From: The Prisoner’s Advocate: State’s Meanness Is Shameful! (via email)
For immediate release, 29 Jan. 2012
info at prisonersadvocate.org
State’s Meanness Is Shameful!
By David Honeman
The high walls and fences surrounding prisons are designed not only to keep prisoners in, but also to hide ugly secrets. That is exactly what’s happening in the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC). It is a well-concealed environment of abusive treatment of prisoners and a waste of taxpayer’s dollars.
One must walk in someone else’s shoes to fully understand and appreciate what they experience, especially adversity. While I’ve never been in prison, I have been an advocate for prisoners and prison reform for over 15 years. In that time, I have visited many prisons, talked with many prisoners and prison staff, and it has been an eye-opening experience for me. The mental, emotional and often physical abuse that prisoners endure daily from unscrupulous prison staff is unfathomable. If the public knew what really goes on behind those high walls and fences, with their tax dollars, they would be livid.
Everyone understands that people are sent to prison as punishment for their crimes. Being separated from family and society is their punishment. They were not sent to prison to be punished, abused, degraded and humiliated. Yet, that’s what is happening in the NDOC. While most corrections employees are there to do an honest day’s work, many feel it is their job to harass, threaten, intimidate and punish inmates for their crimes. They feel they can abuse inmates anyway they choose and not be held accountable for it. To a large extent, that’s true. That’s because most prisoners are functionally illiterate and come from impoverished families, and neither have the wherewithal to challenge the abuse. They have no voice; those who do challenge are retaliated against. Prison administrations cover up the abuse inflicted by unscrupulous staff. So the state wastes millions of dollars annually defending the unethical behavior of prison employees.
Lovelock Correctional Center (LCC) is a prime example. It’s touted as a model prison; however, that’s a huge misnomer. It is a prison filled primarily with sex offenders, homosexuals and dropout gang members. Those are the miscreants that staff loathe the most, and as a result, they are degraded, humiliated and harassed because of their crimes. Officers who gloat about abusing prisoners brag about this reprehensible misconduct; they find it very satisfying. Efforts of this kind are an attempt to beat up on prisoners because they are not liked. People who think prisoners are worthless and feel it is their right, as prison employees, to degrade and abuse them should not work in prisons.
An employee of LCC, who spoke on conditions anonymity said, “The dearth of leadership at LCC and NDOC is unfathomable. There are no visionaries or people trained in corrections. It’s just a good ol’ boy network of uneducated, redneck racists who think they are executives and are paid as such. The NDOC does not want change, so they don’t recruit outsiders. But, educated visionaries won’t work in corrections no matter what you pay them. Within the last year, LCC got all new wardens, all were promoted from within and none were qualified; therefore, they don’t get the respect of the staff. Most wardens are so shielded by their command staff that they don’t have a clue about what’s going on in their prison. They do little work, instead, they delegate to their underlings. They lie and cover up for their staff’s abusive misgivings. They are cowards and not accessible to staff or inmates. Most hold jobs they are not qualified for, and therefore, are so far over their heads that they only know how to manage through threats, intimidation, degradation and humiliation”.
Citing an example, the employee said, “The shift lieutenant, Matthew Wightman, is a good example. He was promoted through the ranks, and is too uneducated, and has no people skills to do his job adequately. Yet, his title gives him a false sense of superiority. He is intimidated by anyone, staff or inmate, who is more educated than he is; therefore, he loses control, gets red-faced, and can only supervise with loud threats, cursing and degrading comments. To show that he’s in charge, he lies, embellishes reports of incidences, and instructs the staff to do so just to punish inmates he does not like. Staff feels compelled to follow suit because he’s their supervisor. Wightman is so insecure and jealous of other’s success, even inmates, so to feel superior and in control, he degrades and humiliates. He thinks this earns him respect from the staff, when, in fact, they have no respect for him. The administration condones his behavior”.
Caseworkers, who have the most direct contact with prisoners, are often the most abusive culprits. Their jobs are to assist prisoners, help prepare them for re-entry and prepare reports for parole hearings. One employee said, “Those reports are filled with lies. I’ve never read a positive report on an inmate, and no inmate has ever been pardoned from LCC since it opened about 18 years ago. Most caseworkers, like Dwayne Baze, are lazy; they slough off and don’t do their jobs. They are not accessible to inmates; they lie and makeup answers to inmate’s questions, just spin them, and ignore their inquiries. If they don’t like an inmate, then they brag about how they lie and file false reports to paper f—them out of the prison. Even inmates deserve an honest answer and to be treated with respect. Caseworkers feel it is their job to hurt rather than help inmates because they don’t like them, especially sex offenders.
It’s almost comical how incensed prison staff becomes if an inmate is not honest with them. They become offended, infuriated and punish them severely. Ironically, no one lies more than the people who work in corrections! Yet, they demand respect, and act as though they are morally beyond reproach. Actually, many of them are former alcoholics, drug addicts and prostitutes”.
Prisons are run on lies and deception. People who work in prisons are not much different than those they lord over. The biggest difference is that employees have not been prosecuted – yet! Staff, who is honest, will admit that too. Prisoners are facing their wrongs and are being punished for it, while employees see themselves as doing no wrong, and therefore anticipate no punishment for the evil they do. They know if they do wrong, their co-workers will cover for them. And, they do cover up because the union is so powerful and will defend them. One prison employee said, “Our union is no different than a street gang with its unwritten code of silence. We violate our own Employee Code of Ethics daily by lying and covering up the abuse”.
I know that in the more than 15 years that I’ve been involved in advocacy, I’ve never encountered a more mendacious and unscrupulous prison administration than is currently in place at LCC with Robert LeGrand and Quentin Byrne. It’s criminal, not to mention shameful.
While most prison employees do not abuse, they see it done on a daily basis by co-workers and just turn a blind eye to it. In my opinion, that makes them just as guilty. To work in prisons, one must sacrifice their conscience for the benefit of a job. For if they have a conscience, “it” will not allow them to work there. That’s why the average tenure of an employee of the NDOC is less than 2 years. They hate their jobs, they feel trapped, and can’t speak out against all the lies and abuse for fear of retribution from co-workers and supervisors. It’s no wonder that prison employees have the highest rates of alcohol, drug abuse, heart attacks, strokes and divorce. It’s not because they work in a dangerous environment either.
At the end of the day, whether the end of this day or the end of one’s career, all any of us have to reflect on is how well we’ve treated other people. When corrections employees do that, their conscience consumes them, and that’s why they hold that dubious honor.
Prison officials and the media are quick to blame prisoners’ families for introducing contraband into prisons. They place severe restrictions on visits and mail to prevent it. While I would never suggest that people visiting prisoners don’t try to bring in contraband, most contraband (drugs, cell phones) is brought in by prison staff and sold to prisoners. Employees police their own ranks and are not adequately searched. In some prisons, like LCC, employees can bring in coolers large enough for a family picnic, so they can bring in any contraband. Let’s put the blame where it’s due.
Prison jobs are good jobs. Most only require a high school diploma or GED. Yet, prison officers earn more than teachers with Master’s degrees and college professors with doctorates, but are not held accountable. The trend today is to end tenure for teachers and tie their salary to how well their students score on tests. If that’s so, then why not tie corrections employee’s salaries to how many prisoners they rehab or to the recidivism rate? It makes about as much sense.
It’s the power over others that prison staff craves. That power gives them a false sense of superiority. They are quick to judge, find fault and punish, often severely, for petty infractions they are guilty of themselves. Often they lie and file false reports out of revenge. It’s akin to judges doling out lengthy prison sentences to drug users when they are drug users themselves. The hypocrisy is disgusting.
People think everything in prison is free, however, that is far from true. When prisoners get sick and have to be seen by medical staff, they must pay an $8 fee. If they don’t have the money to pay, then they are seen, but the $8 fee is held in arrears on their prison account, and is deducted whenever family sends them money. If they get injured playing sports, then they must pay the entire medical cost, which could be thousands of dollars. Yet, they are not allowed to have health insurance or choose their medical provider. The prison refuses to give an itemized bill showing the expenses. They only release the total amount. Imagine going to the hospital for treatment and getting a bill for $2000 with no explanation. The NDOC recently settled a lawsuit filed by the ACLU over inadequate prison healthcare. Greg Cox and E. K. McDaniel were responsible for the inadequate healthcare that precipitated the lawsuit. Yet they were promoted to director and deputy director, respectively.
Research shows that when prisoners have regular contact with their families that it improves their behavior and reduces recidivism, yet, a phone call from prison is so expensive that average families can’t afford it. A 30-minute in-state call costs $5 and that same call out-of-state costs over $20, a local call costs $1.95. The NDOC collects over 50% kickback on all prison phone calls. It’s shameful.
By their own admission, the NDOC is not meeting the nutritional needs of its inmates. The diets are not balanced or nutritional. The diets consist primarily of fast foods – hamburgers, hot dogs, and corn dogs. Elementary school children get more to eat than prisoners. Poor diets lead to poor health and poor behavior.
A visit to the prison commissary is robbery without a gun. A TV that sells for $89 at Wal-Mart goes for $350, which includes a fee for the electricity to use it.
Nevada is trying to finance the DOC on the backs of prisoners’ families, most of whom are already impoverished. Prisoners must rely on family and friends for money to survive in prison. Fewer than 10% of prisoners’ jobs have pay numbers, and top pay is about $30 a month.
To retaliate against inmates, officers shakedown and tear apart their cells with vengeance, often damaging and destroying their property and stealing their commissary items. Then laugh about it, and say, “what are you going to do about it?”
While there is a grievance procedure in place, most grievances are denied, lost or never responded to. They are denied because the prison knows that most inmates cannot afford the fee to file a lawsuit against them. Those that do sue are retaliated against.
Taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars annually on corrections, and don’t understand why the recidivism rate is so high. There’s a reason why it is so high. People leave prison angrier than before they arrived. I use this analogy to describe prison: If you catch a tiger, put it in a cage and poke it with a stick everyday for 20 years, then turn it loose on your family and friends, what does it do? That’s what prisons do, so it’s no wonder people leave prison angrier than before they arrived, and the recidivism rate is so high.
All crimes are bad and regardless of how one feels about prisoners, they deserve to be treated humanely and with respect. And, given the resources needed to rehab in order to become productive, law-abiding citizens. Prison staff are paid to do that -to help, not abuse.
Given the nature of their work and the power they exercise over inmates, employees like LeGrand, Byrne, Wightman and Baze have shown themselves to lack fitness to hold employment. The harm that can be produced by this type of intimidation and humiliation can lead to tragic consequences. Inappropriate actions by prison staff or statements which could lead to dangerous situations in the prison (system) should not be tolerated. There should be zero tolerance for intimidation by staff as well as prisoners. .
One former employee said, “I’ve never seen a prison employee put in a full day’s work. They have access to the Internet, so they can play computer games and sleep. They read inmate’s newspapers and magazines, often keeping them for weeks, and working the crossword puzzles before giving them to the inmates, who paid for them. While prison jobs are good jobs and pay well, my conscience would not allow me to work there. I was ashamed to tell people where I worked”.
Prisons house our homeland war causalities, the wounded of our unsolved societal battles with racism and poverty. Our prisons have become housing for the poor, those who are the wrong race, the wrong class, and from the wrong side of town, with the wrong kind of drugs in hand.
Prison life is one of never-ending sorrows and sufferings. It is a society of despair, with anxieties and fears fostering mistrust and manipulation. Punishment takes precedence over programs for rehabilitation. Controlled movement and constant surveillance undermine a sense of dignity. Survival and advancement depend on submission and compliance. Anger rumbles beneath the surface, with some predictable eruptions into violence. Prisoners feel alone, sometimes plagued by guilt, often bombarded by stress. And usually they lack support and resources to address their struggles.
Prisoners are regularly shamed and humiliated by a system that is relentlessly cruel. It is shredding to the soul. Even humane correctional officers find it difficult to practice respectful ways when the system rewards and praises harsh treatment.
Where did we get the peculiar idea that further punishment and diminishment of a person’s life will create better human beings? In my imagination, I dream of ushering in new prisoners with the words, “Welcome. The violence and hurt stop here. Here you will learn a new way of being human. Here you will learn to live with dignity and respect for yourself and others”. It does not happen.
We should all be held responsible for our behavior, not just prisoners, but also those who work in prison. Put yourself in the shoes of a prisoner. Would you want to be mistreated and abused? Would you want your child, sibling or parent to be abused, regardless of their crime? Don’t you want them helped?
Taxpayers of Nevada deserve better and its prisoners deserve better.
David Honeman is Legal Counsel of the National Alliance for Prisoners’ Rights,
a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, nonprofit organization that advocates for prisoners and prison reform. He can be reached at PO Box 384, Milltown, NJ 08850.