This diary will be the first in a series of reports on the modern prison system, based on my 17 year experience within a state prison system.
This is not really a very sexy issue. It is not of current interest in the way that impeachment, the firing of attorneys, or who the front runners are – but rather of ongoing interest, more of a background on Modern Corrections. In the ‘civilized’ US, the Greatest Superpower on Earth, our incarceration rate is about 500 per 100,000, or 0.5% of the population, which is actually a slowing of the trend over the past 5 or 6 years. Still, that is a lot of locked up people.
This series of diaries is not an apology for the prison system, but written from the point of view of prison staff, and how they deal with the inmates – and what it might be like to be an inmate.
So, how does it work? Take the jump.
Prisons and prisons systems are often blamed – sometimes rightly – for many ills, but at the end of the day, the jails and prisons have to take what the police and courts send them. In other words, prisons may seem a systemic problem of the Criminal Justice system, but in reality are only symptomatic. They are not like hotels, actively recruiting for new and repeat customers.
In the USA, incarceration is the treatment of choice for mentally ill and drug addicted citizens. This is counter intuitive, given that incarceration is much more expensive than mainstream treatment – which STILL has to be delivered to incarcerated people who are mentally ill and drug addicted – and this only adds to the expense.
The key to modern prison systems is the inmate classification system. I’m sure many readers have seen prison movies, ‘The Longest Yard’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Tango and Cash’. All totally bogus, all totally Hollywood. Prison life is nothing like the movies.
Jails are where they put people who are arrested off the street. They either bond out or wait for their say in court. Prisons are where they put convicted criminals, people who have been to court, and the court deemed them not fit for civil living. Convicted criminals can get sentences of days to months to years to life to death. A traffic scofflaw with 11 outstanding tickets and 4 failures to appear is likely to get locked up for no more than a few months. Unless he gets pulled over one day, and has a gun under his seat. Then, he’ll get perhaps 5 years. Courts do NOT like guns or other weapons, but especially guns.
The vast majority of cases are plead out. Each court will have its own going rate for crimes. Burglary in the 3rd degree? 6 months. Assault in the 2nd degree? 18 months. Possession of controlled substance? 3 years. Possession with intent to sell? 5 years. Everyone knows the rates, except the defendant. Ever wonder why the courts need everyone there by 8:00am but don’t start until 10:00? And even then they are many times late in starting? The defendant’s lawyer, usually his Public Defender, gets with the Prosecutor in the Judges’ Chambers and go through the docket, deciding who will get what sentence. This usually takes a couple of hours. The PDs go back to their clients and tell them what a good deal they got them, ‘Look, plead guilty and the court will only want 6 months for that 3rd degree burglary! It’s a great deal. Take it.’ Then, court. The Judge looks at the defendant and pompously reminds him of the heinous crime he’s committed. ‘I’m tempted to through the book at you! Six months, [bang!] get him out of here!’
Cases which go to trial are usually heinous crimes, make the news, covered extensively in the MSM, and different rules apply in the courts. These are the High Profile cases. But they are few, less than 10% of cases, probably WAY less.
So, it’s off to prison. In prisons, there are inmates with 4 months, 6 months, a year... and inmates with 20 years, 30 years, life. Think about that. Does it seem likely to you that the inmate with 6 months might be victimized by the one with 25 years? Well, you’d be right.
The inmate classification system is the heart and soul of modern corrections. Each inmate is classified according to the risk of his or her containment. Risk of escape, risk of violence, risk of disruption. In my system, the Risk score is a number between 1 and 5. A level 5 inmate has a life sentence... or a death sentence. Such an inmate has nothing to lose, his or her behavior is completely at a whim, no social constraints. After all, society has already done their worst. What are they gonna do? Arrest him if he kills some queen sleeping on the top bunk or throws a handful of shit at a passing Correctional Officer? (NB: ‘Prison guard’ is passé, the correct term is ‘CO’) Well, yes, he’ll get arrested, State Police will be called, there will be an investigation... all that will happen. Which sometimes in itself is motive enough for this kind of behavior.
An inmate who is approved for community living, ‘Community Corrections,’ is a level 1 inmate. This is the language for someone on Parole or released to a half-way house. These inmates are still serving sentences, but are deemed socially enough fit to live in the community. This is a much better idea than keeping them to the bitter end, opening up the gates, and yelling, ‘Good luck! Don’t come back, y’hear?’ Having an Parole Officer to supervise their re-entry, making sure they have a suitable place to live, some leads on jobs, a few presentable changes of clothing is a good thing. It is also a good tool to relieve overcrowding. The inmate’s PO also has the authority to lock him or her back up just upon suspicion of bad behavior. But, the PO usually won’t bust him unless there is real cause. The PO is under pressure to keep the Parolee out on the street. Remember overcrowding. So, a Parolee has to really show bad faith to be remanded. This, of course, is the ideal system with ideal players, and as always, there are some bad apples in there. The profession somehow attracts them, and despite heavy screening, a few slip in. But in reality, they are kind of rare, these rogue Parole Officers. Most are conscientiously doing their job. At the end of the day, a Parolee’s PO wants him or her to do what most civilized people in our culture do: get and keep a job, get a decent place to live, abide by the law. No more... and no less.
So what is the difference between a Probation Officer and a Parole Officer? Pragmatically, nothing. Probation is a sentence, as in a person is arrested and convicted. But in lieu of time in prison, the person gets time on Probation complete with an Officer, another kind of PO, to make sure the Probationer does all those civilized things – jobs, housing, law abiding lifestyle – and doesn’t behave illegally any more. Unless the hapless offender gets a ‘split sentence’ meaning some time in Prison followed by a period of Probation. Parole is a ‘get out of jail early’ card.
Each system is different in its rules about who gets Parole. An inmate is eligible to be considered for Parole only, for example, after he or she has done 50% of his sentenced time. Or, after 50% if the crime is non-violent (read, drug related) but 75% if it is violent. Or some variation on this kind of rule.
Some prison systems employ the use of ‘good time’ to reduce sentence time, and hence, overcrowding. This means that for every month a prisoner behaves, he gets 10 days knocked off the end of the sentence. This motivates good behavior, as you can plainly tell. A ‘model inmate’ under such rules stands to have his sentence reduced by one third. No small potatoes, especially on longer sentences.
But what is a maximum security prison? What is a minimum security prison? Medium security? Well, this is the magic of the inmate classification system. Remember those numbers between 1 and 5? A level 5 inmate will be housed in a max or super max prison. The way he or she is contained, as I mentioned, is critical since any behavior might occur at any time. And such an inmate has 24-7 to dream it up – as opposed to the CO who goes home after 8 hours, eats dinner, sleeps next to his or her significant other, and (hopefully) leaves the job at the job.
A level 4 inmates lives at the maximum security prison, a level 3 at the medium, and a level 2 at the minimum security prison. The minimums have dorms, 75 or 100 inmates with a single supervising CO. When the CO yells ‘LOCK UP’ in such a dorm, that means that each inmate sits or lays on his or her bunk. 75 or 100 to 1? Why do they behave? Because they are getting out soon. They have been approved for Parole. They have a lot to lose by misbehaving. So, they behave. Unless they believe they won’t get caught.
An inmate’s classification level is determined by a formula which takes into account a number of factors. The main factors are his or her crime and the length of the sentence. Generally, the more violent the crime, the higher the level. The longer the sentence, the higher the level. Other factors include whether or not the inmate is an identified gang member, whether he or she has behavioral incidents which violate the rules and require disciplinary action (and if so, the nature, number, and frequency of the incidents), and whether or not he or she has a history of escape.
After an initial risk level has been determined, it can be changed. It is not static – but then again, it is not very dynamic. An inmate with a long sentence can have it reduced after serving a significant portion of the sentence, and graduate to a lower level facility which may have better programs, living conditions, schools. The long range goal is to rehabilitate, but this is pointless if done up front on a long sentence. Sure, train the guy to rebuild small engines, say, and get him a GED, and provide substance abuse treatment... and then let him sit on his hands for the next 20 years... No, it works better to provide these kinds of services when he has only a few years or even a few months left before he is placed back in the community.
If his level is very high, it can be reduced several times until he is a minimum security inmate and can be transferred to a minimum security prison. It costs less per inmate to house them in minimum – even with the additional services. Some such prisons are called Pre-release prisons, since their 2ndary goal (don’t forget, the primary goal is ALWAYS, ALWAYS the ‘...safety and security of society, staff, and other inmates...’) is to prepare inmates for the transition back from prison inmate to law-abiding citizen.
The level can move up, as well. This is mostly done for disciplinary reasons. In my system, there are three classes of disciplinary reports, called ‘tickets’ by the inmates. The most serious, 1st Class, include assault, theft (of over $100 worth of goods), arson, intoxication, proven gang affiliation, other infractions which could and often do call for outside charges to be pressed, the Staties called in, investigations, etc. 2nd Class tickets include such things as being somewhere you don’t belong, lying to a CO, disobeying a direct order, theft of under $100. And 3rd Class tickets include poor hygiene, being out of uniform, other minor stuff that just can’t be ignored. An inmate’s risk level might move up – including transfer to a higher security facility – depending on the pattern of tickets. It takes something like three 1st or 2nd Class tickets in a limited period, like 6 months, to make a level increase.
I’ve written of offender classification issues in this installment, and I’ll address other issues in later editions. I intend to cover how inmate ‘needs’ are determined and met; how commissary and visitation works; privatization; and other issues in modern corrections.
Tags: prisons, corrections, incarceration, inmate