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The safety problems of walking an active mess hall (and how to solve them)

Walking a mess hall is a primitive practice that exposes staff members at their most vulnerable to a population of inmates at their greatest strength

A recent discussion on the need for a CO to stand post inside the mess hall during active feeding has become a national debate after an Alabama CO was stabbed to death. Some correctional professionals still feel the need for COs to remain inside the mess hall and others proclaim that it’s just not safe.

In an effort to educate and inform, I went to the frontline and asked several correctional professionals if standing mess is dangerous and if there are alternatives. Here is what they had to say:

  • “As the designated seating officer I could feel my stress levels climb as feeding time would approach. The danger in the chow hall was very real, but so is the silent killer within: stress. Putting officers in an environment like a chow hall, where the concentration of inmates is extremely high, has always been fraught with danger. Acceptance of such peril is a failure of vision and creativity to develop alternatives and options to keep staff safer. Chow must be fed, but that does not mean it must be centralized. If you lengthen the distribution chain to the unit level you can involve fewer inmates. Food preparation methods such as quick chill can be used to help decentralization.” —Sgt. Russell Hamilton, CDCR (retired)
  • “Standing mess will always be dangerous based on the fact of bringing large numbers of inmates together in one place at the same time. Organized groups often plan their attacks specifically at mess because their affiliates will be there to support them. Additionally, the officer to inmate ratio is typically very low and the chances for a riot are increased. The alternatives are in cell or on the unit feeding which has its own set of drawbacks as far as socialization and physiological affect. Ultimately the DOC is left with making choices that straddle safety against rehabilitation which is always risky with individuals who don’t follow the norms of society.” —Ed Wall, former Secretary Wisconsin Department of Corrections
  • “Standing mess halls can be a very dangerous place for both staff and inmates. It is one of only a few places where inmates from different housing units can co-mingle. Generally inmates that house together are no more of a threat in the mess hall than they are on the cell block. One way to increase officer and inmate safety is to only feed one unit at a time. It does prolong the process but if the priority is safety, what’s the hurry?” —David Wakefield, Pa. Deputy Secretary (retired)
  • “In my time working at a maximum security institution, higher level offenders were always fed in their respective cells. However, with a growing inmate population and notorious staffing issues, more and more institutions seem to be leveling offenders down and chow halls are being utilized frequently. Chow halls are always tumultuous; it gives offenders from different yards and blocks the chance to congregate. Chow hall usage needs to be strategic, fast, and systematic. Standing is always dangerous because events can be carried out clandestinely and it gives antagonists a quicker mode to execute a plan. Inmates that use the chow hall together need to be compatible (from a classification standpoint) and their time must be limited to discourage any potential indiscretions.” —Curtis Isele, Probation/Parole Officer State of Oklahoma
  • “Too often economics overrides safety. Many places are worried about the initial expense of proper security measures and by doing so, endanger staff. In addressing the issue of officers in the dining hall, our first concern is the safety of the officers. With that in mind, it’s vital to control inmates that are allowed to gather in a single area. The number of inmates needs to be kept at a controllable level in accordance with staff. While it’s dangerous, staff presence serves in controlling inmates, and in my opinion is a necessary evil. As long a staff are put in this position, it’s vital that they be equipped with the tools necessary to protect themselves and others, and be trained in their use. A minimum of each officer carrying OC and the availability of other force options is vital, as is a quick, immediate response to any situations that arise.” —Captain Keith Hellwig, Wisconsin Department of Corrections
  • “Inmates gain confidence in large groups and become more powerful. A large number of attacks on staff occur in the inmate dining facility because the assailants can get lost in the crowd much easier and hand off weapons. Not to forget that inmates assigned to the kitchen have access to many weapons and accept payment from other inmates for the use of kitchen weapons. This with many other factors makes the dining facility a deadly area to work in. Most of our prisons were built in the seventies and eighties with no thought put into officer safety. We must build future prisons with officer safety in mind.” —Gary York, Author of Corruption Behind Bars

What’s my take? Active mess is a time where inmates can unite and organize. It is a time they are at their greatest strength and staff is at their most vulnerable. Besides feeding in cells or pods, we need to find a way that staff can monitor mess from a secured area (with the use of technology) and stand safely at a distance. If there is a need to enter the mess hall, it should be based on an emergency situation in which a suited team stands at the ready.

When changes are being implemented, it is always best to go to the frontline and ask what the COs’ current needs are to be safe and effectively do their jobs. Walking a mess hall is a primitive practice that exposes staff members at their most vulnerable to a population of inmates at their greatest strength. The solutions outlined above are meant to save lives.

Anthony Gangi has a BA in psychology and is a 20-year veteran in corrections. He currently works as an Associate Administrator for State Corrections and has worked his way up through the ranks, from officer to sergeant, and then into administration. Anthony currently sits on the executive board of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Correctional Association. To date, Anthony Gangi has been invited to speak on CNN, MSNBC, CBS, Lifetime, ABC, Fox and NewsNation. He is also the author of “Inmate Manipulation Decoded” and “How to Succeed in Corrections,” as well as the host of the Tier Talk podcast.