2014 in review: Looking backward

Each year we look back on critical events that may help form the future of corrections


By Robert Hood

Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy is a novel that takes the reader from the end of the 19th century into an idealistic vision of the 21st century. In many ways Looking Backward is a complex investigation of the possibilities of humanity. Although the book was written in 1888, Bellamy provides the reader with a vision of a utopian possibility for the millennium. The book outlines Bellamy's thoughts about improving the future.

Each year we look back on critical events that may help form the future of corrections. We continue to seek a safe and humane correctional system. In 2013 we looked at the use of segregation differently. The killing of Colorado’s Prison Director by an inmate released directly out of segregation into society impacted our profession. The sequestration of government agencies created a 16-day shutdown and challenged correctional staff. We gained greater awareness of mental illness and the health care needs of offenders. Inmate assaults and killings continued to challenge the system. Most of what we observed was an internal metamorphosis in corrections. (See: 2013 in review: The metamorphosis of corrections

As we examine 2014, it is important to obtain input from correctional leaders throughout the United States. The Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) recently developed a list of the “Top Five Critical Issues Identified by Agency Heads.”

Critical Issues

  1. Staff Issues – recruitment (shortages), selection, retention (turnover), succession, safety, wellness, compensation, training, discipline, union, managers, experience, and culture
  2. Administrative Segregation – policies, procedures, and practices
  3. Mental Health/Medical Services
  4. Reentry Services Development
  5. Budget Matters

It is no surprise that the metamorphosis of corrections observed in 2013 developed into critical issues throughout 2014. Ongoing change occurs within the criminal justice system, and sensational news events help shape the correctional environment.

Check the News

  • Manhunt ends with suspect placed in slain trooper’s handcuffs
  • 30 teens escape from Nashville detention center
  • Problems with IV line affected Okla. execution
  • Inmate shoots Iowa deputy at hospital, kills self
  • Ariz. execution renews debate over methods
  • Fla. jail explosion kills 2, 184 injured
  • NY man charged in 7 ‘Knockout Game’
  • Supreme Court rules for death-row inmates with low IQ
  • Escaped school shooter captured near Ohio prison

While internal prison issues and daily news events are valuable for understanding our correctional system, many external events will also shape corrections during the year:    

Corruption
Former Mississippi Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps was indicted on 35 federal counts. He was accused of accepting bribes totally more than $700,000 from 2008 to 2014. Charges included conspiracy, bribery, money laundering, and honest service wire fraud. Prison staff throughout the country were shocked and disappointed in news concerning the former President of the American Correctional Association (ACA) and President of the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA). Epps plead not guilty and the trial date is January 5, 2015.

ACA’s Code of Ethics includes this important principle, “Members shall refrain from accepting any gifts, services, or favors that is or appears to be improper or implies an obligation inconsistent with the free and objective exercise of professional duties.”

School Shootings
Fifty-six school shootings occurred so far this year. Weapons were discharged, students were injured, killed, attempted suicide, or committed suicide. On January 9 Liberty Technology Magnet H.S. in Jackson, TN started the year off with a shooting. The latest shooting occurred on November 23 at St. John's College in MD where a 17 year-old girl was shot in the face.  Violence has entered our public school system. 

Cybersecurity
U.S. government networks remain vulnerable despite billions spent to protect them. The government plans to spend $65 billion on cybersecurity contracts between 2015 and 2020. Correctional institutions have become more dependent on computer technology for security-related procedures and will need to continue monitoring their use of contractors.  Inmates convicted of cyber crimes will require greater supervision. 

White House Security
Extensive security measures are used to protect the White House but have failed. The public is losing faith in the government’s ability to protect and secure our nation’s infrastructure. Offenders will bring new security challenges to prison settings.

Reduced Sentences – Drugs
U.S. Sentencing Commission unanimously voted to reduce the sentences of up to 46,000 people currently serving time for drug offenses. Marijuana legalization won on the ballot in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., in the 2014 election. They joined Colorado and Washington in legalizing marijuana. Correctional Human Resource Managers may see an increase in sustained misconduct cases for staff involved with off duty use of drugs.

Ferguson, MO.
Officer Darren Wilson, who is white, was not indicted for fatally shooting Michael Brown, 18, who was black and unarmed.  The relationship between law enforcement and the African American communities continues to be fraught with tension and mistrust.  Over 2,200 National Guards were activated to assist assist local, state, and federal law enforcement during unrest in Ferguson. Prison officials continue to monitor the inmate population because of their interest in the racial aspects of this historic event. 

CA Proposition 47
With the passage of Proposition 47, simple drug possession and property crimes valued under $950 are now misdemeanors, effective immediately. Punishment means, at the worst, up to a year in jail, no longer prison. It also means up to 10,000 inmates serving time for those crimes can begin to apply for shortened sentences. The law is intended to ease prison overcrowding, and put most of the estimated $200 million saved in prison costs annually into drug and mental health treatment programs to staunch recidivism.

Decarceration
NY, NJ, and CA led the nation in reducing their prison populations in the range of 25% and saw their crime rates generally decline even faster than the national average. Each of these states prioritized criminal justice reforms intended to reduce excessive criminalization and incarceration over the past decade.

Islamic State in Iraq & Syria (ISIS)
ISIS continues to kill dozens of people through public executions, crucifixions, and other methods of torture. Decapitation of U.S. journalists and a British aid worker created international attention. The CIA estimates between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters. The FBI Director indicates that “About a dozen Americans are believed to be fighting in Syria, while more than 100 have either been arrested on their way to Syria or went and came back.” ISIS has a network of supporters in the U.S. Latest threat: to slaughter the families of American military members and personnel. Many young impressionable Americans follow online Jihadists from around the world. Radicalization is now in our communities; not just our prisons.

Pentagon & ADX
Pentagon wants $69 million for a new prison at Guantanamo in fiscal year 2017. The new prison would hold high-value former CIA detainees. The current federal administrative maximum (ADX) prison in Colorado remains underutilized with only 404 sentenced inmates.

Warden Exchange (WE) Program
The Warden Exchange™ (WE) is a Prison Fellowship program empowering corrections professionals to create a legacy of safer prisons and safer communities.  Many of the topics addressed in this article are examined by the wardens during weekly sessions. The Warden Exchange convenes leaders who exchange innovative ideas and best practices for the moral rehabilitation of inmates.  They plan to create a prison culture conducive to restorative change and successful reentry.

In 2014 dozens of wardens graduated from this seven-month program that provides transformational leadership skills. In January another large group of wardens will meet during one of the three in-person residencies to begin training. Participants will work on action plans to systemically transform the prison system.

New Governors
Recent elections may create a change in leadership for individual state prison systems. Unlike the federal prison system, state prison systems often change directors when new governors are appointed. The turnover of correctional leadership has a significant impact on staff.   

Technology
During the past year drones were increasingly used to smuggle drugs and weapons into prisons. An inexpensive device, which can have a video camera mounted to it so its operator could see where it was going, can introducing contraband onto prison property.  Cell phone introduction continues to provide inmates with access to the Internet, SIM cards and other resources used to conduct illegal activities. Inmates now have immediate access to private information about staff.   

Some new technology can further alienate prison staff and prisoners by depersonalizing their already difficult relationship. Body worn cameras, for example, are of value to custodial staff but less value to staff involved with more program-oriented duties. New technology needs to match the security level and mission of the correctional environment.  Great interest can be found in technology that balances the financial strain and security risks of managing prisons. Example: reducing medical transports to local emergency rooms through accurate diagnosis in technology benefits everyone (inmate, prison staff, and the community).

Summary
As the metamorphosis of corrections continues, prison officials should examine past critical issues within their correctional setting. Related daily news and external world events should also be considered when developing correctional strategies for the future.          

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