Letter from MarQui: February 2020

This is the tenth installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.

Two months ago, at Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman), an altercation between two gangs erupted, during which four offenders were killed. This incident, which could rightfully be described as a massacre, made national headlines and left a lot of people wondering just how dangerous America's prisons are? How did the prison staff allow four murders to occur at the institution? And what, if any, security policies are in place to prevent such atrocities? It should come as no surprise that violent conflicts are quite common in prison. However, staff responses to these conflicts are often the difference between them being minor / isolated and them becoming major incidents with serious casualties. What may be surprising is that the dissatisfactory staff response at Parchman, which allowed the incident to escalate to the point of lives being lost, is quite common.

Depending on the security level of the institution, there are policies in place designed to make prisons safer, not only for offenders, but also for staff. These policies dictate operational procedures such as how many officers are to be posted in each building and housing unit at all times, how often the floor officers must "make rounds" through the housing units, whether or not the officers will be armed with weapons, and what types of incidents warrant use of force. There are also protocols for how officers should respond to offender altercations, some of which state that they should immediately radio for back-up, lock down the housing unit where the altercation is occurring, and, if need be, radio for emergency medical assistance. On paper, these security policies should, at the very least, prevent the chance of any offender altercation ending in serious harm or death, and at best, stop violent altercations altogether.

 

However, the effectiveness of those policies is nullified by the staff prisons hire, who, in a lot of instances, are indifferent to offender safety. A good example of this can be seen in another recent inmate killing that happened at a prison in Georgia. After being severely beaten and stabbed by several others, this offender was left crawling around the floor of his housing unit as he bled to death (Details in the news account differ-editor). Several minutes passed with no officers or medical staff arriving to lock down the housing unit or help the inmate. Had they followed the protocols, his life might have been saved.

Throughout my incarceration, I've witnessed several altercations between offenders where the staff did absolutely nothing. Most recently, there was a fight in my housing unit where one offender was swinging a knife at the other. Although the fight lasted about five minutes, the officer in the control booth never saw it, so no backup was called. Luckily, neither of the offenders were seriously injured, and the fight remained isolated. However, not long before that, another fight occurred in the housing unit adjacent to mine, during which members of one gang robbed and assaulted a rival gang member. Again, the entire fight eluded the eyes of the officers, and this offender was beaten so badly, other inmates had to intervene to save him. The lack of awareness of the officers in both situations could very well have cost those inmates their lives.

Even worse are the fights where the officers actually see the altercations, yet still do nothing. A while back, a gang member who had been excommunicated was moved into my housing unit. Two current members of the gang immediately began attacking him in the dayroom. The officers saw the attack, yet instead of following protocol by locking the pod down and radioing for backup, they just stood in the control booth with their arms crossed watching the fight. It was as if they found it entertaining. Just a few weeks ago, as I was returning to my housing unit from the dining hall, another offender was assaulted by two others on the walkway. This attack happened outside in broad daylight with about four officers posted around the walkway, yet none of them moved a muscle to help the offender or even to report the attack. Again, either of these incidents could've ended tragically because of the officers' failure to act.

Staff indifference to safety policies are obviously a major part of the problem; however, a lack of adequate staffing also plays a significant role. Prison operating procedures mandate that each building be staffed with at least one officer in the control booth as well as one officer on the floor to patrol the housing units at all times. There should also be a higher-ranking Sergeant or Lieutenant in each building, "yard officers" to surveil the walkways while offenders are outside the buildings, a Correctional Emergency Response Team (CERT) or Special Response Team (SRT) on standby to handle serious security threats, and a fully staffed medical department in case of medical emergencies. Again, on paper these operational mandates appear to eliminate the chance of offender altercations going unseen or getting out of hand. The problem is that a large number of prisons are understaffed and cannot follow all the security protocols because they just don't have enough personnel to do so. This has been my experience at each of the five institutions in which I've been housed throughout my incarceration.

Maybe budgetary constraints are to blame. Maybe the stigma of this environment causes problems with hiring and retaining staff to work here. Whatever the case, having insufficient (or incompetent) staff significantly compromises offender safety. The solution to minimizing tragedies like what happened in Mississippi and Georgia doesn't lie in more cookie-cutter legislation or security protocols printed in training manuals; it lies in the PEOPLE who are employed here. That's where corrections administrators should start.


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