The relationship between inmates and correctional officers is complicated by the various issues that arise from an artificial environment. When you enter a prison, you enter a different universe. People on the outside think they know what prison is like, but they really do not know what prison is really like until they have a prison number or an officer’s uniform. There are two types of residents in a prison, full-time and part-time. The full-time residents are the inmates. The part-time residents are the correctional officers.
There are correctional officers who treat the inmates with respect. I have personally witnessed officers treat inmates with respect in the tiers and in the visitation room. Unfortunately, this attitude is not common. Many correctional officers see inmates as individuals not worthy of any respect or even common decency. Proponents of harsh sentences argue that this type of treatment is part of the punishment. This type of attitude is short-sighted, since people (and inmates are people) will, for the most part, respond in kind to the way they are treated. I have heard correctional officers discussing inmates many times at their desks. The majority of the discussions compared inmates to animals. One young officer told me that he was lucky to have a job that paid him “to be a zoo keeper.”
For an example of this attitude, just consider toilet paper. In the outside world, toilet paper is one of many ordinary household items purchased at the local grocery store. In prison, toilet paper is a precious commodity. At my prison, you were given one roll for the week. If you ran out of toilet paper, you could request the officers for an additional roll. There were officers who would say no while smiling even though the supply room had plenty in stock. In my building, there were two young correctional officers who enjoyed throwing toilet rolls at inmates who requested one. On the other hand, there was one older correctional officer in my tier who kept in his desk toilet rolls readily available for those who were in need. Other guards from other units complained to their supervisors about this correctional officer’s treatment of the inmates.
A recent Canadian article discussed the treatment of inmates by Canadian correctional officers. A survey of correctional officers included a question about “treating offenders with respect as human beings.” The responses to this simple question from the survey’s 2,200 participants were dropped from the final report because of the conflicted opinions about treating inmates with respect as fellow human beings.
It is important to remember that the majority of inmates are under the age of 35. A substantial number of inmates will be released after prison sentences of 5 years or less. It is crucial for rehabilitation and recidivism that inmates are treated with respect. By doing so, our returning citizens will have learned to give respect to others.
By Bradley Schwartz
Founder of prisonpath.com