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A potent question to ask about your local prisons and jails

ASK THIS | September 23, 2010

Whether volunteers are welcomed or rebuffed can tell you a lot about whether inmates at your local correctional facility are being treated like human beings or live in fear, says a former inmate turned prison activist.

By Dan Froomkin

Who makes the rules at your local prison – the warden, or the gangs? Are prisoners safe from assault, or are they frequently sexually victimized?

How inmates are treated varies widely from one correctional facility to another, and isn’t always obvious to outside observers.

In a new survey released last month, the Department of Justice found that overall, an estimated 4.4 percent of prison inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization in the past year. That’s 88,500 adults held in U.S. prisons and jails sexually abused annually either by staff or fellow inmates.

But the range among facilities was perhaps even more shocking. The estimated prevalence of sexual victimization ranged from zero in some facilities to nearly 15 percent -- at New York State’s Bayview Correctional Facility for women in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood.

The survey, which I wrote about for The Huffington Post, comes complete with spreadsheets listing individual findings for each of 486 state, federal and local prisons and jails, and should certainly be one point of reference for interested journalists.

But according to Pat Nolan, vice president of Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministries, and himself a former federal prison inmate, journalists should also be on the lookout for a telling indicator of whether wardens have a lot to hide or not: How open they are to allowing volunteers come in to work in their facilities.

“They will never say they don’t allow volunteers -- but just ask how many they have,” Nolan said. “Their reaction will tell you whether you’re onto something or not.”

The reason is simple: “When you have many volunteers coming into a prison, there’s just no way you can keep a lid on things,” Nolan said.

“If there are 100 excuses why volunteers aren’t there, that’s not an accident,” he said. “I would say it merits looking deeper.”

“There are really two philosophies in running prisons,” Nolan said. “Some wardens and officers feel that the sentence is the punishment, not the way they treat them, and that they should treat the inmates as human beings, and that they have a future, and that they need to be prepared to return to the community. These wardens take the word ‘correction’ seriously.”

By contrast, “there is a whole other group that are basically bureaucrats,” Nolan said. “Take a DMV office, string barbed wire around it, and give the clerks guns,” is how he put it.

In the worst case, the only things the warden cares about are escapes and riots. In that case, Nolan said, “you basically have an unofficial deal with the gangs. You cede the compound to them. And in return for letting them do that, they tell you if anybody’s planning to escape or to riot.”

From outside, things look fine. But inside? “That’s hell on earth,” Nolan said.

“Those wardens won’t allow volunteers in. “

Even officials conducting inspections are at a relative disadvantage to volunteers when it comes to seeing what really goes on within a correctional facility. Although an inspector can show up at any time unannounced, Nolan said, “the minute he walks through the gate, walkie-talkies are clicking all over the place, telling where he is.” That allows the authorities to “hide things, or even people,” Nolan said.

Indeed, rampant sexual molestation of boys at a Texas Youth Commission detention facility went on for more than a year until a volunteer math tutor heard about what was going on and alerted police.

Volunteers can be a tremendous resource for an enlightened prison warden. They can improve the inmates’s quality of life by teaching such things as life skills, English as a second language, or Bible studies. They can even make up for funding shortfalls. “As states are more and more strapped for money, the community can provide many of the services that have been provided by state employees,” Nolan said. “There are many people willing to do that.”

So if a warden doesn’t want them around, there’s probably a good reason. Or rather a bad reason.

Reporters should find out how complicated and lengthy the process is to become a volunteer -- “what hoops you have to jump through,” Nolan said. For instance, is there a long lag between signing up and getting trained. Is the training convenient? Are the requirements unduly onerous?

Nolan said that he knew of one prison that at one point revoked all volunteer credentials and established new rules requiring attendance at training classes one night a month for six months. “That did a lot to eliminate volunteers right there,” he said.

By the way, as far as I can tell, only two small news outlets did any reporting at all about what the August Justice Department survey reported about their local facilities. WTVY-TV in Dothan, Alabama, noted that its Houston County Jail ranked fourth worst in the nation with regard to inmates reporting being sexually victimized by other inmates. And the Sequim (Wash.) Gazette reported that its Clallam County Corrections Facility ranked third worst in abuse by staff.

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