Most of the discussion surrounding our broken prison system revolves around the abuse of the rights of inmates. Collins & Collins, P.C. has commented on these matters numerous times. More often than not, what is lost in the discussion is the systemic neglect, abuse and harm suffered by guards as a result of that same broken system. When the plight of guards is discussed, it is generally discussed by the institutional players in the prison system, both governmental and private, to frame the debate by pitting guards against inmates.
Framing the discussion in this way allows those institutional players to lobby for ever increasing budgets while perpetuating the harm to both inmates and guards. Guards and inmates both suffer at the hands of a system driven by money and power.
Lack of Basic New Mexico Prison Reform
Even basic reform of cruel, inhumane and completely ineffective practices hits roadblocks. The practice and abuse of solitary confinement helps to frame a the wider debate around prison and criminal justice reform in New Mexico.
Currently, there is a bill working its way through the New Mexico legislature to reform solitary confinement. The bill seeks to restrict the use of solitary confinement to prevent its use on children, pregnant women and the mentally ill. One might think, given the enormous amount of research showing the physical and psychological harm caused by extended periods of solitary confinement, that in a “blue state” in the “Land of Enchantment” and enlightenment, this bill would be a no brainer. Not so.
At one hearing on the bill on February 27, 2019, there was enormous opposition to the bill. The opposition came from the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD). More specifically, the opposition came from many NMCD guards who accompanied NMCD administrative officials to fight against the bill. Several of the guards gave very compelling testimony regarding threats to their own safety faced daily in the New Mexico prison system. Several discussed violent attacks that they personally suffered. Others discussed attacks on fellow guards.
There is no disputing that prison guards face extraordinary daily safety risks. However, the risks do not derive from solitary confinement. The risks derive from the broken New Mexico prison system. The greatest risks facing guards, one might argue as would I, is not from the inmates but from prison system itself, writ the guards’ employers. NMCD uses guard safety as a pawn in constant grasp for greater budgets and power.
Workers Rights at the Heart of Prison Reform
One speaker at the legislative hearing pointed out that the issue of solitary reform was a workers’ rights issue. This is partly true. The broken prison system is most definitely a workers’ rights issue. But again, the threat to prison workers derives largely from the system itself. The systemic abuse of the use of solitary is just one manifestation of the gross neglect of the rights of prison workers including the guards.
One need only follow the money to reach this conclusion. The New Mexico prison system is grossly understaffed with at least one prison operating with just 30% of American Correctional Association (ACA) guideline staffing levels. All New Mexico prisons are understaffed. The chronic and severe understaffing puts guards at risk in all areas of the prisons. The risks are most apparent in the general prison population given that there is 1 guard to every 100 prisoners in NMCD. Getting back to the reform of solitary confinement, one might ask why this is relevant?
The plain and simple truth is that NMCD uses solitary as a substitute for manpower. NMCD uses solitary as a substitute for rehabilitative programming. NMCD uses solitary as a substitute for mental health services. In doing so, NMCD and its corporate allies put inmates and guards at grave risk of harm. Ultimately, given that inmates are eventually released, NMCD puts the people and families of New Mexico at risk. And don’t get me started on the financial harm that the system causes New Mexico and its citizens.
Broken Prison System’s Toll on Correctional Staff
The toll on correctional officers and their families is extraordinary. Below are a a couple tidbits of shocking information regarding that toll:
Correctional officers suffer greater levels of PTSD than combat veterans. In fact, the rate of PTSD in correctional officers (34%) is more than double the level of military veterans (14%).
Correctional officers have a shockingly high and unacceptable rate of suicide, which is again greater than the rate for military veterans. The rate of suicide for correctional officers is 39% higher than all other professions combined.
Worse still, correctional guards typically get no help with these issues. Instead, they are ostracized and even punished for their PTSD. In fact, correctional officers suffering PTSD related to recent violent attacks on their person are forced back to work in short order to the same conditions and environment in which they were attacked.
Worker Rights, Human Rights, Civil Rights of the Forgotten
The working conditions of correctional officers are an affront to their worker rights, human rights and civil rights. These working conditions are imposed by a system driven entirely by money and power at the administrative levels. Its not just the inmates who are cast away and forgotten, it is also the guards and other prison personnel.
I can’t understand why the correctional workers union hasn’t filed class-action lawsuits filed on behalf of prison guards and staff. Further I do not understand the role of a corrections worker union if they are not to step up and protect the workers from whom they too profit. Its an absolute disgrace to New Mexico that this broken system continues to flourish unabated while inmates and guards alike suffer extreme physical and psychological harm related to its perpetuation of the status quo. The status quo will change only when both guards and inmates are recognized for their humanity and society, writ NMCD, treats them as such.