A Commissioner’s Perspective
By Timothy Ryan, Chief of Corrections, Orange County, Fla. (07/12/2006)

 

 Ryan

“What happens in the jails and prisons in America does not stay inside the jails and prisons.”

This phrase is the first sentence of a recent report on the Commission for Safety and Abuse in America’s prisons, and it permeated my thoughts during the 16 months I was a commissioner.

In my role as a leader of a local detention facility, I see news media crews surround the jail’s booking area every day as the latest high-profile arrestee arrives. While focusing on the latest scandal or high-profile crime, the media often neglects to see some of the daily challenges corrections professionals face every day.

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Because of the secure nature of correctional facilities there are numerous issues involving inmates and officers that the outside world is not exposed to, such as constitutional mandates that cover everything from inmate due process to staff safety, and community security and expectations. Correctional staff must come in contact with arrestees every day and it is my responsibility, as a leader, to assure a safe and secure working environment that provides the privileges of a public service career and the retirement that follows.

That is why, whenever I get the chance to share details of the daily challenges correctional officers face, I strive to take the opportunity. I believe we generally have a good story that many outsiders believe is housed in mystery. It does not mean I am ready to open all the doors, but it does mean that, for me, providing a window through the door serves us much better than pulling the shades down. The jail leaders that worked with the commission offered that window of professional insight that would not have been possible without our collaborative input.

If corrections professionals, such as American Correctional Association president-elect Gary Maynard, Sheriff Mark Luttrell of Tennessee, and a local detention leader like myself, did not participate, the commission’s report would be just another of the myriad of outsider examinations of the corrections business. Whether we as practitioners embrace the report or use it as a catalyst for discussion, our involvement acknowledges that the Vera Institute, which organized the commission, recognized the importance of partnership versus estrangement, which would not have served the American people at all.

I was contacted by Alex Busansky, executive director of the commission, and invited to participate in February 2005. Busansky’s intent was to seek my participation as one of the 20 commissioners who would sit in review as the commission examined, in a public hearing format, some of the significant issues facing America’s prisons and jails.

It was with some reservations and much trepidation that I consented to participation. However, those feelings dissipated by the second hearing, and I found myself saying that there was a story that needed to surface. That story was one that would have more positives than negatives.

The last time a national review and report on prisons was conducted on this level was 1970 when Congress held similar hearings. However, like so many other reports, it provided information on the issues faced by prison and jail management, but few solutions and certainly no resources to achieve them. In the end, it has stayed on our shelves, lost in the antiquity of all such reports.

As a corrections professional, I initially thought that the prison commission’s report would also be relegated to a dusty shelf. However, I also thought that maybe this time, with active participation from corrections professionals, we could help tell our story and use the report to tell the best story possible.

As we all know, our culture tends to make the 8-second rule — the theory that if something can be said in 8 seconds the public will not only hear it, but remeber it and believe it as true — the “perception of the day.” That perception becomes tomorrow’s reality whether based on fact or fiction. Therefore, the pictures of Abu Ghraib, perpetrated by military staff that were connected to corrections both in the military and domestically, let a message surface that all our prisons and jails must be like that.

Such events are miles from the truth, but the pictures fed the American psyche with that perception and it became reality. I joined the commission with personal hopes of attempting, in my way, to find the truth, clarify the myths, and provide a means to change a mistaken identity.

Now, after 16 months and four public hearings, a personal visit to the Angola Prison in Louisiana, a workshop provided to the nation’s Deputy Secretaries of Corrections in Portland, Me., and a meeting with correctional colleagues in Washington, D.C., I find myself, as a commissioner, supporting the final 126-page report.

As I do so, I am reminded of Benjamin Franklin when at the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he said: “Thus, I consent, Sir, to this constitution because I expect no better and because I am not sure it is not the best.”

We did the best we could with the framework we had and we have much of which to be proud. The report makes 30 recommendations and I hope there will be a 90 percent agreement among corrections professionals.

Some broad recommendations include:

  • Reduce crowding
  • Use objective classification
  • Use force and non-lethal weapons only as a last resort
  • Partner with health providers
  • Address the needs of the mentally ill
  • Extend Medicaid and Medicare to eligible prisoners
  • Use technology
  • Monitor practice, not just policy
  • Support today’s leaders in corrections while cultivating the next generation

Some of the more controversial recommendations are:

  • Reduce segregation and end isolation
  • End medical co-payments
  • Encourage visits to facilities
  • Develop nationwide reporting means
  • Require correctional impact reports when passing legislation

The most controversial, though, surround the concepts of striving for transparency:

  • Reform the PRLA to increase court access
  • Create independent oversight

Overall, I feel that several major points were made:

  • Fund a national effort to learn about how prisons and jails can make a larger contribution to public safety
  • Strengthen professional standards
  • Recruit and retain a qualified corps of officers
  • Do all we can to enhance the profession by promoting a culture of mutual respect.

As I review my participation with the commission, I find that most people recognize the difficult challenges we face in the corrections business. Even though we sometimes get blanketed with the bad news of the few isolated improper events, the community does truly appreciate what we have been able to accomplish. It is my hope that this report will help surface the issues where outside resources can come to our aid, as well as identify the areas where we, as professionals in the business, can improve and serve with distinction in all we do.

 

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