The New Jersey Tunnel, California’s Water Project, New York Schools and Connecticut

In today’s New York Times David Brooks  writes a piece called  The Paralysis of the State and discusses a process (symptom?) called ‘demosclerosis’. A few of his points:

……..  governments have become entwined in a series of arrangements that drain money from productive uses and direct it toward unproductive ones . . .New Jersey can’t afford to build its tunnel, but benefits packages for the state’s employees are 41 percent more expensive than those offered by the average Fortune 500 company. These benefits costs are rising by 16 percent a year.New York City has to strain to finance its schools but must support 10,000 former cops who have retired before age 50.

California can’t afford new water projects, but state cops often receive 90 percent of their salaries when they retire at 50. The average corrections officer there makes $70,000 a year in base salary and $100,000 with overtime (California spends more on its prison system than on its schools).

This is as true for Connecticut as it is for these other states. I am getting ahead of myself posting this, but with Brown’s article, the last few weeks of Thomas Friedman, and the upcoming election wherein one of Connecticut’s architects over the past 20 years is aiming for a significant upgrade, I feel it’s important to get it out. (Although why I give a damn is an entirely different conversation).

Most people are going to read the above and stammer, “[Wow]*, I can’t believe prison guards make that much.” Some may even – correctly – figure in another 30% (minimum) in benefits and temper their outrage with the impulse to make a quick career change.

However, “These guys are overpaid” is hardly the point,. It is not how much correction officers are paid, it is how many are paid that much. And why.

There’s no rancor here, this is just the way it is – really is, not as reflected in the state’s budget, union negotiations, dry legislative sessions – discovered on a level most people, including those making decisions, will never explore or know.

First, bear with me for a moment: I was in the Federal system for almost three years. At the two major prisons I was in there was one CO on duty in each dorm of 320 inmates. One.

Two were on duty (though rarely seen) in three story, 400 student, education department at Ft. Dix.

Two were on duty in the kitchen at FMC Devens – one to supervise cooking when needed (i.e., never), the other to open the freezer, warehouse, whatever we needed to cook three meals from scratch every day for 1200 inmates. The kitchen/bakery/meat locker/chillers/veggie rooms were the size of the entire dorm areas of the last prison I was in in Connecticut – Willard CI.

Two were on duty in the recreational facility – an indoor, outdoor area about twice the size of Willard – open 14 hours a day to anyone who could walk or wheelchair his way up.

These prisons were open, i.e., inmates could move freely about the grounds without supervision. COs were few and far between. And not needed.

As outlined in an earlier blog, I was dragged back to Connecticut – a mistake rectified by lawsuit – after my Federal sentence ended. I was tossed in Hartford County Jail (The Meadows, quite the misnomer). Everything there is locked down – there is no moving in the hallways without a pass, one has to be called down to medical, the library, etc. The units, even the dorms, are locked down, there are no groups of inmates wandering the premises in any regard.

My first day, I was called down to medical, grabbed my pass, went down two flights of stairs, went through a checkpoint and into a deserted, antiseptic hallway, past another check point, turned into a corridor jammed . . . . with COs. At least 8 sitting on desks, chairs, window sills, talking UConn basketball. Hanging out at $60,000 a year because there was literally nothing for them to do but hang out. This was a constant in the two weeks I was there, hallways filled with disenfranchised COs

It was the same when I was transferred to Willard Correctional in Enfield. This is supposed to be a ‘low security’ facility for those close to getting parole or discharge. It is run as a “medium to high” security facility for one reason and one reason only – to justify jobs.

There is no freedom of movement at Willard whatever – not that there is anywhere to go. And yet, there are COs everywhere — it is no exaggeration to note there were times I went to breakfast (5:20 am) and the COs on duty (most on overtime) outnumbered the inmates in the dining hall. Really.

I could go on at length about the surplus of manpower, but it would quickly become tedious. Suffice to say, there were at least seven-eight times more COs in the ‘low level’ Willard, with its 460 inmates than at FMC Devens with its 1200 or Ft. Dix with its 2800. Just think about that for a moment.

Politicians will spout the last refuge of civil servants (sorry Samuel Johnson and Bob Dylan) protecting their turf and budget: “public safety, and the safety of inmates and prison employees demand it.” That this is a load of bureaucratic doublespeak is self evident only to the people directly involved, i.e., inmates and COs – everyone else thinks prison and conjures Oz, The Shawshank Redemption, The Longest Yard, riots, rape, assaults, shankings, and all manner of mayhem.

This is an utterly unrealistic view of what is really the definition of mindless routine occasionally interspaced with quickly settled ‘incidents’— incidents that those in the front lines, inmates and COs know, with utter certainty, would rarely occur if not for the incompetence and/or neglect of administrators. [If you are reading this and have a strong business background please infer quote marks around words such as “administrator” or anything indicating management, it has no bearing whatever on the real world].

Little things like putting gang members from different gangs in the same housing unit; miscoding an exceptionally violent inmate with a history of assaults as non-violent; much, much more.

And . . . . . . ah, hell, I can’t go on with the pretense of trying to make this even somewhat scholarly and balanced – I made the mistake of googling for the last escape from a Connecticut prison (1994, and it was a jail, not a prison) to make a point about public safety and some of what I ran across made me realize what a miserably impossible task it is to try to put a dent in Brooks’ Paralysis of the State: DOC employee blogs complaining about how hard and vital their jobs are, union rhetoric with no basis in reality, political ass-covering, etc.
It can’t be done, the sense of entitlement that goes hand in hand with state employment is far too insidiously pervasive to hope to change and no politician, anywhere, is going to chance looking soft on crime even when prevention of crime is not the point.

The sick truth is Connecticut’s prison system doesn’t work on any level except as a place of employment for far, far too many whose sole focus is keeping a running tab on how soon they can retire and how little they can get away with doing until then. There is not a Fortune 1000 company in the country that would tolerate any of this from its work force, never mind survive.

Sure, say I’m embittered, say I’m being unfair to my former keepers, say anything you wish, you cannot imagine what goes on ‘in there’ . . . . . no, not the conditions, the unbelievable wastage, petty corruption, outright stealing.

Take, for example, an assault that occurred in the Super-Max prison, Northern. One shackled inmate injured four COs. If the incongruity, if not implicit hyperbole, in that statement is not immediately obvious, dwell on it for a moment. . . . . . . I played a full contact, fairly dangerous sport well into my late 30s and I can attest to the near impossibility of one man, and I played against some giants, injuring four others at once when the others are aware and fit. Also, I have to believe being shackled is a bit of a handicap in any assault.

But I find the report easily believable due to my prison experience – I have seen fights broken up by COs where COs watching from the periphery went out on worker’s comp with back injuries. A women CO went out for two weeks due to the mental trauma of witnessing an assault (no blood, by the way, it was a very efficient one punch semi-knockout, message delivered the assaulter turned himself in to the traumatized CO).

That’s what we are dealing with here. And more. Like the inmates, the COs in every place I went knew I was a (real) attorney and they did what everyone who is in close contact with a lawyer every day does: they asked for my opinion on a million different things and bitched and moaned about a million other.

So, more than most, I am aware of the overtime fights; the worker’s comp lottery; guys getting overtime to sleep through shifts; maintenance supervisors (all work in all prisons is done by inmates, these men are basically in charge of handing out screwdrivers) doing home repairs for lieutenants, wardens; the (many) DOC employees running LLCs on the side – or vice versa, actually; personal vendettas over workplace incidents; lawsuits; and, of course, after the Fed I was an astute – in the manner of not being able to turn away from a car accident – observer of the day to day operations of the DOC . . . . .

. . . . . there’s more, some of it quite unbelievable. The thing is, there is a lot going on in Connecticut prisons and none of it is concerned with doing anything about curtailing future crime. It is all about jobs, keeping a very good thing going, getting paid to work 4 18 hour days a week for $60-75k and retire at a young enough age at a high enough percentage to enjoy a new life.

The job, in Connecticut, is to babysit grown men over-stuffed in a dorm and allowed out to meals three times a day and to the tiny gym or the tiny yard for two hours a day (sometimes). This is dull, has no innate reward, and can, very rarely, be somewhat dangerous, though never deadly. It is no more than that, any ordinary paperwork is purely makework (and blown off by the experienced COs in any event).

If Connecticut jails emptied out tomorrow and there were massive layoffs the golden goose would be cooked and even in a good economy the overwhelming majority of these ‘minders’ would be unemployable. This is certainly known, a source of concern, and a reason for the self replication in the system. (Think this an exaggeration? One of the biggest backers, financially and politically, of California’s 3-Strike rule was the California DOC. Talk about insuring job security).

It certainly could be a (the?) reason Connecticut has nothing to offer inmates – nothing. Oh, the DOC will scream about their programs, screaming will not hide the fact they are a joke. They are in the babysitting business (to be fair, an apt metaphor) any decrease in population means loss of jobs, loss of jobs means loss of union strength, loss of union strength means loss of political clout, loss of political clout means politicians could approach them objectively, approaching the CO’s union objectively means greater cutbacks in jobs and benefits.

My suggestion, in a perfect world: get tougher on career criminals – stop regurgitating them through parole; develop real programs to try to save the guys who want to be saved, and treat the ones whose mental illnesses are the root cause of their incarceration; pay for it by cutting the superfluous DOC and parole jobs.

How to go about weeding out the DOC employees putting it to the state? My (simplified) suggestion: keep those close to retirement – they are universally head and shoulders above the others, they seem to care and they know how to relate (i.e., less problems): as for the rest of the COs, give a series of psych tests and summarily dismiss the psychotics, sadists, psycho-sexual- get-off-on-power freaks. That ought to do it, quickly. That will also dramatically reduce ‘incidents’.

Most of all, for God’s sake, stop letting people professing to be experts on our prisons without benefit of ever having spent significant time in one have anything to do with how they are governed. I include most of the wardens, deputy wardens, and other upper management (see above) here, along with anyone who thinks a tour gives them any insight whatever (tours are still run like the International Red Cross inspections in every WWII prison movie ever made: everything is cleaned, the prisoners are warned before hand to keep quiet, the best food is served, everything goes back to normal as soon as the nice men from Switzerland leave).

Take it for what it’s worth, but until this morass is addressed, Connecticut is going to stay right where it is, no matter who wins what in a few weeks.

* Put your favorite oath here – or email me and I will provide one for you.

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