IT IS A sad fact of life in America's prisons that inmate disturbances happen from time to time. Too many angry men confined behind bars for years on end, with little to do. Add in a few vocal trouble-makers and the stage is set for violent outbreaks.
Such was the case this week when trouble broke out at the Maryland House of Correction Annex -- where the state now keeps most of its maximum-security offenders. Any minor incident can be used as an excuse to start a ruckus. This time, it led to 16 injured officers and the use of tear gas and pepper spray by a beefed-up security force.
Nearly two-thirds of the 1,800 inmates in the annex are "lifers." They have nothing to lose by acting out. Besides, there is little for them to do all day. They are being warehoused.
That makes this annex a powder keg. Corrections officers put their lives on the line every time they go on duty. They deserve greater public respect and appreciation for the dangerous jobs they perform. And yet their salaries remain extremely modest and their union leaders complain of inadequate training. Both deficiencies ought to be addressed.
As for the maximum-security inmates, they pose a dilemma. Unlike most of the 25,000 state prisoners, "lifers" are not prime candidates for training programs. Priority for these time-filling slots go to inmates nearing the end of their sentences, who need work and education skills to get jobs when they leave prison.
State officials ought to use these disturbances to re-examine their policies toward inmate idleness. Finding ways to keep maximum-security inmates busy would greatly reduce the likelihood of trouble. It would make the annex a less dangerous place for guards.
At the same time, officials should re-think their warehousing policy. There is little education or training in the state prison system. That's the way the politicians, and the public, like it. Yet it is counter-productive. Ninety-five percent of inmates will leave prison some day. Unless they have job skills and learning, they probably will end up back in prison.
"Work is the best management tool wardens ever see," said a South Carolina prison official. A study of Ohio inmates showed that recidivism rates dropped 50 percent among those working at high-skilled jobs in prison programs.
If we want to make a dent in the crime rate, officials should support more work and training programs for prison inmates. It's both a matter of safety and a matter of common sense.
Pub Date: 5/10/97