The dilemma of out-of-control prisons, and the danger they pose


As a former prison chaplain, this report from the biggest jail in New York City resonated deeply with me, and made me very angry.

Inmates are running wild on Rikers Island amid an ongoing staffing crunch that’s left charges free to stab each other, answer the phones and run through corridors destroying maintenance equipment, The Post has learned.

On Sunday morning, three inmates from the Folk Nation gang jumped a Bloods member and slashed him in the face inside an unmanned housing area at the Anne M. Kross Center, the jail’s largest facility, internal records obtained by The Post show.

At the time, 26 corrections officers were working quadruple shifts, 35 were on triple shifts and 30 patrol posts across the AMKC were unmanned as the jail grapples with an ongoing staff shortage, internal communications show.

A day earlier at the Otis Bantum Correctional Center, another Rikers facility, a group of inmates ran wild through the corridors and destroyed a bunch of fire safety equipment before officers could stop them, according to an internal email seeking “emergency maintenance.”

“Numerous inmates were running through the corridors. They [sic] inmates broke the fire cabinets and numerous exit signs throughout the corridors. They also removed the hoses and nozzles from the cabinets,” states the email, sent by an assistant deputy warden.

On Monday, the chaos continued, according to Patrick Ferraiuolo, president of the Correction Captains’ Association.

“One of my captains in AMKC called a housing area and the inmates answered the phone,” Ferraiuolo recounted.

“[The inmate] said ‘Hey how you doing captain? The officer went home, he was tired, he was going into his triple or fourth tour and he left, he left us here alone.’ So it’s a housing area with no correctional officer watching over them… this is an everyday occurrence,” he continued.

“It’s just been a nightmare.”

. . .

Last week, corrections officers and captains protested outside the jail and lambasted what they called the worst working conditions in the jail’s notorious history — conditions that DOC Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi admitted were serious.

There’s more at the link.

Rikers Island is bad enough, but similar problems are endemic throughout local, state and federal prisons in this country.  We incarcerate a higher proportion of our population than any other country in the world, but our politicians don’t want to spend money on keeping them in safe, secure conditions.  That means those assigned to keep them behind bars (and keep the rest of us safe from them) are forced to work under at best undesirable conditions – at worst, actively dangerous ones.  That makes it harder to recruit and retain suitable staff, leading to a national prison officer shortage.

Many people have no idea about (and/or don’t care about) conditions behind bars.  It’s bad for the inmates, and it’s bad for those who have to keep them there.  Prison is a hothouse environment for trouble.  When you bring together, when you distill, the nastiest, most violent, most predatory people in the population into a concentrated mass, confined in one location, their nastiness and violence and predation spill over.  They don’t change their ways because they’re behind bars;  they merely change their targets to what’s available.  Part of that means preying on each other, rather than the general public;  but that’s dangerous, because a fellow prisoner might be more violent and more predatory than you are.  Therefore, they try their tricks on the staff, and seek to undermine and wear them down in any way they can.  As I wrote in my book on prison chaplaincy:

Working in such an environment has an inevitable effect on the staff – not just the Correctional Officers, but all of us.  It’s very hard to maintain a cool, professional approach when you know that many of the inmates are out to get you in any way they can.  After a while, the constant lies, evasions, attempts at manipulation, lack of co-operation, and just plain nastiness start to wear you down.  Stress levels among prison staff are understandably very high, with inevitable negative consequences for their domestic life.  The incidence of divorce and suicide amongst all peace officers is considerably above average, and corrections staff aren’t exempt.  It’s very hard to leave your work behind at the gates of the prison . . .

This is very troubling from three perspectives.  The first is that of inmates who genuinely want to change, to reform, and seek help in doing so.  Their approach will be automatically regarded with suspicion by prison staff.  We’ve all been ‘conned’ so many times that it’s all too easy to regard any such approach as more of the same.  The inmates, hurt and frustrated, then blame the staff for being unfeeling and inhuman.  Yes, in a sense they’re right – but they refuse to acknowledge the inevitability of such a reaction, given the staff’s constant exposure to less-well-motivated inmates.  As a result, some convicts who really are sincere, and should receive extra help, aren’t given what they need.  Some of them will turn away, frustrated and angry, and decide that if the system is going to treat them like dirt, then they’re going to behave that way, just like everybody else behind bars.  Others will sink into apathy and disillusionment, perhaps giving up hope of any meaningful life behind bars.  Some of them may turn to drugs:  others may become suicidal.

The second perspective is that of the staff themselves.  They can very easily become hardened to anything any inmate says, and discount even reasonable excuses or explanations.  I’ve known cases where a minor infraction, by an inmate new to the system (probably committed through ignorance of regulations), has resulted in extremely heavy punishment, most likely because the officer or manager concerned was tired and frustrated from dealing with far too many similar cases, and wasn’t in the mood to make allowances, or cut a new inmate some slack.  It’s all too easy to say to oneself, “If they’re going to treat me like dirt, then I’m going to dish out dirt to them.  Let’s see how they like it!”  When I trained at FLETC, an instructor commented to me in private conversation, “During his first year in the BOP, a new officer can’t do enough for the inmate.  During his second year, he can’t do enough to the inmate.  The third and subsequent years, he just doesn’t give a damn any more.”  Sadly, I’ve seen this cynical observation borne out in practice many times – although there are honorable exceptions, thank Heaven.

The third perspective is that of the families of prison staff.  It’s hard to maintain a normal home environment when one’s spouse is bringing home so much stress and tension.  Children feel it too.  A disproportionately large percentage of ‘corrections marriages’ fail, and the effects on spouse and children are long-lasting.  Second and subsequent marriages often go the same way.  It’s extremely difficult for those who haven’t personally experienced the stress of the corrections environment to understand its effect on those who live in it every day.  It’s even harder for those who come home from it to share it with their spouses.  After all, how can a Correctional Officer tell his wife about the reality of his job?  If he says, “Honey, today I charged down a man with a knife, while armed only with my bare hands,” her instant (and understandable) reaction will probably be to scream at him for being a fool by exposing himself to such danger.  She might understand intellectually that he did something heroic and praiseworthy, but all she can see in her mind’s eye is herself and her children at his funeral.

The prison environment has another unfortunate effect on staff and their families.  The staff member is surrounded, all day, every day, by those he cannot and dare not trust.  Every time they approach him, he’s wondering about their ulterior motives and hidden purposes, suspecting a trap or an attempt to deceive.  When he gets home, it’s sometimes very hard not to let this perspective affect his attitudes towards his loved ones.  What might be normal behavior in a child (fibs, excuses, etc.) may attract a much stronger reaction than normal parental disapproval and correction, because he’s too used to exercising discipline (sometimes very physically) over real wrongdoers.  This leads to a great deal of stress and tension in families.

When corrections officers have to work in an out-of-control environment such as that described on Rikers Island, their difficult jobs become even harder.  Is it any wonder that, given such pressures, many leave for easier professions?  And is it any wonder that the authorities find it hard to recruit replacements for them, when they won’t (or can’t) fix the problems that cause them to leave?  And how can they fix the problems without sufficient staff (or budget) to do what’s necessary?  It’s an enormous and very complex issue, and I don’t know how to solve it.

Spare a thought for those who, every day, keep us safe from those incarcerated for their crimes.  Without them, our society would be a much more dangerous place.



  1. I think too many of the incarcerated should be shot dead. They deal in death every day and would make excellent targets.
    No. I don't have any of the milk of human kindness for most of the ones we lock up. I didn't like Saudi Arabia when I lived there but you could say one thing about them. They did not have this problem in their prisons. I'm with Heinlein. We need to shorten 95% of our prisoners.

  2. Wow! I cannot imagine, and my heart goes out to these officers.

    In reply to HMS Defiant — Harsh. But a man, or woman, has to take resposibiliyt for their life. As a countr boy, I know nature is about that harsh. Maybe you're right.

  3. The major problem I see is the "business of prisons".

    Why do crimes against property result in prison time?? Restitution yes, prison time no.

    Why do "drug possession" crimes result in prison time (I spent 5 years on the War on Drugs)??

    Crimes against people should (IMO) be the only prison time.

  4. Chicago is solving its incarceration problem by ensuring a small flow of persons arrested. Listen to th embedded mp3.

    Two hour response time for robbery? No cops available for a man shot on the street? Detectives pulled from cases to patrol Lollapalooza? Welcome to Chicago 2021.

  5. Re: wtcreaux comment:

    If you take my property, you have committed trespass against my person. I traded my time, my sweat, sometimes my blood, for that which allowed me to acquire that property. You take my property, you have in that same part deprived me of my very being. Too, you place my loved ones at peril, the measure of which is dependent upon which property you took.

    You see fit to rationalize and excuse crime. What you argue is there should not be consequence for 'some' crimes. Of such arguments, I have ought seen the other subject addressed. That other subject is does not one crime begat another? (you got away these other times, so you continue in a life of crime)

  6. The problem is, as mentioned above, that incarceration has become a profitable business. I remember in the 1980s, small towns all around California dangled very attractive enticements before the decision makers of where new prisons would be located. A nearby town, population less than 1,000, 'won', count 'em, THREE new prisons. It was an oil town, nearly all the population was employed in the oil fields. The 'town fathers' got the notion to incorporate the town, expand the town to include the prison sites, promise Champaign to the beer drinkers. Fortunes were promised to those who would go to work at the State prisons. It was heady for a couple of years.

    That town now lies in near ruin, worse than when there was steady oil work. See, so many left the oil fields to become prison guards and such. Now that dried up dusty town has a prison problem which began before but intensified when the State decided they have an overcrowded prison system.

    Bring the incarcerated to your town, you bring their families with them. And their homies from the big cities.

    Yeah, I know, anecdotal.

  7. How much does DeCommio spend on welfare? Nuff said. Shoot these animals. The gene pool doesn't need more cock roaches. Look at DC.

  8. All part of the plan. Do everything possible to create as much chaos as possible, and then the population will eventually *beg* for restoration of order. And they'll get it – with a boatload more order than they planned for.

    Time tested formula.

  9. Re: Rick's comment

    "If you take my property, you have committed trespass against my person. I traded my time, my sweat, sometimes my blood, for that which allowed me to acquire that property. You take my property, you have in that same part deprived me of my very being. Too, you place my loved ones at peril, the measure of which is dependent upon which property you took.

    You see fit to rationalize and excuse crime. What you argue is there should not be consequence for 'some' crimes. Of such arguments, I have ought seen the other subject addressed. That other subject is does not one crime begat another? (you got away these other times, so you continue in a life of crime)"

    I have NO clue how you came to that conclusion when I specifically stated "Restitution yes, prison time no." If you break into my empty home and do $2K worth of damage, then go to prison for it, I'm still out $2K. OTOH, if you're required to pay restitution (don't worry, the state will find a hard sweaty job for you to work it off), and I'm paid $2K, then for the most part, I've been compensated, not fully, but to a large degree.

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