Monday, July 23, 2007

Prison Town, USA

My understanding is that PBS will be airing a documentary this week entitled “Prison Town, USA”, about Susanville, California, where I currently reside. I have not seen this documentary nor have I read a detailed summary of its content; however, the subject matter clearly concerns our town in the context of having High Desert State Prison as its economic focal point. The Lassen County Times has already expressed some angst over the airing of this documentary, replete with the usual conservative sniping at “liberal” PBS and the media. I have mentioned the prison here and commented on the nature of the local prison culture in previous posts. I have been somewhat reticent to comment on this aspect of our community, in large part because I have friends who are employed at the prison – our local “gated” community, as someone once quipped – and their attitudes, demeanor and intelligence are the exception to the rule. Many clearly take the job of correctional officer, or CO as we call them here, out of necessity, historical circumstance or lack of opportunity – I rather doubt many intentionally choose it as a career path. Not everyone should be judged by the majority, despite the fact it is Homo sapiens’ inherent nature to do so.

The fact is that the prison culture of Susanville, although perhaps good for the local economy (an arguable point in and of itself), also brings with it a load of negative baggage that prison town proponents choose to ignore. I suspect the documentary may uncover or at least allude to the significant downside of being a prison town and having this information aired nationally probably scares the hell out of prison proponents. Social, educational and economic problems spawned by the presence of prison are swept under the rug locally and probably intentionally covered up at the state level. There is certainly no effort to calculate the long term effects to a community outside of the immediate economic benefit gained by establishing a facility housing an inmate population and its high-priced babysitters. But then, county boards of supervisors, city councils and other local government entities are not known for intellectual ability to consider anything other than short-term profit.

While there is a laundry list of negative issues with living in Prison Town, USA, my primary concern is the effect on education, both locally and as a larger cultural issue. The prime motivation for working at the prison is money. More to the point, the prime motivation is the ability to garner a huge salary without the need to demonstrate skill or intellect. As one CO friend of mine pointed out, about all you need to qualify for employment in the prison system is a heartbeat. Apparently, you also only need an education to the 9th grade. I can think of no other profession, other than prostitution, that rewards individuals so handsomely for having absolutely no skill and no intellectual ability.

Starting COs make somewhere in excess of $7000 per month…starting teachers make something like $2000 per month. We build more prisons than universities or colleges. This alone is an indictment on the nature of American priorities…and ultimately a recipe for societal collapse. In Susanville, this is further compounded by the fact that the teachers are fighting to fend off a cap on their benefits, while COs enjoy significant raises and lots of overtime. While the teacher’s union is certainly large and prominent in California (and maligned heavily by conservative radio talk show hosts) they are no match for the correctional officer union, which basically has the California state government by the nuts. Teachers, who have skills, education, and dedication, must constantly fight for benefits and salary, while COs, who have basically no skills, are barely literate and whose only goal is apparently the accumulation of wealth, generally get whatever they want. And when the correctional officers get what they want, the cost is paid by teachers, other service providers, health care, environmental protection, and the other priorities a decent society should focus upon.

There are other effects as well. I have been asked to several “career day” events at the local schools. Many of the organizers have explicitly stated the goal of these events is to show students, particularly young boys, that there are other careers out there that will be far more rewarding. It is difficult, however, to compete against the vision of large houses, expensive vacations, ATVs, motorcycles, huge four-wheel drive trucks and lots of other “toys” that a $7000/month income can provide. The example provided by COs is generally that kids can ultimately get lots of goodies without having to do much educationally or vocationally. And many of the COs are young, bringing with them an immaturity and disrespect for anything that doesn’t personally benefit them that would normally be weeded out by educational programs or vocations requiring actual commitment, learning and competition. It is not surprising to me that most of my CO friends are older, have been in the system a while, and have avoided (or at least survived) the social and moral pitfalls entrapping so many of their colleagues.

While I malign the COs, it is the system and not the individuals that are the problem. That greater society allows such a system to exist is the ultimate problem, not that individuals take advantage of it. And of course there is a cost to the CO’s themselves that is rarely considered. While the job itself requires little in the way of skill or education, no one can doubt that it is one of the least desirable jobs on the planet. One of the reasons the salaries are so high is that most people don’t think the salary is worth the cost of the job (although one of the reasons I have no problem maligning individuals is that clearly most consciously choose the job for personal financial gain, without weighing the effects to themselves, their families, and the community). Many of my friends in the system actively discourage others from applying for the job – for the intellectually astute, at some point financial gain is not worth the sacrifice in intellect and self esteem.

Ultimately, the identification of Susanville as “Prison Town, USA” is not a moniker to be desired. It is one to be shunned at all costs. While we have fallen into the trap because of poor leadership, it would be wise for any community contemplating such a move to think long and hard about it. Hopefully, this documentary will scare the hell out of any community contemplating construction of a prison…and finally begin to expose the dark “belly of the beast” that is our state prison system.


Rachel said...

It airs tonight, most likely at 10pm but check your local listings to be sure.

c. clements said...

How can someone who is supposed to be educating our “youth” be so ignorant. Now I know why there are so many poor opinions of correctional officers in the town of Susanville. I am a young correctional officer in Susanville, and I don’t make $7000.00 a month. I am forced to work 16-24 hours of forced overtime a week, and I still don’t make $7000.00 a month. I am an educated woman, but in the Great State of California education does not count. I spend 8-16 hours a day protecting you and your children from killers, rapist, and child molesters. How many children do you have? Do you go to your classroom every day wondering if one of your students is going to stab you in the neck with a crude weapon made of scraps of metal and smeared with their feces and HIV infected blood. Do you wonder if your students will throw their urine and feces on you, then when you go to the local Banner Lassen Hospital to receive the medication to help prevent HIV and Hepatitis staff there treat you like a lower class citizen because of where you work. I come home to my family each night and try to forget the blood, guts , and violence I see every day. I attempt to lead a normal life even though I have seen things in my short career that may scar and traumatize a weaker person such as yourself. I am a firm believer that everyone is entitled to their opinion, but yours is wrong.!!!!!!!If you would like to be better education about prison life and correctional officer who just happen to walk the toughest beat in the state please feel free to contact me.
\C. Clements

Christopher O'Brien said...

C. Clements:
Thank you for responding…interesting comments. Let me start with what I think you and I would both agree upon. Do you have a stressful, threatening job? Of course you do. I have never said otherwise. I have respect for those friends of mine who are in the same employment. It is certainly not a job I would want to have and fortunately I have no need to attempt employment as a Correctional Officer. I would further venture to guess that we also share the same low opinion of the inmates you guard on a regular basis. Prisons should be institutions no one ever wants to go back to…not places to get free food, housing and education. The fact that we spend more on prison inmates than on school children is nothing less than despicable.

So, what exactly, am I wrong about? That you don’t actually make $7000 a month? Yeah, I’ll admit that’s probably an exaggeration, especially for a starting officer. On the other hand, I got that information from CO’s themselves, so somebody there must be making that much. I (and others I’ve talked to) frequently hear guards brag about how much they’re making and all the new toys they’re accumulating. If they’re not making a lot of money they are sure putting up a great front. So how do you think your salary compares with a starting teacher? A paramedic? A firefighter?

Do you actually think the prison system is working? California spends too much time incarcerating non-violent criminals, doesn’t treat its inmates as inmates, and spends almost no money upfront on education and social services that would go a long way toward preventing criminal activity. Forgive the pun, but that’s “three strikes” against the system right out of the starting gate. More to the point, reversing those trends would require fewer prisons and even fewer prison guards. I’m not sure you and your union would be anxious to see cuts in funding for corrections; which makes me wonder whether the entire prison system isn’t so much an institution as it is an industry.

No doubt you get exposed to HIV. However, I happen to know lots of people who are regularly exposed to HIV and a whole laundry list of diseases, working here and in third world countries: many in the medical profession, researchers and those in social service. None make your salary and most volunteer their time and expertise. My own experiences overseas exposed me to diseases you can’t possibly comprehend. You’re not impressing me – I know too many people who get exposed to a lot worse…without the compensation.

Is your job dangerous? Of course it is. But the fact that you believe you walk “the toughest beat” in the state simply demonstrates the self aggrandizing attitude among a significant proportion of COs. If you were a bit more educated you might understand how your job actually relates to others on the danger scale. You know how many correctional officers have been killed in the line of duty in the State of California? Thirty-three since 1903…about one third of a correctional officer per year. More US Forest Service firefighters died in the line of duty in California since 1981…a casualty rate of greater than one per year. More than thirty-three firefighters of all agencies have died since 2005…a casualty rate of about eight per year. That’s the same rate as law enforcement officers. Looks like the hazards on your job are relatively benign. And do I get worried about a student taking me out in a classroom? Well, thanks to Virginia Tech the yearly casualty rate among students and professors just jumped off the scale…I bet I worry more than you do….

And what’s this about “protecting my family from rapists and murderers” – did you do the hard work of tracking down and catching those who would harm my family? If this isn’t a case of CO delusions of grandeur I don’t know what is. If I have anyone to thank for protecting my family it will be the street cop, the sheriff, the highway patrol, hell, even the campus police. Yes, your job is important in the greater scheme of a functioning society…but so is that of the garbage collector. Loose either and society doesn’t function very well.

If your job is so difficult, stressful and dangerous, why do you continue to do it? You’re right – I probably wouldn’t be able to deal with some of the things you see on a day-to-day basis…but I can say that about a lot of jobs. One thing’s for sure…I could qualify for your job – you don’t even come close to qualifying for mine.

Anonymous said...

Mr. O'brien
I do have a very low opinion of the inmates I work with every day. They are the scum of the earth. No I did not hunt them down and put them there, and I have all of the respect in the world for California's peace officers. They do have a difficult job. It is the state of California and the states bleeding heart liberals who fight for inmates to be cared for and educated. I beleive that inmates should be treated in a very different way. ( An eye for an eye) would be a much better sentence.No I dont think the prison system is working because the same scum continue to return to the prison. I dont beleive that there is rehabilitation for a murder or a rapist. How do you rehabilitate that kind of person??? What should we do with Non-violoent offenders? Should we send them to school, slap them on the hand, or just let them go so they can continue to steal from people and sell drugs to children??? As for being exposed to diseases do you think the state realy cares if correctional officer are exposed, I was recently stuck in the hand with a needle that an inmate should not of had, it took the medical staff 2 hours just to fill out the paper work and transport me to the emergency room. When I arived at the hospital the ER doctor told me it is just a little needle poke and I would survive. Then he continued on his way to treat an inmate. How would that make you feel? I never said that my job is the most dangerous or that I think I am Hot S@#T because of what I do, but try my job for a day. I continue to do my job because I respect the people I work with and I will retire in 20 years and not have to depend on social security which I dont pay into. My children will be able to attend college with out having to worry about student loans or financial aid, and if I am killed or injured my family will not go without. I am not qualified to do your job, and I have all the respect in the world for teachers that are educating our youth, but I choose to do my job because I want to. Now you state that Correctional Officer have no skills and we are not educated, but can you shoot and qualify quarterly with a Ruger Mini 14 rifle, or a 38 Cal. hand gun. We have to . We attend mandated training and classes to keep us aware of the laws and regulations for inmates in the state of CA. We are educated in report writing first responder medical training that we are mandated to use not only on our fellow officers, but also inmates. We are trained to keep inmates from killing eachother as well as ourselves. I understand that you feel your job is so important, and that mine is as useful as a garbage collector, but I take pride in my job, I love and respect the people I work with and I walk through those gates everyday thankful for what the California Department of Corrections has provided me with. There are so many correctional officer dealing with the stress of our job, assaults and exaustion from forced overtime, but we still keep on kicking. My husband's (who is also a correctional officer) best friend was a correctional officer for 11 years and the stress of the job got to him exactly one month ago today and he chose to end his life. I do not condone his cowardness, but I can relate, he was tired from 3 forced overtimes a week, and the prison life. Do many teachers take thier own lives because they are forced to work when they would rather be home with thier children. I protect your family and friends by preventing the scum of the earth from escaping into society and harming more people. If you feel you could do my job, then by all means join the department, you chose to make the money you make by being an educator, I chose to make my money by doing my job. Maybe if your teachers union payed closer attention to what the CCPOA does they could help you earn more. Now I apologize if I insulted you or your proffesion that was not my intention. I only wanted to express my opinon about my career and my pride. I do not have delusions of granduer, I only have self respect and pride. If you feel so strongly about rehabilitation then why dont you apply to be an educator of inmates in a California State Prison and see if you can help them. C.Clements

Christopher O'Brien said...

If you are so passionate about the pride you have in your job and its importance to our society...well, who am I to argue? Thanks for commenting.

Anonymous said...

I am a physician with education in anthropology and a PhD. I have attended UC Davis, UC San Francisco, and Cornell University. I am at least as qualified for your job as you are for mine, and I object to your verbal abuse of some of the finest people I have ever known. I agree that some of the CO's are young and immature. Some of them may be overly enamored of the financial gain involved, and many of them train for and take positions as CO's because they are underqualified for other, less taxing positions. However the majority of the CO's in Susanville are simply family men and women who are making a living in the way they know how. They are professionals in every sense that you are. They are paid to do a job, and do it well. They do not have college degrees (in some cases). However, they train monthly to maintain skills in dealing with the chaotic situations they are faced with daily. It is not (as you did admit to) the fault of the officers that the system is broken.

Anyone could criticize teachers as venomously as you insult these good people. I raised three boys and during their high school years, I returned more than a few letters to their teachers with my own corrections in red. In more than one case, my sons were more literate than those who were paid to educate them. The majority of those who teach may begin their education and their careers with the highest of stadards and intentions. Most, however, do not continue in that tradition. Most are slovenly people who work for nine months per year and scream that they don't get paid for twelve. They don't maintain an adequate standard in their classrooms or their own education and they pass on this tradition of medciocrity to their students unless the parents of those students intervene.

I agree that the amount of money spent on prisons is shameful. I further agree that more money should be spent on other, more productive problems of our society. I will even further agree that California's treatment of inmates is incorrect in it's very philosophy. The inmates rule the prisons. But this is due to the laws, regulations and policies handed down by a broken and easily bullied government. The inmates have more rights than the free staff in any California prison. This is hardly something to be blamed on the CO's.

If you really want to say something that is worthy of your "education" then try to make a suggestion that will actually make a difference in this state where the people in the south, who live lives of incredible power and wealth with no education (Hollywood, ect.), make unbelievably stupid decisions which control the lives of those of us in the north with no knowledge or understanding of the environment or culture of the towns they control with these lopsided political voting scenarios. Control your arrogance and intellectual snobbery long enough to truly understand the people you insult. I have known many people such as yourself in the academic situations in which I have spent so much time. MD, PhD, PsyD, whatever your doctorate degree may be, it does not equal superiority. I have earned a number of them myself, and do not consider myself superior to anyone except those who would take time to attack those they believe can't defend themselves intellectually or physically. I publish more frequently, work harder and make greater contributions than many of those I studied with. However, most of my friends don't even have a bachelor of science degree. Why? Because the friends I have chosen are the salt of the earth. They are hard working, family oriented people with solid values who would never hurt anyone who didn't threaten the life or well being of their families. Intelligence, and value to society are two very different commodities. Education and genius are not even related.


Tandi said...

I have read all your comments and statements. I will not flash my educational background/qualification as I feel it is irrelevant in the matter at hand.

Instead of looking at the obvious problem at hand, why not try coming up with viable solutions to bring about change in our society. Whereby CO's feel valued as citizens, prisoners are rehabilitated (well atleast partially) and there is equilibrium in terms of pay and job demands. These "criminals" start off with Teachers and end up with CO's - shouldn't there be a collaborative effort between the two parties while the kids are still manageable and not fully fledged criminals.

Its just a thought.

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