Essays Examining Xenophobia

Attica Prison




A common-sense assumption colors the research which went into this paper. This assumption, and the conclusion of the paper, is simply that if correctional officers were to be individually convinced that certain reforms which would make life better for prisoners would also be in their own interest, then the correctional officers' unions would become a force for the achievement of those reforms.


The method I chose to investigate this assumption was interviewing Ronald E. Wert, the president of the officers' union at Attica Correctional Facility, taping his responses to my questions, selecting certain portions of those responses and using them as the basis for another interview, this time with someone who had recently been released from Attica, to get his reactions to Wert's opinions.


It was no problem getting a meeting with Wert set up.  I simply called him at his home in Varysburg and he agreed to arrange for me to come and talk with him at the facility two days later, on October 28, 1976.  I had no problems getting through the gates. The guard at the metal-sensor passed the tape recorder and my coat, which contained a bulky extension cord, around the device without physically checking either one.  No one frisked me or asked me any questions, because Wert had informed them that I would be there to talk with him. And Wert talked to me for two hours.


Finding a recently-released ex-inmate who would talk freely with me, preferably someone who had done time at Attica and was acquainted with Wert, and who had had run-ins with the guards, proved to be more of a problem. I had ruled out interviewing a current inmate because I couldn't expect to get totally candid views from someone who had to live with Wert eight hours every day and because I couldn't bring in a tape recorder if I was visiting a prisoner. I called Dorothy Shields, who couldn't think of anyone recently released but who referred me to BRIDGE. I talked to June Henry at BRIDGE who said that for administrative reasons she couldn't give me a recently-released ex-inmate's name even though the group did work with these people. She tried unsuccessfully to get me okayed to sit in at the facility on one of the Prisoners Grievance Committee rap sessions (the prison doesn't let you sit in on these sessions if you're doing it for "research purposes"), and she said it might be possible in the future for me to come to the BRIDGE office and talk there with a recently-released ex-inmate.


I didn't take advantage of the opportunity, however, because in the meantime I had called Barbara Handschu, who is a friend, and asked her if she knew of anyone.  As it turned out, a man just released from Attica in March, 1976, was sitting in her office at the time I called.


Joe got on the phone and agreed to come to my house to listen to Wert and comment, telling me he knew Wert, that Wert had ·”kicked him in the ass” a couple of times. He came over on December 28 and listened and talked for 4-1/2 hours. Joe spent over 6 years at Attica on a burglary conviction. He admits the burglary and the fact that he is a former drug addict. He's currently on parole, with 90 days to go. He's been violated once for failing to report a police contact and consorting with known criminals. He's a white Italian-American from Buffalo's West Side, is working in a restaurant here for $90.00 a week, and is about 40 years old. It turned out that he lives about two blocks away from me.


He's a good friend of Joey Sullivan, the only man ever to successfully escape from Attica. He says he spent so much time in prison because he complained loudly when he didn’t like things and the prison officials thus considered him a "radical."


I chose to write about the possible role of the guards' unions in prison reform because I was upset by reports from Attica this Summer that the union there was harassing inmates as part of a conscious plan to foment incidents which would substantiate their demand for "hazardous duty pay," because I consider myself a supporter of both prisoners' rights and of unions which are fighting for their members' interests. The Attica situation thus precipitated a stark dichotomy in my gut reactions, which could only be resolved by looking into the matter further.


I chose to interview the president of the guards' union and an ex-inmate who had had experience with him so that my information came “from the horse's mouth," so to speak, so that I could get both sides of the picture from its primary actors. Except for reading certain newspaper articles, I have done no secondary research.  I have little doubt that the "objective situation" is such that reforms which will make life better for the imprisoned are also in the interest of the guards. One problem, however, is that the guards and their union, for the most part, don't see it this way. Another is that the ease with which an individual guard could be convinced of this interdependence varies with which specific reform you’re talking about.


Of economic and temporal necessity, the following discussion contains only capsules of selected portions of what Ron and Joe had to say. A transcript of the tapes would be about 150 pages long. So to get a feel for the subjects of the paper, I would recommend that you listen to the tapes, which accompany the paper, which constitute my footnotes, and which I need back.




A.   Overpopulation
Ron thinks that the major problem facing prisons, and Attica in particular, is overcrowding. The union takes this position.  Joe agrees that this is a major problem, that it breeds violence--inmate on inmate, guard on inmate, and inmate on guard. Both realize that not only their own, but also the other's position, would be happier if the prisoner population at Attica was kept down to 1650.

Ron believes that the overpopulation problem should be solved with the creation of more community-based facilities, but criticizes the Department for not doing more homework to ascertain the feelings and needs of the people in the neighborhoods in which these facilities are located before they are plopped down there. Neither he nor the union favors the building of more maximum security institutions.  He believes that Attica should provide more home-like surroundings for prisoners, and that prisoners should earn their way into these settings. He sees the work-release program, as it relates to reducing prison population, as a dismal failure because of the unemployment situation in Western New York.


This overpopulation situation presents one area in which the guards’ and the prisoners' interests are in obvious coincidence.  The major hitch in a plan which would see prisoners graduating from the traditional prison setting to more home-like surroundings and then to a community-based facility, as Joe sees it, is the increased power which it would give the guards over the prisoners’ fate. This problem resurfaces more directly in other reforms which the guards' union proposes, and will be considered shortly.


B. Training Programs for Correctional Officers
Second only to overpopulation and its safety implications, the major concern of the guards’ union is the lack of training programs for new guards. Wert and the union are fighting the introduction of untrained guards as hard as they can. The concern stems from a sense of professional responsibility coupled with the need to feel superior to the prison population. The thing that bothered Ron most about the untrained guards is that the inmates know these guards are green and begin ordering them around and manipulating them. According to Joe, if there is anything that keeps a guard going under the trying working conditions of a prison, it's his individual sense of power over and superiority to the prisoners.


Whatever the psychological source of the union’s demand for the reinstitution of training programs, however, there is little doubt that such programs could be invaluable if the right people were involved in organizing and carrying them out. The training period could conceivably be the means by which individual guards are introduced to the novel idea that reforms which will benefit the prison population will serve to improve their own working conditions and job satisfaction. Given this possibility, and the obvious need for rapprochement between prison reformers and the seemingly reactionary guard organizations, reformers should support the union in their fight against the Department for this demand.


C. Inconsistency of Rules within the Prison System
Another major concern of the union is the lack of uniformity of prison rules from prison to prison. Since transfers of prisoners are so common, the problem is a significant one.  A prisoner, for instance, buys a butane lighter in the commissary at Attica and when he is transferred to Clinton, they take it away from him.  A prisoner at Ossining buys chewing gum and when he is transferred to Attica, they take it away from him. Though seemingly minor inconveniences to those of us on the outside, to an inmate who earns $3.00 a month, the frustrations are overwhelming.  According to Wert, these inconsistencies are a major source of prisoners' resentment of guards because the guards are the ones who have to take the stuff away. Wert claims that the union has been fighting these inconsistencies since 1971, and to no avail.


Moreover, the inconsistencies result in even grosser injustices to prisoners, as made all too clear by Joe. Joe had been assigned to the garage at Attica. He was one of 100 prisoners chosen from the garage to participate in a Fisher Body collision repair course outside the prison. He graduated from the course without incident and was preparing to begin a job at Keyser Cadillac, when the Department in Albany sent papers ordering him to his nearest work-release facility, at Albion. Albion was not participating in the training program, and Joe, who had his heart set on his future chance to "become a contributing member of society" through his job at the Keyser body shop, saw the job disappear because Albion had a different program. He became verbal, pointing out his frustration and the total nonsense of the inconsistent rules, and was labeled a "radical" by the Albion Administration.


This situation is clearly outrageous, and both the guards and prisoners realize it.  This is another area in which the guards and the prisoners already consciously realize that a specific reform would be in each other’s mutual interest. Ron and Joe both showed sympathy for the "other side" when speaking about these rule inconsistencies.


Joe: "Ron Wert and I are familiar with each other. I respect the man for what he wants to protect. He's attempting to protect on his end. As a correctional officer, he’s in charge of our certain physical movements that we have within the institution. He wants to make it as safe and as comfortable for himself and for the inmates as possible. And I sincerely believe that he means what he says. I really do." And this from someone who had been kicked in the ass by Wert, when he heard that Wert favored rule consistency.


D. Guard Participation in Parole Eligibility Determinations and Guard intervention before the Governor
Wert and the union are working for substantial correction officer input into parole eligibility determinations. According to him, at the present time they don't have any say in the process. The union is also advocating a special rule which would allow an individual guard to intervene before the governor on behalf of long-term, good behavior prisoners, for sentence commutation. Wert's rationale is that the Parole Board has no contact with a prisoner, is working with only paper, and spends only about ten minutes in determining an inmate's eligibility. He claims that because guards work closely with the inmates, see them every day, and generally know them better, that they are in a more informed position to make the eligibility determination.  Moreover, Wert asserts that the inmates would be in favor of the guards’ having more of a say in the determination and the ability to intervene before the governor.


Joe cringed when he heard Wert talking about this. By "good behavior", according to Joe, Wert means a good informer. He believes that allowing the guards to make parole determinations or to have substantial input, would be to give them increased powerover inmates, further leverage for exercising the total control over prisoner's lives which is the worst part of prison existence.  According to Joe, the carrot is as bad as the stick.  Joe advocates a parole Board composed of people from all walks of life, specifically including ex-inmates and ex-parolees. For the same reason, Joe did not think the guards should have a special ability to intervene before the governor.


This specific "reform" sought by the guards' union and, presumably, supported by bootlicking prisoners, but opposed by inmates who object to total control and subservience, presents a problem for the "mutual interest" assumption. The guards are seeking a change which would quite clearly give them and their organization more power, and which would definitely not be helpful in bettering prisoners' living conditions. The long-term resolution of the conflict, and the ultimate establishment of the sort of Parole Board Joe envisions, could only come about if the guards come to realize the tragic and historically visible consequences of the type of favor-seeking society which this "reform" would bolster at the prison.  The most obvious consequence is a tendency toward violence when expected favors are not granted or when informers are found out.  It thus seems possible that the guards could be convinced that the "reform" was not in their long-term interest, in that it would endanger their safety.


E. Wert's Opinions on various State Officials and certain Judges
Ron’s opinions of various levels of the state prison bureaucracy are included here because they demonstrate a healthy willingness to question authority, but also because they point out inconsistencies between what the union publicly advocates and what its members actually do, and thus show some of Wert's interview statements should be taken with a grain of salt.


Wert thinks Chinlund of the Corrections Commission is doing a good job; he feels that Chinlund seeks out the opinions of guards and is honest with them; he feels that the Commission has more power than the Department and welcomes this development. Wert also claims that he thought the public hearings which Chinlund instituted are a good idea and that the union supported them. However, one month after the lnterview, at one of Chinlund's public hearings on the McQueen allegations in Rochester, three guards refused to testify.


In contrast to his view of Chinlund and the Commission, Wert's opinion of Benjamin Ward and the Department is negative in the extreme. He accuses the Department of corruption, inconsistency in procedure, preoccupation with internal power struggles and staying out of court, and general ignorance of what prison conditions are really like.


Wert apparently personally likes Superintendent Smith, feels that he is fair and honest and says that the union had good relations with him until the inmate strike this summer. Now Wert believes he is trying to please everyone, and is thus ineffective.  But he blames the Department for this more than the Superintendent himself. He feels that the Department has sapped Smith's authority, especially with regard to local labor-management decisions; he favors decentralization of the decision-making. As a result of Smith's inability to negotiate meaningfully with the union, the union has broken off official labor-management negotiations with Smith.


As an aside, and taking Wert at his word, it should be noted that the Department's centralization policies have exacerbated the labor situation at Attica; may in fact have caused the feelings among guards there that they have to create incidents with inmates to gain meaningful negotiations. (Note, however, that Wert denies inmate harassment for this purpose.) If Smith has no authority to grant even minor labor requests and the union thus feels it does no good to talk with him, they must resort to inflammatory tactics which will gain statewide publicity. A rational person could not possibly expect anything else to happen. It seems clear that if future violence is to be avoided, the Superintendent must be given a greater measure of authority in dealing with the union. I might add that it would be much easier for local prison reformers to approach Smith with a plan for guard training programs worked out with the guards' union and gain possible approval from him, than it would be to approach and win over the state bureaucracy.


Wert is equivocal in his feelings about Deputy Superintendent for Security, Norman Miles; feels that he has made good and bad decisions, that he is about to be transferred and become Superintendent of another facility. He feels that past conflicts between Miles and Smith have been caused by the Department's political power-struggle tendencies.


Ron Wert is very bitter about Federal Judge John Curtin.  He feels that all Curtin's decisions have gone against the correction officers. He wants Curtin to mind his own business and stay away from Attica; he especially objects to Curtin's tours of the prison, claiming that the inmates bend his ear.


Because of the time factor, I did not ask Joe for his views on Wert's comments about the state prison bureaucracy and Federal Judges. Joe did, however, listen to Wert's comments on prisoners' lawsuits, and had much to say, as will be seen in the following section.



F. Prisoners' Lawsuits
Wert is down on prisoner lawsuits, most of which he feels arise from cell searches. He feels that guards should be totally free to search inmates' cells for contraband, because it is in the general welfare. He claims that the guards are caught in the middle, because if they have information that a contraband weapon is secreted in a cell and don't search the cell for fear of a lawsuit, and another inmate is subsequently injured by this weapon, that then the guards would have to worry about suits by the injured inmate. Wert believes that most prisoner lawsuits are frivolous; that they are a game for the inmates, getting them a free trip to Buffalo, and he says that dismissal of most of them supports this contention.


Wert especially objects to prisoners’ cross-.examining guards in an open courtroom and to the outside contacts that prisoners make in the courtroom. He claims that courtroom audiences are sympathetic to the prisoners and that prisoners use their lawsuit appearances to enlist people to their cause, to make contacts. In general, he much prefers the pre-l97l riot situation when prisoners' lawsuits were scarce.


Joe says that the object of many cell searches is to destroy prisoners' legal work, sometimes representing years of research. Other objects confiscated or destroyed in these searches are necessities like blankets and letters. Further, these searches often involve beatings. He views the prisoner’s lawsuit as a basic right; he feels that a person has a right to defend himself whenever he is attacked. The law has put a man in jail; it should not then abandon him. A prisoner has a right to go to the same law that landed him in jail. Joe sees courtroom contacts, outsiders' sympathy for prisoners, as a simple example of basic human compassion, much of it inspired by the tragic riot of Attica. He believes that Wert does not see the world this way because he is a correction officer, because of "different lifestyles within the abnormal society," because Wert sees court decisions as threatening the guards' position of superiority over the inmates within the institution, because lawsuits disrupt this "abnormal society's" normal functionings.


The area of prisoner lawsuits, the effort to assure inmate access to the legal process for redress of wrongs, and discourage future mistreatment of prisoners, is one in which prisoners' interests seem to come overwhelmingly in conflict with the perceived interest of the correction officers. The immediate prospects for persuading guards that their long-term interests are best served by providing prisoners open access to the courts, would seem dim indeed. As such, work for prison reform which seeks added hopes for success and effectiveness by enlisting the aid of guards' organizations would be more productive if it concentrated on reforms in which the coincidence of interests was more immediately obvious, such as the establishment of guard training programs.


The basis of understanding which would be developed in this "preliminary" work, a part of which would presumably involve joint lawsuits on behalf of prisoners and guards, could then be built upon in an effort to bring union opposition to prisoner lawsuits to an end. As the union learns that its efforts toward changing the status quo are strengthened if allied with the prisoners' efforts, and that sometimes these efforts can be directed, with success, toward courtroom battles with the state bureaucracy and the Rockefeller empire, it seems likely that organizational opposition to individual prisoner lawsuits would gradually wither away. This conclusion is further stengthened if we take note of two other rather basic and interrelated phenomena:

1)The individual guard and the union of all the individual guards are not the same thing.

2) Open prisoner access to the courts, though at times detrimental to the interest of an individual guard, is, in actuality, in the interest of the guards' organization, and, through the organization, of individual guards.


To illustrate these phenomena, imagine the situation of a particularly sadistic guard, who gets off, say, on flushing prisoners' legal work down toilets. The publicity surrounding a prisoner’s lawsuit against Smith and Ward could result in the guard losing his job and at the very least could deny him his pleasures and feeling of total superiority and power. When we recognize, however, that this type of sadism causes prisoner resentment toward all guards, and results in increased possibilities of violence on every guard, the prisoner's lawsuit can be seen as being in the guards’ organization's safety interest. When we couple this with the feelings of responsible professionalism which are at least part of the reasons behind the union's demand for training programs, the purging of the sadistic guard, or at least cessation of his offending activity, is in the interests of the self-respect and job satisfaction of all the guards, and the guards' organization has another reason for looking on the lawsuit with favor.


Moreover, this is the type of realization which it might be possible to expect of a union whose members had gone through some formal training program. Thus, there is at least some possibility that at some point in the future, the union's perceived interests could coincide with its actual interests and result in the union's cooperation in the suit, making it more likely that the prisoner's interests would be vindicated.


G. Up from the Ranks Administrators and ex-Inmate participation in the Department of Corrections
Ron is upset that there is not more opportunity for guards to move up the ladder and become part of the prison administration.  He favors a system of promotional exams which would allow this.  He believes that guards would make good administrators because they know the workings of the system from the bottom up, because they are more aware of the problems of inmates, because they know the corrections law, and because they are aware of the effects that specific changes of procedure would have on the operation of the system. Wert maintains that opportunities for advancement have been eliminated and that this has a demoralizing effect on the guards and the way they view their jobs.


The union is totally opposed to a recently-passed law proposed by Ward and supported by Carey, which allows the Commissioner to appoint superintendents at his discretion. Wert argues that the prison system has deteriorated because many superintendents unfamiliar with the state prison system, some from out of state, have been appointed, often as a repayment of a political debt. He blames this partly, also, on the oral component of the civil Service exam, which admits of political considerations.  The effect of superintendents and deputy superintendents who are unfamiliar with the system is uninformed decisions and misguided changes which do nobody any good, according to Ron.


When made aware that all the arguments he made for guards moving up in the prison system are also arguments for the employment of ex-inmates within the system, Wert responded that while it would be a good idea to employ ex-inmates in the Department at the Albany level because their experience and knowledge would inform administrators of the potential effects of proposed decisions, it would not be advisable to employ ex-inmates at the facility level because of the grave security risks that this would involve.


Joe recognized that Ron’s argument on this facility-level employment of ex-inmates is weak in the extreme. He perceptively points out that the real reason Wert and the union oppose the hiring of ex~inmates on the facility-level is because it would destroy their sense of superiority over the inmates, undermine their raison d'etre. Joe says that a guard just could not stand the idea of working side-by-side, on the level of equals, with an ex-inmate because he would not now be able to talk down to him and order him around, because the contradiction is too great. Joe recommended that Ron Wert sleep on this question and confront his real reasons for not wanting to work with ex-inmates. Joe believes that Ron is serious when he recommends the hiring of ex-inmates on the Albany level, and he is optimistic that the union and people like Ron Wert can be made to realize that the employment of ex-inmates within the prisons is essential to the improvement of conditions for guards and prisoners alike.


Joe places special emphasis on the need for "criteria" in the selection of people to become prison guards. It is not automatic that an ex-inmate will treat prisoners with more sympathy than someone who is not an ex-inmate.  But he believes that the introduction of ex-inmates into the prison system would be a civilizing force; that it is "vital" if prison conditions are to be improved. Joe has no specific objection to the idea of guards moving up the ladder of prison administration; feels that the possibility could encourage the guards to be a better guard by treating inmates more humanely, that a guard's frustration about being stuck in a dead-end job and his tendency to take this frustration out on inmates would thereby be lessened.


This subject of who is to be employed within the prison system and how they are to advance within it, in terms of the obviousness of the congruence of guard and prisoner interests involved in it, is in a middle-ground between prisoners’ lawsuits and the initiation of guard training programs. It seems the proper subject of discussion and negotiation between a group of concerned and capable ex-inmates, like Joe, who are seeking employment within the prison system and the committee of the officers’ union which is working to achieve an up-from-the-ranks promotional system. Given the tenor of Ron’s and Joe's remarks on the subject, it does not seem that the setting up of an initial meeting to discuss the area is totally beyond the realm of possibility. Moreover, the basis for negotiation is present. If the guards’ union supports the ex-inmates in their quest for Albany jobs in the Department, when the ex-inmates get to Albany they will work within the Department to establish an up-from-the-ranks promotional system. This process would be complicated, however, by the fact that there are at present no formal organizations of ex-inmates through which such a promise could be forcefully pursued.


H. Affirmative Action to Hire Minority Guards
Ron maintains that he is not a racist, but that he opposes different standards for the hiring of minority guards. He points out that exam standards have dropped, and the system is bound to deteriorate because of it; says that the existence of one standard for hiring blacks and another for whites has already caused animosity between black and white guards. He believes that every guard candidate should take the same exam and be treated equally.  He connects the rush to hire minority guards after the riot with the dropping of guard training programs, and is thus doubly upset with the affirmative action program.


Joe places major emphasis on what happens to a blackguard after he's hired. He says that the situation, then, is that it's the black guard against the world, that the black or Puerto Rican guard who is mistreated or ignored, not accepted, by white guards will take out his frustrations and discomforts on the inmates.  Though he sees that some inmates take comfort from the fact that one of "their people" is there, he has seen too many black and Puerto Rican guards mistreating their own people to believe that the "ratio" system has done any good. But he blames this primarily on the racism of the white guards, their failing to accept minority guards, and the frustrations which this causes.


I was not able to contact black and Puerto Rican ex-inmates to get their views on the success of the affirmative action program in preventing racially-based mistreatment of prisoners. Any analysis here, then, would be purely conjectural and not worth the effort. It is apparent, however, that the union has to be confronted on its racist attitudes toward both minority guards and prisoners. Such a confrontation would have its most beneficial effects if it came from a minority caucus within the union, itself, from a group of minority guards who had worked closely with white members of the union toward achievement of one of the union's goals. Unfortunately, I did not question Wert about the extent of minority participation in union affairs.  I ascertained, however, that those in leadership positions in the union are all white. As the affirmative action program places more minority guards in the prison, it becomes more likely both that the union will be confronted with its racism and have to change and that minority guards will assume leadership positions. It is unclear what this' will mean for the prisoners.


I. Conjugal and Touch Visits
Ron objects to open sex in the visiting room because it's offensive to other visitors and prisoners in the room, and because "there are kids running around." Neither he nor the union opposes hugging or kissing as long as it's not too extensive, but he doesn't define what he means by this. He complains that in at least one instance an extended embrace "degenerated into oral sodomy." He says that there is not enough room at Attica to provide each prisoner and his visitor with a private room for the duration of the visit, and that this procedure, even if the rooms could be built, presents an exchange of contraband problem. Ron is resigned to the corning of conjugal visits and expects housetrailers to be set up at Attica in the near future. He even goes to the extent of recommending the initiation of conjugal visits if the union can have a role in determining the process by which prisoners are selected for the privilege. He believes that the prison should be extremely selective in granting the privilege, however.  He is worried about how many female friends will be allowed to be on a prisoner's conjugal visit list.


Joe, in response to Ron's account of "perversion" in the visiting room, tells the story of how one of the guards' favorite pastimes is shining a flashlight beam through the bars onto a masturbating prisoner's penis. He reports that many prisoners are written up for excessive touching, and is extremely upset about this, considering the touching natural and seeing nothing the matter with it. He says that these touching limitations deeply affect an inmate and feelings of guilt continue to plague the sexual activities of prisoners long after they are released. He believes that private visiting facilities ought to be provided for all prisoners; he sees the prohibition of sexual activity as one of the primary ways in which the prison system not only fails to prepare an inmate to take his place in outside society, but positively makes it more difficult for him to readjust once released. For instance, it is probably the major cause of the break-up of inmates' marriages while they are in. Certainly being able to come back to a wife and family is a factor which would make readjustment less traumatic, and a term back in prison less likely.


This area of reform is one to which the union seems resigned and against which little union opposition can be expected. Given Ron's feelings about what goes on in the visiting room, it seems possible that the union could be enlisted to support the construction of more private facilities if adequate security measures were provided, and the money could be found. But, then again, another source of inmate indignation is the body searches upon which the union would insist after such a private visit.


In terms of inmate frustration and the potential for violence, sexual prohibitions are central. Joe reports that many inmate assaults on inmates involve sexual attraction, and guards often have to risk physical injury to break up these fights. Thus it is also possible to encourage a more liberal view of inmates' sexual relations with outsiders on the part of the union by appealing to the officers' interest in their own safety. It is not clear, however, just who would make this sort of appeal, and whether the union would listen to them.


Again, this is a sort of middle ground. Unlike the activities of reformers in working for a reduction in prison population or for the establishment of guard training programs, action to liberalize the visiting rules could not expect the immediate and wholehearted support of the union. But it would not engender the total opposition that a proposal to liberalize prisoner access to the state courts would. As such, the means by which union support could be gained would be through education in the training program and, possibly, through the efforts of ex-inmates who have found their way into the system or a negotiating committee of ex-inmates seeking union support for their employment in the system at the Albany level. Perhaps, also, this is an area in which the Commission could be effective.


J. Inmate Assaults on Inmates
The union wants an assaulted inmate to have an opportunity to press charges against the person who assaults him. Wert believes that an assaulted inmate should have access to an attorney and protection from retribution, in order to get a conviction of the person doing the assaulting, add time to his sentence, and thus discourage further assaults. He says the present four-pronged investigation by the B.C.I. of the State Police, the Wyoming County Sheriff's Department, the Commission, and the Department, coupled with disciplinary proceedings within the prison, is not as effective in stemming the tide of assaults as a separate conviction and new sentence based on the bringing of charges by the assaulted inmate would be.


Joe, agreeing with Ron, says that the main reason prisoners don't press charges against those assaulting them is fear of retribution; he claims, however, that the reputation of an inmate who has done this follows him from prison to prison, and that, therefore, there is no effective way for the state to protect him from retribution. Thus, he thinks any such policy would be ineffective.  He recommends that anyone heading for prison learn to become a prize-fighter.  He seems to be saying that the situation is best left to resolution by the inmates, themselves, and that the intervention of the state in encouraging the bringing of charges could result in further violent assaults. Joe also observes that the general attitude of correction officers is to leave the inmates to resolve these assaults on their own, unless the guards, themselves, are immediately involved, or someone is seriously injured or killed.


Joe maintains that a multitude of unbearable conditions--overpopulation, idleness, sex deprivation, rule inconsistencies and the resultant self-protective polarization of various groups within the prison population -- are responsible for the assaults and that it would not be appropriate to single out an individual inmate for prosecution, even if someone who would prefer charges could be found.

It is interesting to note that, in terms of the availability of the legal process to prisoners, on this issue both Joe and Ron are on the opposite sides of the fence from their own positions with regard to prisoners' lawsuits. The reasons for this switch are clear, but its significance is not.  Perhaps it means that because the union sees the need for the utilization of the legal process in the attempt to stop inmate assaults upon inmates, it will be more susceptible to arguments that the same process should be available to inmates when they feel their rights have been violated by the individual guards. Perhaps it means that prison reformers, presumably an organization of them that had previously cooperated with the union in working for the establishment of a guard training program, would agree to provide legal services to inmates who are the victims of assaults by other inmates and attempt to make some sort of arrangement with the Department in this regard, in exchange for an agreement by the union that it would cooperate in the fact-finding necessary to the carrying out of prisoners' lawsuits.



While the guards' unions cannot be considered champions of prisoners' rights, and in many cases oppose reforms which would make life better for prisoners, they certainly cannot be written off as in all cases being directly opposed to the achievement of those rights.


Though in many instances the unions perceive their interests to be in the denial of certain of those rights, the objective situation is such that improvements in the quality of life of prisoners are improvements in the working conditions of correctional officers.


Moreover, there are certain reforms which would improve the situation of the imprisoned which at the present time these unions perceive as being directly in their own interests, chief among them being the establishment of comprehensive guard training programs. This situation presents the opportunity for groups and individuals who understand the need for prison reform to begin working with these unions for the achievement of those specific goals, which also include reducing prison populations and ridding the system of rule inconsistencies.


This working relationship, along with the intelligent utilization of the educational opportunities created by the achievement of a training program, could create the foundation for a building and widening of the unions’ perception of just what reforms were in the interests of correctional officers, possibly to the point at which they corresponded with reality.


And if Ron Wert is any indication of what all the presidents are like, we can rely on the fact that the unions will work for the attainment of goals which they perceive to be in the correctional officers’ interest.


Buffalo, New York

January, l977

William W. Berry



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