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Building prison-law enforcement partnerships

The prison-law enforcement relationship is an invaluable resource for both parties

By Eric Williams

Whether a prison has existed for a hundred years or just three, there seems to be one overarching fear in the communities where prisons reside – the fear of escapes. It comes with the fences, walls, and razor wire, I suppose. I spent nearly two years in two communities without ever hearing the siren which, even when silent, incited so much fear. I began to think that escapes were such a rarity there really was nothing to fear.

That changed one night in March. I caught my first glimpse of a prison town post-escape after an inmate simply walked away from his job at the prison dairy at the local minimum-security institution. He was found to be missing at the 4 p.m. count, and shortly thereafter prison officials were sent out on search teams and local law enforcement was notified.

Prison escapes capture the public imagination more than any other facet of prison life. Making sure these stories do not end in tragedy depends on a solid working relationship between prison officials and local law enforcement. During this escape, that is exactly what I saw. Police cars from surrounding towns patrolled the streets side-by-side with prison vans, as every pair of eyes searched for the escapee.

This type of close working relationship does not just emerge; it takes a lot of effort. Law enforcement and prison administration have contact regarding a variety of issues. Prison administrators may successfully avoid town politics, but life is inevitably more difficult when they do not play well with the local police.

According to Doug Dretke, former head of the Correctional Institutions Division at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), a call to the local sheriff is one of the first a new warden in Texas must make. From the warden’s perspective, this is an important relationship to nurture, for practical rather than public relations reasons.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the relationship between these two criminal justice institutions should be relatively smooth, regardless of the type of institution. That is not always the case. Although they are both para-military organizations who serve the same master – the criminal justice system – it takes work to develop a solid working relationship. Communication is key.

Bob Horn, former Sheriff of Bee County, Texas, spent many mornings drinking coffee and “visiting” with the warden of TDCJ’s McConnell unit. The local Sheriff has few formal “police” functions within the prison itself, since TDCJ’s Inspector General’s office does most of the investigations of crimes that occur on the inside. Despite this, Horn estimates he receives one to four letters weekly from inmates tipping him off to laws being broken inside the various facilities in town, and he passes these tips directly to the IG’s office. He is also responsible for serving civil papers on inmates and transporting them to the local courts for appearances.

Horn says these two functions, though seemingly simple, can be quite difficult and require considerable coordination. Serving civil papers, such as divorce notices, can be quite sensitive, and Horn reports that he and the warden like to discuss the inmate’s possible reaction over their morning coffee. They also discuss the inmate’s transportation to court so that Horn can plan for any potential problems, and the warden often offered additional transportation support if he felt it was necessary.

TDCJ has been known to return the favor. TDCJ’s offices at the former naval air station have been used on several occasions as staging areas for hurricane relief. The department offered the use of their transportation division to evacuate local residents, despite their own concern that they would have to move some 7,000 inmates out of the area.

The closeness of this working relationship has led to mutual support and assistance when the need arises. It is a relationship built on a sense of mutual respect and a common interest: protecting their community. It is the same type of relationship I saw demonstrated in my community on that spring night, and it is a good model for wardens and administrators across the nation.

Eric J. Williams is a professor of criminal justice at Sonoma State University.

His book, “The Big House in a Small Town: Prisons, Communities, and Economics in Rural America,” is published by Praeger Press and can be found at Amazon.

Williams joins Corrections1 through the Correctional Management Institute of Texas. See all the CMIT columnists here.

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