A World Few Care To Enter

Prison; Twenty-Five Years as a New York State Correction Officer by Chris Leo.

In a famous experiment in the 1970s at Stanford University a professor created a “prison” in the basement of an academic building, then brought in a group of volunteers screened to exclude any with past involvement in the criminal justice system. The group was divided up arbitrarily into inmates and guards. Within hours members of each group began acting as if the situation were real. The “guards” imposed increasingly harsh punishments of any degree of resistance to their authority and the “inmates” began to exhibit typical prisoner behavior. The experiment had to be called off before planned as the guards’ treatment became so severe as to cause multiple “inmates” to breakdown.

As much as people want to believe that upbringing, religious beliefs, personalities AND TRAINING can overcome the influences of the prison environment, evidence from history as well as numerous academic studies demonstrate otherwise. The fact of the matter is that prisons are an unnatural social environment where thick rulebooks are necessary to control every aspect of the behavior of the guards as well as the prisoners.

The general public has little appreciation of the impact prisons have on guards or “correction officers” as they are known in most systems. They also have no idea that many guards feel they are treated worse by prison administrations than the inmates. Social scientists view this is a natural characteristic of prison systems in which even administrators who might like to supply CO’s with proper respect support and training are constrained from doing so in order to preserve the totality of the system.

Keep in mind that prisons exist so that society can punish those who have violated its laws by denying them liberty for a period of time that is supposedly commensurate with their crime. One problem with that formula is the tendency to escalate punishment for existing crimes as well as continuously add new crimes to the books as legislators find that it is easier to be “tough on crime” than risk non-penal solutions to social misbehavior. Those same legislators however do not find providing funds for programs, training or a sufficient number of guards to ease the tension between guards and administrators helps their re-election efforts.

Chris Leo, Sr. began his career as a CO at the age of 18 at a time when New York was having trouble finding enough people over the age of 21 to take the job. After 25 years of service he “retired” to take on the duties of legislative director of the NYS Corrections Officers and Police Benevolent Association (NYSCOPBA), a group which won the right to represent New York CO’s when a previous union was seen as not having fought hard enough on their behalf.

Leo has self-published a brief book in which he discloses some of his own experiences as a CO and details his complaints against the NYS Dept. of Correctional Services (DOCS). Leo’s stories are instructive and I recommend the book for anyone who cares about what really takes place inside our prisons. The problem is that it’s hard to envision a world in which Leo’s complaints are adequately addressed.

Today in New York demographic factors have reversed the long-build up of the prison population from under 20,000 in the late 1970s to over 70,000 at the turn of the century. The decline in the prison population has enabled DOCS to begin the process of closing prisons, but in so doing they have not mitigated NYSCOPBA’s view that the corrections officer is lower on the state totem pole than the prisoner. (Read my interview with NYSCOPBA president Donn Rowe for further details.) Given New York’s fiscal situation unless there is a sharp upturn in crime, increasing funding for DOCS is and will continue to be the lowest of priorities.

The most optimistic outcome of the current economic and political climate would be a continued decline in the overall prison population while maintaining most of the current number of correction officers. That and more insights like those provided by Leo into what a CO has to go through on a daily basis might help NYSCOPBA achieve its mission and give Leo cause to feel putting his life on the line for 25 years were not in vain.

Click here to learn how you can purchase the book or contact Chris Leo at 518/573-2996; email: chrisleo.leo@gmail.com.

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