Do Wardens Have the Potential to Reform Prisons?

Sonia Singh

Take two parts coach, three parts referee and four parts politician-the result is a rare breed that has a fighting chance of being an efficient prison warden.  Wardens are put in the very sensitive position of maintaining the trust of the guards without losing awareness of prisoner rights.  While the inherent duties of a warden are not debated, the priorities and methods of enforcement become the crucial issue in determining success.  Even farther, the words “success” and “efficiency” in terms of evaluating a warden are vague as success to one warden may mean nobody gets killed, but to another, it may mean nobody gets killed and the prison works towards rehabilitation.

In any given day, those aforementioned core duties of a warden include: maintaining rules and regulations, keeping order and discipline, coordinating transportation for inmates, preparing for efficient responses to emergencies and protecting correctional officers.  With so many different major duties, it’s difficult to always be conscious of all the issues, especially when many of the priorities conflict.  For example, it’s hard to argue for prisoner rights when others may interpret the actions as sacrificing correctional officer safety.  With various influences from unions, advocacy groups, legislatures and administrators, the political struggles are intense, yet it is the warden who represents the best chance for change.  To initiate any substantial change, the only two realistic measures are the difficult process of proposing and passing legislation, or wardens and administrators who take on the challenge of reform and not only encourage change, but accept nothing less.

One important example involves former Tamms warden, Charles Hinsley.  Hinsley assisted in the creation of the radical architectural design of Tamms, IL Supermax prison. Hinsley, however, was a strong advocate for improvement of the treatment of prisoners.  In the Supermax institution, prisoners remain in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and are not allowed any physical human interaction as they even are forced to shower alone.  In such a harsh environment, many inmates develop mental illnesses simply from the seclusion.  Accordingly, any mistreatment by officers like not allowing an earned privilege must undoubtedly increase the mental torture as inmates have so little to begin with.  Hinsley’s attempted reforms with methods like disciplining non-compliant officers resulted in a request for his resignation after his correctional officers took a union-administered vote to have him removed.   A local newspaper reported that he “cared more about the prisoners that his own guards.”  However, Hinsley is quoted as claiming:

I was not concerned about being “popular” with staff; I was concerned with ensuring the safety of staff and inmates as well as treating both with respect and ensuring that inmates received what they were entitled to by law.   My positions oftentimes went against the grain of the attitude of many staff.  Not all, but many believed that inmates were not worthy of receiving any form of respect and unfortunately, that attitude is still prevalent today.

Hinsley represents a morally strong warden that was not able to maintain the ethics of his institution as it takes more than a reform-conscious warden to create real change-prison reform necessitates the support of a majority of the staff.

Intimidation of wardens by unsatisfied correctional officers is a huge issue that is often strengthened by the unions.  In his published personal memoirs, former warden of Cook County Jail, Clarence English, discusses his difficulties in his promotion to the position of warden.  He came into the institution with a group of his own officers and was advised by administrators to clean up the jail that was being run by a ‘barn boss’ gang hierarchy that left many inmates and guards powerless to the authority of various gangs.  When English came in, he uncovered disheartening sexual exploitations of inmates, deals between inmates and officers to bring in paraphernalia, and homicides that were covered up as suicides.  Yet, because he would be destroying the profitable network, many took on a strong opposition to his arrival.  He wrote, “I heard [the officer] tell the inmates, ‘If they come up to shake you down, you should stick together against them because it is only fifteen of them and about seventy of you.  As soon as these goons find something they can’t handle, they will be kicked out and replaced by me and some of my men from the House of Corrections who know how to treat you inmates.”    These officers strongly resisted limitations on their control, and if Warden English did not effectively implement his strict, non-negotiable strategies, they would have continued the dangerous practices.

Two of English’s strongest strategies were the use of force and intimidation to demand respect from inmates and the encouragement of his open-door policy.  Although he was strictly opposed to the use of excessive force, he understood that before anyone would respect him and his crew, he needed to gain a strong reputation.  In his book, he describes his experiences with making examples out of people to intimidate the rest into submission.  He would go into the wards with bats, and any inmates that refused to go into their cells would be severely beaten out in the open and dragged inside.  Although some may question this tactic, the effectiveness cannot be debated as he took back control of Cook County Jail in the first couple of days on the job.  Another effective approach was his open-door policy that provided an opportunity for inmates to unofficially be the internal investigations of the institution.  In a personal interview, he stated “The most important aspect of any institution is the ‘open-door’ policy and I would make myself as available as possible.  Inmates could drop me a note while I was walking through the yard or confide in their pastors who I’d meet with regularly to discuss issues. God knows the person the complaint was against wasn’t going to deliver the message.” Accordingly, he did not hesitate to get rid of non-compliant officers who would regularly use excessive force and continue bringing paraphernalia into the jail.

Inevitably, wardens who fight the unofficial code-of-silence among the traditional brotherhood of correctional officers often face many hardships by their staff.  At a state penitentiary in California, leading officials of a guard union hung a rat trap on a prison bulletin board to symbolize their disapproval with a warden’s decision to “rat out” and report three officers for alleged use of excessive force on an inmate.  Strengthening the concept of a brotherhood are prison unions that often cause conflicts for the warden in prioritizing his agenda.

With so much power in the hands of the prison guard unions, it is often difficult for well-intentioned wardens and administrators to affect real reform.  In California, the influential power of the union has grown so significantly in the last few years that even the governor is struggling to get some of the authority back in order to amend absurd contracts made in the past.  Prison officials, for instance, cannot question or control the sick-leave days taken by correctional officers, creating potentially dangerous situations in which there is not enough staff available in the prison.  It also increases the financial burden on the system with a ballooning sick-leave expense.  They have blocked the authority of prison officials to determine which days and which inmates can visit the medical ward.   Then, in order to intimidate the wardens and flood the system with superfluous issues, correctional officers in Lancaster filed hundreds of grievances against the state about things such as missing bricks, cracked lights, potholes and sunflower plants that violated the contract.   Such limitations placed on the warden by outside parties create a consistent atmosphere of conflict and ongoing power struggles.

Ten years into his retirement, former Florida State Prison warden Ron McAndrew, continues to fight to stop the abuse of inmates.  Instead of spending his days bird watching as he had always planned his retirement, he can be found testifying in courts and helping victims of inmate abuse receive justice.  In an interview with St. Petersburg Times, he discusses the different categories of correctional officers: “A small cadre — about 15 percent — is brilliant and supports the laws. About five percent are vicious, mentally disturbed and sadistic. The large bulk – about 80 percent- swings in the most comfortable direction.”  When McAndrew was promoted to warden, he sacrificed his popularity among the guards to encourage those 80 percent to swing towards justice by increasing their raises, offering promotions and reporting those that did not follow procedures to the F.B.I. for special investigations.

During his term as warden, he witnessed extreme abuse by officers against inmates in a special high-security section, the X-Wing.  On multiple occasions, he found inmates naked on the concrete floor of an empty cell covered in their own feces.  He implemented video cameras and investigations of officers suspected of mistreatment which resulted in a dangerous divide and power struggle between the guards and administration.  One year after leaving his position as warden, he informed his successor of the threat posed to an inmate, Frank Valdes, because he was convicted of killing a correctional officer 12 years prior.   Valdes was beaten to death that same year by four officers.  Afterward, McAndrew said: “Frank Valdes killed a colleague of mine and for that I despised him.  But I love the law, and the law was broken.  If that gang of goons had allowed Frank to wait out his time, the law would have taken its course. But, no, they took the law into their own hands.”  Although McAndrew lost his popularity among his staff quickly, he explained how even in retirement “I couldn’t sleep at night because I was still so infuriated over the brutality in our prisons that I couldn’t stop.”  An unfortunate spiral of helplessness can be seen from the bottom-up as some wardens feel limited in the power to enforce fundamental policies of their own institution.

Overcrowded and dangerous prison systems cannot be blamed on any one party as culpability lies with busy and public image oriented legislatures and politicians, prison unions with separate agendas, lack of funding and adequate staffing and most important, an uninformed or apathetic population supporting “get-tough-on-crime” laws.  Yet, amending any of these problems will be very improbable unless officials like wardens are given back the reigns to establish the much needed reforms.  Although these examples establish the constraints faced by wardens who attempt reform, many also feel there are not enough measures in place to hold wardens accountable.  Creation of the right incentives for wardens and officers may help push through the long waited reforms while simultaneously effectively managing staff and maintaining the operation of the prison.  Use of promotional and pay incentives, changes to the relationship between unions and wardens and recruitment incentives to get the right people for the job, there are significant changes that still can be made.  Those changes will be long argued and hard fought because the competing interests have not demonstrated their ability to agree long enough to legislate that change, but strong and persistent wardens may be the best method of initiation.


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