Prison myth No. 2:  'You have to be a team player'

By Stan Moody | Jan 13, 2010

As I write this article, it is 9:45 a.m. Christmas Day. I have been a team player in the give and take of gifts and good wishes. The game is over; team members are dispersing. It is time for reflection until the next group meeting in a couple of hours or, in the context of the publishing of this column, perhaps another year.

Who were the great team players in human history?

Certainly not Gandhi, the author of nonviolent protest; not Jesus of Nazareth, who refused a coronation by his followers; not Galileo, who was tried and convicted of heresy against his church for daring to suggest the sun did not revolve around the earth. Nor was Martin Luther a team player. He was tried, convicted and condemned to death (never carried out) for valuing truth over tradition. His namesake, Martin Luther King Jr., was assassinated for daring to challenge long-held traditions of bigotry and hatred covered with a veneer of religious conviction.

There don't seem to be many, if any, team players who have been associated with change, success or victory. An exception is basketball, where kudos are given to the player who passes off rather than takes the low-percentage shot from outside the circle -- provided the team wins, of course. Basketball, however, is a very public game, which distinguishes it from prison.

Maine State Prison is anything but a public game. The taxpayer has every interest in preserving team players at the prison -- staff and prisoners alike. Who wants to be reminded of our failures? Nestled in the midst of 1,100 acres of farmland outside the beaten path of Route 1, the prison is a monument to law and order, housing within its razor-wire barriers 1,000 men serving out their sentences for antisocial behavior -- failing to be team players.

Within its walls, however, is a beehive of activity -- moving paper from one department to another and logging nearly every 15-minute segment of the day. It is the quintessential example of a team committed to a process of tamping down anything that fails to fit comfortably within the boundaries set by 200 years of human warehousing unless mandated to do so by legislation or a court order.

Needless to say, low-percentage shots from outside the circle are systematically blocked at the prison.

Initial interviews of the new warden, Patricia Barnhart of Michigan, have highlighted team building as the strength she brings to the job. In the past, team building from the corrections commissioner on down has placed a premium on the three-monkey defense -- "see no evil; hear no evil; speak no evil."

We can only hope that Warden Barnhart, while working on staff morale, will not become a typical corrections department team player at a time when cracks are beginning to appear in the three-monkey defense.

A long history of team players has held the prison culture to a 19th-century prison model within a 21st-century shell. I am reminded of the history of religious convents, benign on the outside but seething with conflict and denial within.

The death of prisoner Sheldon Weinstein was a watershed moment for team players at the department. Since Weinstein died unattended in solitary confinement four days after an assault, there was no way for team players to circle the wagons. Try as they might, it couldn't be done.

The best they could do was to gently move aside Warden Jeff Merrill, who now serves as a traveling consultant to the department on such matters as energy and prison industries, and discipline fewer than a handful of security people at the bottom of the food chain.

The recent death of prisoner Victor Valdez, while preceded by discomfiting circumstances, was not unattended and therefore falls under efficient team-player dispatch.

As I reflect on these events, even the Attorney General's Office struggles with the team-player syndrome, knowing the minute it gets an indictment against the inmates who assaulted Weinstein, which fails to implicate staff as accessories before or after the fact, it opens a can of worms. That, along with what may prove to be a very public lawsuit by Weinstein's widow, should blow the team cover sky high. Stay tuned.

So what is a team player in a prison? Is it someone who ignores what is wrong in the interest of promoting what he perceives as the greater good? Do chaplains ignore violations of human rights because of the greater good of contributing to the spiritual welfare of prisoners? If so, how are they able to contribute to the greater good at all?

Does the state's Department of Education turn a blind eye to physical abuse by security so long as it is teaching illiterate inmates how to read? Is it about putting window dressing on training programs mandated by the federal government without accountability from those being trained?

So long as team players commit to circling the wagons at every crisis and keeping the media at arm's length, the prison will retain its 19th-century culture in a 21st-century box, regardless of how many tongue-in-cheek memos are sent from the commissioner's office encouraging reporting of human-rights violations.

The Department of Corrections has many capable, devoted and committed employees. It has, however, been muzzled, creating the appearance of teamwork without the innovating tactics of a winning team. Team membership trumps a strategy of success. There is, trapped under the surface, a chafing at the restraint of creativity and reform. It pervades the system and will prevent the department from forging success out of society's failures in its keeping.

Being a team player does indeed require ignoring nonessentials in favor of the greater good. Human rights and dignity, however, are not, as we learned at the Nuremberg Trials, nonessentials. Neither is "greater good" about keeping a lid of secrecy on operations.

Being a team player requires another ingredient -- courage. Courage to offer innovative ideas; courage to speak out against abuse; courage to strive for a system that will not wilt under public scrutiny; courage to turn sound bites into viable programs; courage to admit when you are wrong -- those are just some of the necessary qualities of being a team player.

I wish the new warden well. There are, however, elements of her hiring that show signs of pouring new wine into old wine skins, destined to crack and leak. The question remains: Will she be willing to risk her job in pursuit of what is right?

Stan Moody, former state representative and chaplain at the Maine State Prison, is the author of "Crisis in Evangelical Scholarship" and "McChurched: 300 Million Served and Still Hungry." He currently serves as pastor at the Meeting House Church in Manchester. His Web site is stanmoody.com.

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