What will the budget crisis ultimately mean?

An interview with Warden Hood, part II

This is the second part of a two part interview conducted with Robert Hood, National Security Specialist for General Electric’s Homeland Protection department.

Hood started working in prisons in 1974 and has 24 years of experience with the FBOP. He’s been a warden at three facilities, including the Administrative Maximum (or “Supermax”) prison in Florence, Colorado, where such notorious inmates as Theodore Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, and Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind behind the 1993 WTC bombing, have been housed.

The first part of our interview, centering on the topic “What makes a good warden?” is available here.

~ Luke Whyte, C1 editor

Corrections One: What sort of changes is the recession bringing to corrections? What does this mean for wardens and COs?

A room full of inmates are seen in their bunk beds at Southeastern Correctional Institution Wednesday, April 22, 2009 in Lancaster, Ohio. Ohio's prisons are at 132 percent capacity and space is squeezing tighter by the day, says prisons director Terry Collins. (AP photo)

A room full of inmates are seen in their bunk beds at Southeastern Correctional Institution Wednesday, April 22, 2009 in Lancaster, Ohio. Ohio's prisons are at 132 percent capacity and space is squeezing tighter by the day, says prisons director Terry Collins. (AP photo)

Robert Hood: With more than one in every one hundred adult Americans in jail or prison, the cost to state governments is nearly $50 billion a year, in addition to more than $5 billion spent by the federal government. The recession creates competition for money spent in the criminal justice system.

Staffing levels are being reduced, programs are impacted, and staff training is limited.

In corrections, to “do more with less” has consequences. Inmate misconduct is directly related to a lack of programs, work details, idleness, less supervision, among other critical areas.

Wardens need to identify the key indicators that make prison environments safe and secure. Many critical indicators are of no cost or can be prioritized when cost containment is an issue. Cost may find inmates more frustrated when programs are reduced and idleness increases, so communicating the impact of the recession should include inmates, staff and the local community.

C1: With this in mind, what do you believe are the primary services the correctional system provides society? Specifically, what are the principles to keep in mind during this recession?

RH: The general public perception is that the correctional system’s primary services are punishment, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation. Although I agree with this, incapacitation is clearly creating the greatest challenge for correctional administrators, especially given the current budget crisis.

Incapacitation allows the public to feel safe and secure, but little do they know about the impact mass incarceration is having on local, state, and federal resources.

The United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate. Americans make up five percent of the world’s population, yet we incarcerate twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. With over 5 million offenders on probation or parole, community re-entry initiatives should be, and are, gaining as an important service area.

C1: What roll does the overcrowding of America’s prisons play in all this? What sort of problems does this cause wardens and COs and how can they deal with these problems on a daily basis? What can we do about these issues in the future?

RH: Overcrowding in American prisons is a disgrace. Far too many people are incarcerated for nonviolent offenses while dangerous predators threaten our communities. It is difficult to normalize the prison environment — by providing programs, amenities and services — when so many facilities are over their rated capacity.

Because of overpopulation, often non-violent offenders are often incarcerated alongside inmates with extensive histories of violence and gang-related backgrounds. The less experienced offenders are then used to violate rules and arrange for illegal contraband to enter the facility.

On a daily basis, inmates, staff, and at times the general public, are at risk because of prison population issues. We can’t simply wait until the future to address these critical concerns.

Overcrowding results from the growing numbers of prisoners incarcerated for drug and alcohol-related problems. When I started working in corrections, there were approximately 40,000 drug offenders in prison; today we have more than 500,000. More than 80 percent of state inmates report a lifetime use of drugs and one-third admit to being under the influence of drugs when their offense was committed. Yet less than 20 percent of drug-involved offenders receive formal treatment while in prison.

Technology and sound correctional practices are available today that could significantly reduce, or virtually eliminate, drugs within our prisons.

Wardens need to make drug interdiction programs a major priority — saying no to drug use in prisons will have a major impact on the prison environment. With the cost of incarceration averaging near $30,000, and 70 percent of drug abusing offenders returning to prison within three years of their release, wardens need to address this problem.

Inmates are aware of the traditional methods of keeping contraband out of prisons and look for ways to introduce drugs and weapons into the setting. Today the average teenager knows how to sneak contraband into prisons from watching televised programs on prisons.

Although most prisons use K-9 units, strip searches, random urinalysis, and other valid methods to reduce drug introduction, wardens need to use technology designed for detecting drugs before they are introduced to the correctional environment.

Advances in trace detection — the discovery and identification of microscopic particles and vapors emitted by explosives and narcotics — have kept pace with the increasing complex security risks of our time. Innovative technology now makes it possible to detect a wider range of substances with greater accuracy, speed and reliability than ever before. As a result, more and more prisons are, or should be, using trace detection as an integral component of a total security solution.

Although many proactive wardens are using trace technology to detect drugs and explosives, far too many rely on traditional methods to reduce contraband.

C1: I was reading recently about a theory deemed “The Prison-Industrial Complex.” Have you heard of this concept? Do you think it holds merit?

RH: The theory includes private and public facilities; employing thousands of employees.

Twenty-six states plus the federal government have passed “three strikes and you’re out” laws which place repeat offenders in prisons for life without parole — this creates the “big business” for corrections in America. Some theorize we are becoming a nation of prisons.

In the past two decades, state spending on corrections increased by 127 percent, while spending on higher education rose by 21 percent. The public is questioning social priorities and prison-industrial complexes are high on the list. Correctional officials will be obligated to justify use of public funds each and every day.

C1: This brings me to Sen. Jim Webb’s proposed prison reform bill: How do you feel about this piece of legislation? Is it clear how — if passed the bill will change the corrections system? Is our criminal justice system really in need of “reform”?

RH: My background as a warden, and now as national security specialist for GE, allows me to respond to this question without getting into politics.

Senator Webb is bringing much needed attention to an unpopular subject regardless of the consequences.

Yes, reform is long overdue.

Webb’s many years of studying and writing about the criminal justice system have not gone unnoticed. The legislation will examine all aspects of the “system” within an eighteen-month period. With bipartisan support, the bill will provide actions for improving the correctional environment.

I am particularly interested in the commission’s findings related to the impact of drugs in our nation’s prisons. If we can’t keep drugs and contraband out of prisons, why would we feel safe in other public settings?

Regardless of the outcome, Senator Webb and his staff should be commended for addressing this critical area of our social system.

The budget crisis is going to be the swing in the pendulum towards no drugs in prisons, towards reentry initiatives and towards treatment programs targeted at the restructuring of the cognitive criminal mind.

What Webb is saying is that, whether you like it or not, we can’t continue to do what we are doing. If we are spending more for prisons then we are for schools, then where are the boundaries here? I mean what would you rather pay for, education or prison?

C1: If you had to isolate one issue that you believe all wardens and facilities should be focusing on, what would it be?

RH: We need to get drugs out of our prisons. Reducing or eliminating drug use in prison settings will assist the many dedicated professionals who risk their lives each and every day while serving our country.

With over 95 percent of our inmate population eventually eligible for release to the community, we need to say no to drugs in prisons.

The fact that drugs are in every prison in America means that if we incarcerate a drug offender who truly wants to turn their life around, the Correctional environment inhibits them from succeeding.

If we are truly going to run correctional institutions, how can we have the drugs, the gangs? Really, the only difference between a community that is drug infested and a prison that is drug infested is that, in prison, the drugs are part of a high stakes barter system that makes matters much worse.

I often ask wardens about their drug interdiction programs. Generally speaking they’ll tell me, “We use K-9 units.” But most are lucky if they can get those units into their facility four times a year.

Worse still, when overcrowded prisons combine with staff reductions, most wardens are saying it’s getting harder and harder to perform regular shakedowns.

Here is what I tell them they should do:

Talk to every inmate. Let them know your expectations. Treat them like men, engage them. This lets them know that you want them to go home. Even though I’d tear gas any inmate in a heartbeat, I am a family man too and I want inmates to go home.

I tell the inmates that, “I know some of you are going to try and test us. But, eventually those of you who mature will realize that my intentions here are to get you home to your children. I want you to have the visits, so stay out of my cell house, watch who you talk to and keep your nose clean.”

Further, as a Warden, if you know there is trace technology that can pick up one billionth of a gram, why not go ahead and use it?

Swab the top of the TVs, etc. Even in the ‘Supermax’ I gave inmates little TV sets — what a great opportunity to say, “If you screw up we’ll pull it from you.”

I’m convinced that the things that don’t cost you a penny like leadership, knowing your inmate population and making the inmates part of the drug interdiction program by giving them reasons and rewards for succeeding (not for snitching) when combined with the power of trace technology is the key to curbing this issue.

We are spending millions of dollars to keep these people off the streets, so am I missing something as to why there is not a War on Drugs in prisons?

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