Hagerstown, Md.: Corrections Officer Jeff Wroten, age 44, was shot and killed by an inmate he was guarding during a hospital visit. The inmate, Brandon Morris, age 20, who was doing time for assault, robbery and weapons convictions, was receiving treatment for an apparent self-inflicted wound—a needle stab to his chest. Somehow, Morris managed to overpower Wroten, a four-year veteran, take his sidearm and shoot him in the face. Wroten leaves a wife and five children.
Huntsville, Texas Corrections Officer Susan Canfield, age 59, a seven-year veteran of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was killed during an escape by inmates near Huntsville. She was supervising two inmates at a work detail when she was overpowered by the two. They took her weapons and ran over her with a truck they had stolen. Both inmates were captured shortly thereafter.
Bluffdale, Utah: Corrections Officer Steve Anderson, 60, was shot and killed after being overpowered by an inmate he was transporting to a clinic. The inmate, Curtis Allgier, stole the officer’s gun, shot him in the head and then escaped. Allgier was arrested shortly thereafter. Anderson, a 22-year veteran of the Utah Department of Corrections, spent most of his time in transport duties.
Punta Gorda, Fla.: Corrections Officer Darla Lathrem, 38, was murdered by three inmates while overseeing a work detail at the Charlotte County Correctional Institution. The one-year rookie was supervising five inmates who were working on a construction project inside the walls of the facility. Her assailants used hammers and screwdrivers to beat her to death. Lathrem was armed only with (OC) pepper spray and a radio. The three assailants were captured shortly after the attack, inside the walls of the facility.
Philadelphia, Pa.: Corrections Officer Mike Doran was beaten to death by an inmate at the Eastern Penitentiary. Doran had entered the prisoner’s cell to take him to an exercise yard. Apparently upset with his prescribed medications, the inmate, armed with a wooden bludgeon and an iron bar, beat Doran until he died. Doran’s body was found in the cell by another corrections officer.
Not a New Threat
The first four of these reports, all taken from the Officer Down Memorial Page, Inc., occurred recently. The last example, however, occurred over a century ago, in 1884. My point: The risks correctional officers (COs) face aren’t new.
Assaults on COs are a risk that few police trainers know about, much less address. Like police officers and firefighters, COs operate in some of the nation’s most dangerous work environments. Street cops have an assortment of tools to protect themselves—high-capacity firearms, Tasers, batons, pepper spray and so on—but COs aren’t as fortunate. Transport officers may be armed with something more, but most COs working within a county jail or state prison are armed only with a radio. If they’re lucky, they have a drive-stun electronic weapon.
So what can be done to minimize the risks to today’s COs? Plenty.
An awareness of the dangers inherent to the corrections environment is the first step. Although facilities across the country have implemented security advances in recent years, the risks COs face are greater than ever.
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio during a trip to Phoenix. I couldn’t pass up the offer to tour his famous Tent City Facility. Was I impressed? You bet.
Despite the austere appearance of olive drab military tents with inmates stacked two and three high in bunkbeds, the security of the facility is state of the art. In fact, family and friends visiting inmates at the facility speak to their loved ones via closed-circuit TV, where the visitation time is electronically controlled. There’s no opportunity for a dispute over “just two more minutes, officer,” which lessens the chance for visitor/officer confrontation.
Further, every inmate is required to work, whether it’s in the kitchen preparing meals or doing jail laundry. And, yes, they do wear pink uniforms. Even their socks, sheets and blankets are pink. It may be hard to look intimidating when you’re wearing pink boxers, but evidence of inmate gang affiliation is everywhere. And although Arpaio and his corrections staff have this place under control, make no mistake about it: County jails are still a dangerous place to work.
Education & Professional Training
COs need to understand the potential violence of prisoners and inmates and what influencing factors motivate them. To that end, the American Corrections Association (ACA) offers an online corrections academy with an assortment of courses geared to professional COs.
The Law Enforcement Training Network (LETN) also offers several programs on topics relating to jail suicides, close-quarters sudden assaults, cross-gender supervision and jail crisis response. What percentage of COs belongs to the ACA, I don’t know. But I’d encourage all to become a part of this organization. The information they share is potentially lifesaving.
For those officers who want more, many community colleges and several universities also offer associate and bachelor degree programs in corrections science. They also offer degrees for first- and second-line supervisors and upper-level managers: Certified Corrections Manager, Certified Corrections Supervisor and Certified Corrections Executive. Many have individual courses of study in interpersonal communications, sociology, psychology, penology, working with special needs offenders and ethical issues in the correctional setting, among others. Professional training is also available through many local sheriffs’ offices/academies, as well as state and federal penal institutions.
The ACA, through its Correctional Certification Program, provides career advancement studies in conflict resolution and management of aggressive behavior. In-service training programs on prison gang intelligence are offered in many state prisons, where programs on gang philosophy and inmate culture are addressed. One of the most comprehensive exists at Rikers Island Correctional Facility in New York City.
I’ve never worked in a jail, but I network with a lot of county and state COs. Without exception, they tell me one of their most valuable tools is after-action critiques. After any disturbance, be it a minor cell extraction or a full-blown riot, the after-action critique provides a tremendous amount of insight into how a particular incident was handled: Could it have been handled better? What went right? What could be improved upon?
After-action critiques work similarly to firearms discharge panels or shooting review boards. During these critiques, such issues as use of force, manpower, equipment and/or training are openly and honestly discussed. I know from my participation in use-of-force review boards that, if conducted properly, a lot of valuable learning can take place.
The Bottom Line
I’ll let the scholars and politicians argue among themselves about the concept of rehabilitation vs. punishment and whether privately operated facilities are a better concept than government-run institutions, but I know one thing for sure: Technology may improve and philosophy may change, but the dangers and threats within our jails and prisons will always be there. Constant education, training and an ever-increasing awareness of those dangers increases professionalism and helps mitigate the threat to today’s COs.
Until next month, stay safe!