This is an interesting opinion piece on the importance of adequate state prison funding and the impact of insufficient financial resources on prison safety, correctional officer morale and prisoner recidivism.
As we have written before, prison administrators are constantly seeking new sources of prison funding and frequently it is prisoners and their families whom prisons turn to for new sources of revenue. Primarily through the imposition of fees and service charges.
The article mentions one of the drivers for additional funding is to be “better able to intercept contraband items like cell phones.” There is no doubt that the smuggled cell phone epidemic in correctional facilities around the country has introduced increased expense, officer risks, and heated debates about responsibilities, control capabilities, technology, and safety.
There is an opportunity however to turn this budget-busting problem into a source of new revenue by offering a secure prison cell phone solution that provides inmates a sanctioned, controlled cell phone service in place of a smuggled cell phone.
Some attempts to get tough on prisoners have turned out to be tougher on prison guards and staff.
And some measures to save money have ended up costing more.
The Legislature should recognize that protecting the state from criminals is one of its core functions — and should be funded adequately.
Stanley Burtt, retired warden of Lieber Correctional Facility, lays the blame for problems on politicians. In a recent letter to the editor, he asserted that Lieber’s staff does a good job in very difficult circumstances.
Even still, problems arise. Last month, two correctional officers standing watch over 229 of the state’s most dangerous offenders were injured after inmates set off a five-hour riot.
With more money to pay for more staff, and to pay staff more, Lieber would be a safer place, even with its population of hardened prisoners.
Not only would they be better able to intercept contraband items like cell phones and drugs thrown over the fence to prisoners, they would be better able to slow down the high rate of turnover among the staff.
In a later interview, Mr. Burtt told us that the people who work at prisons where the worst criminals are kept are paid only slightly more than those who work at lower security facilities. The working conditions at Lieber are sometimes akin to “open warfare,” he says.
So there is little incentive to stay at Lieber if there is an option to work at other institutions like McDougall Correctional Institute in Ridgeville, which Mr. Burtt describes as more like a day camp.
Budget cuts can mean that prison guards work virtually in isolation. That increases risk and eliminates the esprit de corps that Mr. Burtt says is needed to help staff members cope with their often unpleasant jobs. It’s another disincentive to stay on the job.
And when the budget gets tight, prison schools are often targeted. Another mistake. Inmates who are in school — many learning the most basic skills like reading — are less likely to be a problem that those who have nothing to do.
The legislative decision to take away weight training from prisoners also has backfired, Mr. Burtt says. Inmates need a way to expend energy. Weights provided that release.
Funding also should be adequate to maintain programs to rehabilitate prisoners who will eventually return to the community and live.
To do otherwise is to encourage recidivism.
Mr. Burtt believes that more resources for mental health treatment would ease the tensions. A significant percentage of prisoners have severe psychiatric problems.
Better funding for prisons isn’t a popular platform for a politician.
Prisoners don’t vote. And taxpayers resent having to spend a dime to keep murderers, rapists and thieves fed and sheltered.
But failing to fund prisons adequately shouldn’t be an option. Security is essential to keeping the bad guys in jail — and keeping prison staff members safe.
Both should be a priority for lawmakers in their budget deliberations this year.