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Words from a prison warden

Jul 20, 2010 Words from a prison warden

Too many people are unjustly caged in United States prisons. (Image from Bureau of Prisons’ website).

Before today, the only lengthy discussion I remember having with a prison warden or jail head during my many years of visiting many such places, was to get information to assist my client in a prison disciplinary matter. 

Yesterday, while waiting for quite some time in the visiting room to speak with an imprisoned client for his pending court hearing, (imprisoned before I ever got in the picture), a man in a suit comes in and checks on the HVAC unit, and tells me that it’s not providing enough cooling. I reply that I am not concerned for my air-conditioned comfort there, as I am only there for a short time, but that I am concerned for the inmates’ comfort in the highly humid heat. He tells me that inmates do not get air conditioning, but fans instead, which raises for me the image of numerous black-and-white film scenes, none of them uplifting. 

This man turned out to be the prison’s warden. He was low key enough that he did not even mention that along with his name until I asked him. He was in a talkative mood, which I thought was interesting given the many duties he likely had for the rest of the day. On the other hand, at some point, one’s family and friends might get tired of hearing about the work of a warden and other jobs, and people might then seek out others to discuss such issues; or maybe he had a message to get out to me or through me. 

He had a few ideas that seemed heartfelt, and I share them briefly here: 

– As to air conditioning, he grew up in East Baltimore, where so many people to this day sit on their home stoops in the summer, not having air conditioning inside. 

– Many people do not want inmates returning to their communities, which he seemed to think did not make sense. I think that is be expected, but it is not a realistic goal. Inmates ultimately will serve their sentence, and return to one community or another eventually, unless they are imprisoned on life sentences and never paroled. 

– Even with rehabilitation in prison, the benefits of such rehabilitation are offset for inmates who return to homes where their parents are shooting up drugs (or he may have said smoking crack, but I think he said shooting drugs). 

– He talked about the problems of recidivism when the environment that an inmate is released to is not hospitable to not committing more crime. He thinks the nearby bootcamp program (former program, I think) was beneficial to reducing recidivism. 

– The community environment affects whether people get caught in the criminal prosecution system. He mentioned the disadvantage that people have in this regard when they get off the schoolbus into a “warzone” of such places as the corner of Guilford and North Avenue in Baltimore. I take it he is talking about a corner with rampant illegal drug buys and sells.

– He talked about people who have the ability to pay for their education and those who do not. He talked about people on unemployment who do not want to work while receiving unemployment checks; he may have talked about the aversion of some unemployed people to do work that pays less than their former work. 

– During his many years in the prison system, he has gotten the knowledge equivalent of a law degree without a law degree.  

– He compared Newt Gingrich’s message of self-reliance to Barack Obama’s (I think he reference Obama) message of government helping out. He said that both of them are right in some respects. I think he meant that self reliance is important, but he also feels that the support one gets in his or her community affects

– He has been working with the prison system for thirty years, and now is forty-nine. He got locked up once himself in his youth. 

I told him about my plan for achieving a higher-quality, more just, and less expensive criminal justice system, which is to legalize marijuana, heavily decriminalize all other drugs, eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing, eliminate the death penalty, and eliminate per se guilty rules in DWI cases. I think he then started talking about the many people who want people incarcerated over drugs and other crimes rather than doing non-incarcerated treatment for drugs. 

I could have engaged the warden in more conversation, including why he chose to work in the prison system in the first place, and why he stayed (how much does it go beyond earning an income?); the ongoing dynamics in such lower income neighborhoods as those found in East Baltimore; how humane or not are the prisons he has worked in; and how he feels about working in the prison system, including when considering all the innocent people who get wrongfully convicted by juries and judges, or who convict themselves through guilty pleas even if innocent, in order to avoid a worse outcome through a trial. However, as I awaited my client, I wanted to get more work done. 

I have often wondered how much difference there is to be a full-time inmate versus an employer at a prison or jail. I know that the prison and jail employee gets to leave after his or her workshift, and that the employee can always quit the job and thereby not need to return to jail nor prison. However, during the eight hours or longer that a prison or jail employee is on the job, I would imagine that being there feels pretty confining. I have often felt that even when in jails and prisons for less than three or four hours. 

This prison warden seems to still have his humanity with him, which hopefully will benefit his prison’s inmates and which will hopefully encourage others working in the prison system and criminal justice system. He seems to care about helping people avoid the circumstances that cause them to get locked up and to recidivate in the first place. I give him credit for taking the time to talk with me.

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