WORKING IN PRISON
PITFALLS AND CHALLENGES OF WORK IN THE PRISON COMMUNITY
- There are numerous cases where a prison officer is caught in a maze of difficulties when working directly in the prison community.
- Firstly, the prison camp is very deceiving. It projects normalcy in an otherwise abnormal and at times sub-normal environment. Its denizens, the inmates, must believe that they still are human despite the fact that the principal characteristic of a human being is freedom.
- Nowhere in the prison condition where freedom, unlike in the free community, can be found. Everything in prison is regimented, strictly controlled, restricted and expected to be well-ordered. It is absolutely a total institution.
- It is a marginal situation where prison officers would find themselves, torn between their role in the prison camp, accosting and assisting inmates achieve a fairly good command of adjustment and at the same time, adjusting in a milieu completely determined by a relationship indicating superiority over a subservient community. Prison officers must feign a fair understanding that prison climate is normal in order to be effective in enforcing prison rules. They must believe in it although in reality it is not what it seems.
- The prison community is dominant in terms of its population as compared to the people running the system. The only advantage of prison officers lay mainly on the infrastructure—the high walls, the secondary perimeter fence, if at all a close circuit TV, some token gadgets like tear gas canister, whistle and a wood club. Well, there is also the uniform indicating discipline and power. That is about everything.
- The language, the immense cultural expression, the track record—violent if you may, the mannerisms, the climate of fear, the air of deception, the enclosed environment, everything is about the incarcerated humanity. Adding one’s presence, that is, the presence of authority is already overkill. The presence of a prison officer, expected in his role, transforms the entire social condition of the prison community into a powder keg.
- Yet it is the prison officer that sustains and maintains the superfluity of the infrastructure that controls physically the prison community. It is the officers themselves that holds in check whatever that exceeds in the field of imprisonment. They are therefore at the front and at the head of that which must challenge the prisoners to act the way that they should.
- It is not however the prison authorities or the infrastructure that holds down the prison community. The sheer number of prisoners is enough to tear down anything that divides them. The sheer number of prisoners is also enough to run over anybody who dared cross their path. It is the prisoners themselves that controls the prison community. It is in holding on and sustaining the hopes of one-half of the prison community that manipulates the other way into the proper and rightful place of everyone in the prison camp. This is where the prison officer is expected to play a significant role.
- The prison officer must dangle trust and enforce fairness so that he can attract the other half that controls the mind of the prison community. The prison officer must epitomize understanding and consideration, tolerance and sympathy, kindness and indulgence to the point of being deceived in the process. He must be there as succour and a stickler for thoughtfulness.
- The prison community, most prisoners that is, are highly appreciative and benevolent to their custodians. Trust can easily be forged in a situation where life-and-death situation occurs. Trust can easily be forged likewise in a situation where the line of rationality-and-irrationality is blurred at a moment’s notice.
- It is not enough that the prison officers are reminded that the rules of engagement are brutal compared to their law enforcement counterparts. Where the latter are not expected to pull the lever of fatal force on a person presumed innocent, like suspects. Where the prison officer, as their functions dictate, must have to take down convicts as soon as there is an apparent act of defiance as in escaping.
- Yet humanity and reason reign in the prison community notwithstanding the challenges to peace and order. Humanity is emphasized in the relationship forged amidst the tension and pressure of taming the communal zone. And this is the only relationship, the straw so to speak, that holds and defines the conscience of the prison officer and that of his wards.
- This is the straw that gangs intend to dissolve. Gangs are the anti-thesis of prison administration. They intend to rule over the prison community where prison officers are the dominant players. Gangs would bribe, entice, induce, corrupt prison officers for purpose of controlling the prison community and gangs, if at all they are formally recognized, would do just that. The stakes are high. It is not only control per se that gangs are interested in, it is also a high rolling enterprise where funds can be generated, laundered and used for purposes of organized crime.
- There is therefore a silent battle, a sort of confrontation, between prison officers and gangs to gain control of the prison community. It is marred by conflict, hostilities and rivalry. The struggle has evolved into a feud where it can be said that prison officers are at odds with the prison community.
- Considerably, there is the view or school of thought that explains the relationship of prison officers and prisoners from the vantage point of suspicion and cynicism. On one side, the public is oriented with the outlook that prison officers are a force anathema to rehabilitation and on the other extreme, prison officers are an incompetent force that forge irregularity and fosters such unbecoming acts as in granting some prisoners with preferential and special treatment.
- But this is just a myopic understanding of the prison community in its totality. The prison community is not a gangland. Gangs wanted it that way but the presence of prison officers, be they sympathetic or uninitiated, does not make a gang favoured equation a reality. The prison community is composed of what Erich Fromm would term as the “have” and “have not”. Those with inherent resources and those who find themselves affiliated with gangs are those who fall under the “have”. And those who are indifferent to their surroundings, those who were incarcerated because of poor defence preparation, the poor mostly, the dispossessed in the free community, those unjustly charged, comprise the “have-nots.” And the latter is numerically superior to the former. The so-called “have nots” are still dominant, however silent, in the hierarchy of the prison community.
- The “have-nots” comprise the warm bodies that sustain the sanity in the prison community. This is where the prison officer finds the necessary sector that provides as a countervailing force to the threatening existence of gangs and their minions. It is this specific sector that exudes the power that holds down any untoward incident, that upholds security, peace, safety and refuge for the entire prison community.
- The challenge of prison work is to make the greater number of the prison community work towards rehab and internal change through trust, while the pitfall stares them in the face as gangs try to overcome the inroads of well being brought about by a confident prison workforce.