What happened when Oprah went to prison?

The TV mogul’s “60 Minutes” report did not paint a fair and balanced picture of the corrections world

So Oprah Winfrey decided to take a trip to Pelican Bay State Prison for a “60 Minutes” report to push a political agenda that highlights rehabilitation over safety and security. Her journey signifies a move to try to limit the use of solitary confinement and push for a more inmate-friendly environment that promotes rehabilitation as a primary focus, negating any true attempt to maintain a safe and secured facility.

Like many prison specials, Oprah only presented the inmate’s perspective. It’s sad to see a celebrated journalist focus on one viewpoint and totally ignore those who defend order against chaos. Viewers were not introduced to frontline staff who have valuable opinions about the necessity of solitary confinement.

Right now, especially after two major riots in Delaware and North Carolina and the cowardice murder of our frontline warriors, frontline staff believe criminal reform threatens the safety and security of the prison system. While Oprah pushes for the limited use of solitary confinement, frontline staff are assaulted and killed. Not only are the changes being pushed unbalanced, they are also ill-timed.

The evolution of solitary confinement

Solitary confinement has evolved into a humane practice that helps maintain a safe and secured facility, which is conducive to rehabilitation.

As the practice has evolved, it is now referred to as either administrative segregation or restrictive housing. Oprah’s use of the term solitary confinement highlights her limited knowledge of changes in the field of corrections and her biased perspective of a system she feels is broken. If you disagree with me, play the beginning of the segment again where she states that the main source of her information comes from inmates and inmate advocates.

As I watched her special unfold, I noticed the play on inmates as victims. She had the inmates wear suits, called them by their first names and downplayed any negative behavior committed while confined. Behavior like “spitting on a guard (officer),” being part of a riot and “accused” of being in a gang are behaviors, in her mind, that may not justify the need to be placed in administrative segregation.

Our priority is always safety and security

The number one priority in corrections is safety and security. A safe environment is conducive for rehabilitation.

When there is a bully in school, other kids may not be able to learn because their mind is focused on the threat. Once the threat is safely and humanely removed, we can then focus on the many who want to make that effort to truly change.

With that in mind, the threat that is removed is not forgotten. They are attended to more aggressively with programming and their needs are met. This is the evolution of corrections and Oprah’s broad brush is not only misleading, but can potentially present a safety risk to staff and inmates alike. Unfortunately, like all systems, there have been extreme cases, but the last thing we need to do is base our assumptions on the extreme, which leads to unfair stereotypes.

Gangs in prison

In corrections, just like law enforcement on the streets, we act on universal precaution. This means we don’t just react, we prevent.

Let’s talk about gang members and why they get sent to administrative segregation. Gang members present a serious risk to staff and the public. Gangs are prevalent behind the wall and staff must do what they can to curtail their activity. Activity such as drug smuggling, assaults, murder for hire and sex trafficking can impact the safety and security of the facility and the public.

The decision to remove and place a gang member in administrative segregation is because of the threat the inmate may possess. Therefore, staff who act in accordance with universal precaution are being preventive. The removal of a gang member and their placement into administrative segregation is not done haphazardly, but is a decision based on actions committed by the individual in question.

Being a member of a gang poses a threat to staff because it highlights inmate unity and possible organization. Inmate unity and organization leads to riots. Inmate unity and organization is what led to the death of heroes like Lt. Steven Floyd, Justin Smith and Veronica Darden. Out of curiosity, when they were killed, where was Oprah?

We need balanced change

The system needs a balanced approach to change. Oprah’s looked into a world that completely changes when cameras are present. The real world can only be seen when the cameras are off and the inmates take off their suits.

As a frontline professional and a corrections advocate, I was truly upset by Oprah’s report. Go back to the drawing board, Oprah, but do it right this time. And by right, I mean fair and balanced.


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