Train, Pay and Staff Guards to Reflect the Importance of the Job

“Behind Bars, Rookie Season” is an A&E series depicting the lives of new correctional officers in the New Mexico prisons. There is scene in one episode that shows some of the training. It is worth noting because NMCD was proud enough of the lunacy to allow it to be filmed. The training officer basically tells the rookies that every day is life or death, the inmates are the enemy and they will be lucky to get home alive to spend measly $15/hour that they are paid. And Welcome to the New Mexico Corrections Department!

Dangerous Training

The training exhibited in the A&E series is not just incompetent and irresponsible but dangerous. It puts the guards on hair trigger all the time, no relief. It must make even walking the halls where prisoners are present a stressful event.

Correctional guards have PTSD rates equal to that of military veterans. No doubt it starts with cheerful training sessions like these which give any new employee nightmares. Worse the training itself is self-fulfilling. If you treat inmates like enemies, which too often means treating them like animals, you are going to get enemies with animalistic behavior. Its biological. It’s a perceived matter of survival on both sides with the stage set by the NMCD administrators that come up with such bone-headed training.

Despite the countless lawsuits, settlements and judgments against NMCD, NMCD and the State of New Mexico has yet to learn anything. NMCD fought tooth and nail to prevent the reform of solitary confinement which has disastrous consequences for the mental and physical well-being of the inmates in solitary.

Collins & Collins, P.C. has two ongoing solitary suicide lawsuits that illustrate the inhumanity of solitary. Men and women are put in cages with little or no human contact for weeks, months and years at a time. Try sitting alone in the privacy of your own bathroom for 24 hours (or even 2 hours) and you will get a very small hint of the inhumanity of solitary.

It is worth noting that solitary reforms did indeed pass. Yet NMCD has made no changes for which they will be facing additional lawsuits, settlements and judgments.

Corrections is Not the Place to Cut Corners on Costs

Why is NMCD so insistent on the use of solitary? The aforementioned training is one part. The guards are trained to believe that this is the only way to keep themselves safe. The other reason is just good ole fashioned greed. Putting a person in solitary 23/7 with only an hour to exercise and shower is cheaper than hiring guards. No matter that the costs of those avoided labor costs come back in spades in lawsuits.

Low Pay Equals Low Morale Equals…

Correctional officers should be among the best trained and best paid public employees in the State. They are working with incredibly vulnerable populations of prisoners that come with a life-time of fear, poverty, violence, betrayal, despair to name just a few of items in the baggage of most prisoners. Throw in mental illness, alcoholism and drug addictions and you have men and women in what obviously is horrific psychological pain when they arrive to prison. Why on earth would it be the policy of NMCD to treat these folks like animals? They need help.
New Mexico society needs the inmates to get help. Prison is supposed to be for rehabilitation so the prisoners may reenter society. It’s not by a long stretch in NMCD facilities. Prisoners are completely destroyed psychologically and often times physically. They are then released to the public with problems exponentially worse than when they went in to NMCD.

Correctional officers should be trained to help not harm the inmates. They should get regular and intensive education on dealing with this population. Guards should learn to expect a little cursing, disrespect and disobedience from inmates from time to time. Who wouldn’t curse from time to time in prison? Instead, they are programmed to retaliate. Retaliation comes in many forms from taking away good time, taking away privileges, solitary confinement and too often physical and psychological brutality.
This is not the way to help. It is not the way to treat human beings. It has no place in our society. It certainly has no place in a blue state like New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment. New Mexico can do better. NMCD must do better.

Intensive behavioral science, psychology, mental health, conflict resolution and so should be mandatory for all correctional officers. And they should be paid for the time they spend in training.

Dangerous Staffing Levels

NMCD is chronically understaffed. The guards often work 2 shifts per day. They are exhausted. They are underpaid. They are poorly trained. They are trained to believe every inmate wants to kill them. Its no wonder they are on edge and there are so many incidents that lead to lawsuits. It is also time to improve the system.

Simple Steps to Improve NMCD

There are several easy things to do to start addressing the problem. The order is inconsequential. In fact, they should all be done now:

  1. Train and pay the guards to meet the importance of their jobs.
  2. Hire enough guards that they are not forced to work excessive hours.
  3. Return to #1 and make sure the pay is sufficient that they do not need extra shifts.
  4. Begin recruiting guards with the desire to improve the lives of the prisoners and to improve society.
  5. Begin focusing on the well-being of the inmates so that they can return to society without permanent physical and psychological wounds imposed on them by NMCD.
  6. Train the guards to implement #5.
  7. Get rid of the administrators at NMCD that fight to preserve the train wreck that is NMCD.

Respect the Guards, Respect the Job

Respect the guards for what they do. Show that respect per above. Once they are respected, hopefully they will then respect themselves, their jobs, the humanity of the inmates and the importance of getting inmates back into the community healthy and rehabilitated so that they can successfully reenter society.

It Costs Too Much?

If New Mexico cannot provide this very basic function of rehabilitating prisoners then it should stop locking up so many people. New Mexico’s own reckless criminal justice policies, which are out of step with the rest of the country, create the foregoing needs and costs. If New Mexico cannot afford it, then don’t jump on every hair-brained new proposal to criminalize every kind of behavior some legislator finds offensive.

One way or another New Mexico will pay the costs. It will be through responsible reform. Or it will be for failure to reform in the form of lawsuits, settlements and judgments. One of these is intelligent and humane.