Thursday, March 21, 2013

life and death at Canaan

Canaan, the high security federal prison in Pennsylvania, has been in lockdown since February 25 when an inmate allegedly murdered a correctional officer. Reports from the prison, through phone calls to family members, are that, in the unit where the CO was killed, the cells have been stripped of all personal belongings. Books, magazines, radios...all removed. Other reports say the prison will remain in lockdown until sometime this summer. There is cruel uncertainty for families and friends trying to learn if inmates are safe--from each other and from the angry and frightened correctional officers.

Canaan is a troubled prison.
Since the facility opened in 2005, more than a dozen inmates have been charged with assaulting correctional officers or attacking each other. In the last three years, three inmates have stabbed other inmates to death. The latest victim was 29-year-old Ephraim Goitom in January...
So far this year, inmates at Canaan have been especially ruthless, perpetrating the first inmate-on-inmate murder, the first assault on a guard with a weapon and recently the first homicide of an officer out of all the 114 facilities in the Bureau of Prisons...
On top of all that, the Canaan community is also mourning the death of a CO who killed himself soon after the funeral of the murdered CO. It sounds like a miserable place to work. 
"If you're not scared when you go to work, you're not right," one correctional officer said. "These inmates are there for a reason. If you don't watch your back, you're going to be in trouble."
Darrell Palmer, the president of the union representing correctional officers at Canaan, put it this way:
"Imagine what it would be like if you came to work and they put you in this cell block with 130 criminals and they gave you a set of keys and a radio and said, 'Run it.' And there's murderers, drug dealers, rapists and even terrorists. And you're going to deal with them for eight hours, five days a week. People in the public don't realize what it's like." 
Correctional officers often work alone at Canaan, leaving them vulnerable to attack. The murdered CO was working alone when he was killed.
It does not make sense, correctional officers and their union officials contend, to assign one guard per 100-plus inmate housing unit. But that has been the norm since 2005, when the Federal Bureau of Prisons decided to assign only one officer to each cell block, instead of two, to save money. 
That decision has cost lives, some say.
The solution seems to be to put two COs on duty at a time. That's what the correctional officers union is pushing. They could be right but that is an expensive solution. 

Another idea would be to lower the prison population among Bureau of Prison facilities and spread inmates out so the COs aren't responsible for so many inmates at once.

Keeping non-violent offenders and first-time offenders out of prison if at all possible has a number of benefits: Fewer low-level criminals "graduate" from prison with an education in high-level criminal skills; fewer low-level offenders spend years isolated from society, making it harder for them to re-integrate when they complete their sentence. Fewer families broken up, fewer families in economic distress. More room in prison for those who do need to be there, a better workload for the COs, and a considerable cost-savings for the federal government.

Judging by the article linked above, which includes not even a hint that the inmates may have a perspective worth hearing, no one will consider the possibility of lowering the population of federal prisons. Especially not the correctional officers union...which benefits from hiring more correctional officers.

I challenge journalists to find the other side of the story: the inmate experience. Why is there so much violence in a single prison? 

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