Critics of the state Department of Corrections say the hostage-taking last June at the Maine State Prison dramatically illustrates that the concrete, high-tech lockup in Warren is showing cracks from stress on the prison guards. The crisis ended when a prisoner surrendered after holding a knife over the prison librarian and an inmate for seven hours.
Zachary Matthews, the staff person for the guards’ union, Local 2968 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), told the Portland Press Herald that to prevent prison violence, “Nothing replaces boots on the ground and staffing levels that are adequate or better.”
More bluntly, former union president Ira Scherr says: “There’s not enough staff to run the prison. They’re all overworked and tired.”
A hostage-taking is a failure of prison security, but Corrections has not said publicly it was the guards’ fault, and the department has not released information on what its internal investigation has found. Commissioner Martin Magnusson’s first reaction was to praise prison staff for its “exceptional job” in handling the situation without anyone getting killed. In July testimony before the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, he suggested violent incidents at Warren were inevitable because prisoners will always fabricate weapons.
“There are probably 300 inmates right now with a weapon in their hand,” he said. This statement did not disturb committee members, who expressed no interest in investigating the cause of the prison violence. Committee members are mostly former or current members of law enforcement, and they usually defer to the Corrections bureaucracy.
But guards and former guards paint a picture of overworked, not-well-paid, often-inexperienced — and, in some cases, teenaged — correctional officers who become so stressed that they not only create an insecure institution, they also sometimes take out their frustrations on prisoners. For three years, the Phoenix has published stories about prison guards’ abuse of inmates. But it’s not just the prisoners who are abused.
Hard, long hours
Scholars who study prison guards and their interactions with prisoners lay the blame for disorderly, violent institutions on a host of factors, including overcrowding, a lack of inmate educational and vocational programs, and the presence of harsh Supermax solitary-confinement units — all conditions within Maine’s prison system. A major cause is poor prison management, especially prison leadership’s fostering of an “us versus them” guard culture (on this subject, see “Time for a Clean Sweep?” by Lance Tapley, July 25).
But another big cause of prison disorder is the stress suffered by guards, who belong to an occupation — like police officers — long studied by social scientists as particularly stressful. One result for guards: “Stress impairs their judgment as they enter a cell or confront a prisoner who is disobeying orders or causing conflict,” an official who trains guards told the blue-ribbon Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, according to its 2005 report. In other words, stress causes guards to get tough on prisoners. The consequences can be bad for prisoners and guards.
Stress also causes guards to get tough on themselves and their families, says corrections consultant Richard Lumb, of Wilton. A former college professor and police chief, he says guard stress leads to health problems like smoking and overeating and “aberrant behavior” such as domestic violence.
Stress may be inescapable in a prison, but its level varies from institution to institution. The academic studies note that lots of overtime hours and inadequate pay put guards under special psychological strain. At the Maine State Prison, according to much testimony, including Commissioner Magnusson’s public remarks, guards are not paid well enough for the difficult work they do, and they are worn out by mandatory overtime resulting from staff shortages. The ensuing high guard burnout compounds the staff shortages — a vicious circle that can get literally vicious in a high-security environment with nearly 1000 convicted criminals. Corrections says the guard turnover rate was about 20 percent in 2007, well above the national average of 16 percent, which prison experts consider too high.
A legislative Labor Committee session earlier this year — arranged by Senator Ethan Strimling, a Portland Democrat — opened a window onto the difficult working conditions for prison guards.
Paul Cabral, a steward in the 900-member, statewide union, described the inherently dangerous and taxing nature of the job. Himself a guard at the medium-security Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Cabral described an assault by a 300-pound, six-foot-five boy at the Long Creek Youth Center in South Portland that sent two guards to the hospital. In Maine’s prisons, as in other states, “Officers are assaulted every day,” he said.
In addition, guards risk contracting diseases such as hepatitis, which is not uncommon among prisoners. Nationally, he said, the average lifespan of a correctional officer is 59 years. (Which would be about 20 years off the average lifespan.)