Thursday, September 19, 2013

New Mexico: Prisons Revisited


Back here, I talked about the book, The Devil's Butcher Shop: The Story of the 1980 Prison Revolt.

The old prison

When I found myself in Santa Fe recently, I drove out to see the old prison.

I had mixed feelings about doing this, as I do generally about the practice of visiting sites where extreme violence occurred. Like elephants that pick up and handle the bones of their fallen comrades, are we human animals instinctively drawn to such places? Do we cover morbid fascination with stuff about "learning" or "never again" or "honoring the victims"? I don't know. Perhaps it depends on the visitor's perspective: Do I have a familial connection with this violent locale or am I - pretty it up as much as you like - a death tourist? 

At any rate, I went out there. Entrance is through a guarded gate, because the entrance to the old prison is also the entrance to a new prison. So I didn't get up close, but I did have a congenial conversation with the pleasant corrections officer at the gate.

He hasn't read the book, but he regularly sees would-be visitors to the old prison who have. Can't remember - was it four per week or four per day?

The officer noted that New Mexico learned from its mistakes back then and that such a revolt couldn't happen today, and he provided some examples of how carefully inmates are separated from each other and from the ability to harm guards. He also noted that the officers receive extensive training these days, something which didn't occur in the past.

My first impression of the officer is that he likes his job and feels proud of what he does. From an organizational development perspective, these qualities suggest a healthy organization (or at least a healthy team within the larger system).

Also, he did not engage in any macho bullshit a la the sheriff in Arizona, which suggests to me that perhaps there have been substantive improvements. I also liked how he didn't get even the slightest bit defensive during our conversation. In fact, he was curious about why I thought this way or that.

Don't know if this corrections officer is a jerk at home or in other places, but with the public, i.e. me, he is a positive representative of New Mexico's prison system. Kudos.  




Prisons in New Mexico today

In that original post about the 1980 revolt, I wondered how the prison system in New Mexico today had improved from back then.

Notwithstanding the opinion of the corrections officer I talked to in Santa Fe, it seems that not all lessons have been learned.

Today, news about a lawsuit settlement: New Mexico Settles With Prisoners Made to Straddle Each Other.  This settlement will cost New Mexico taxpayers $750,000. The article refers to another lawsuit in which Dona Ana County agreed to pay $15.5 MILLION for its treatment of an inmate in the county jail.

I'm hopeful that at some point we will realize that good prison management -which includes humane treatment of inmates (and corrections officers) - is economical in the long run:
  • Save taxpayers money lost to corruption (diversion of products/services intended for the prisons); 
  • Save taxpayers money lost to lawsuits for negligence and mistreatment of inmates; 
  • After serving their terms, return to society inmates who haven't been stripped of their humanity or ability to be self-supporting contributors to society; and
  • Prevent the ill effects on corrections officers (and their families) of systemic abuses that they witness - or participate in - toward inmates. 

And I think there is a separate hell for those good citizens who fervently beseech inmates to rape sex-crime convicts within prison. For one, the implicit tolerance for prison rape as a norm deserves reflection. Second, it is beyond me why someone would want to inflict that kind of karma on another human being - unless someone believes his proxy-rapist isn't really human anyway. Third, this kind of exhortation gives tacit approval to corrections officers for abusive treatment toward prisoners in general.

Standards

I don't necessarily agree with all of the points that these sources espouse, but I offer them for thought:

Partners for Safety and Justice

A Human Rights Approach to Prison Management

American Bar Association: Standards on Treatment of Prisoners

A Christian ministry: Justice & Mercy: Shedding Light on the Issues










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