing this article is to shed some light on some of the contributing factors leading to staff being compromised and to explain how prison staff may fall prey to the wiles and trickery of calculating, manipulative inmates.

A Unique Profession
There isn’t much a person can do to prepare for working inside a prison. There’s no place you’ve ever been or ever worked that has provided you with the training and insight into what a corrections employee is subjected to when the gates close behind them. When they find themselves locked inside, outnumbered by hundreds of assaultive, manipulative convicts is when they truly begin to realize this is a job like no other.

Don’t get me wrong, a college degree in Criminal Justice, Law Enforcement, Counseling, or Psychology is great and helpful to an extent, but not until you are thrust into an environment where killers, rapists, drug dealers and robbers roam free for most of the day do you get a real sense of what it means to be a prison employee.

Not until you are outnumbered by a ratio of 50-to-1 and you have to maintain order with convicted felons who have spent most of their lives resenting authority do you start to realize this is a job like no other. Never before has your every move been studied and analyzed so closely you can never let down your guard and “just be yourself.” A heightened state of readiness is the order of the day, every day.

Contrary to what some of the movies portray, on a typical day in prison corrections officers are assigned to cellblocks or other areas of the prison such as the exercise yards, dining rooms or maintenance shops armed with only a whistle, possibly a two-way radio and a pair of handcuffs. The ratio of officers to inmates varies from prison to prison, based on budgets, inmate classifications, and approved staffing surveys.

What It Takes
It’s not uncommon for one to two officers to work in a cellblock or dormitory with over 100 inmates. It’s also not uncommon for up to 1000 inmates to be in the exercise yard with four to five corrections officers. Corrections officers are responsible for the care, custody and control of the inmates, and for the enforcement of prison rules and regulations. As you may have already surmised by the ratios mentioned above, they cannot do so by being “the Gestapo,” using fear and intimidation. The term often used by many facilities to describe the ideal corrections officer is someone who is “firm but fair.”

The most effective officer must demonstrate a respect for humanity and must be someone who is willing to listen and mentor the inmates, always modeling acceptable behavior. They must show an interest in the betterment of the inmates with an end goal of rehabilitation and successful reintegration into society. The ideal corrections Officer is part cop, part counselor, part parent, part teacher and most of all, the example of all positive human qualities the inmate is lacking. Corrections Officers get the job done by a variety of methods to include consistency, mutual respect, compassion, confidence, integrity, and many other tactics they’ve developed.

In order for staff and inmates to coexist on a daily basis without constant arguing and incidents involving physical force, there has to be a “relationship” established between the two entities. Most corrections officers have found their niche’ and can maintain this “relationship” without tearing down the boundaries that must remain in place. Others, although a small percentage, have either inadvertently or intentionally stepped across the line and started down the slippery slope of being compromised.

David retired from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in 2009 where he began his career as a Corrections Officer and promoted through the ranks to his final position of Deputy Secretary. He held the rank of Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, Major, Deputy Superintendent, and was Superintendent (Warden) at two prisons in Pennsylvania. Upon retirement David worked as a consultant for several years, most notably as a federal contractor for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), primarily responsible for inspecting prisons in the US that contracted with ICE to house illegal immigrants. David is a veteran serving 4 years in the United States Navy.