Prison myth No. 3: 'Politics is the enemy'

By Stan Moody | Jan 20, 2010

Following my recent column on "Corrections as a growth industry," I received blistering e-mails from an employee at the Maine State Prison.

It is her belief that blind duty is the high road (on which I reportedly bailed by abandoning my post as chaplain), and politics (defined as any kind of public discourse) is the low road.

Here are a few excerpts from her observations:

"Politics and exhibitionism has never been an interest of mine. Notoriety at the expense of others diminishes the originator more than it exemplifies. That which we least want to exalt becomes explicatory (self-evident). If change for others is your goal, then perhaps the fortitude to stick around and extend blessings to all would have worked wonders.

"Platforms, campaigns, public opinion — how superficial; sounds awful!

"It's a wonderful thing to have a soapbox to pontificate from — a cause and campaign. If you desert the trenches, then from whence does your foundation stand? Compassion for everyone — not just a select few.

"If only it were not for those trees, the forest is right in front of you. Respect is earned; not given carte blanche."

Aside from a decided failure of accountability to the taxpayers, these sentiments are very worthy ones but go to the root of systemic problems within the prison systems in our nation. A shroud of secrecy envelops our maximum-security prisons because of people so committed to their personal versions of the greater good that they selectively overlook the very cancer that ultimately destroys their mission.

Is it possible to initiate prison reform without some kind of public scrutiny of what you are attempting to reform? Can it be done merely by "extending blessings to all?" If the greater good is being served, why not let the public know of that good? Can you justify a wall of silence when a few are denied their basic constitutional rights because of arbitrary discipline, bigotry and hate?

It is that very wall of silence that builds a culture of distrust among and between staff and prisoners. Let me give you an example from my experience at Maine State Prison.

An inmate confided in me as chaplain that there were several inmates who were pushing their weight around. I reported the conversation and the names of the people involved but refused to disclose the name of the inmate who confided in me. Logically, I felt if that information were disclosed, he would be targeted as the informant.

There was an official but veiled attempt on the part of the prison's upper management to initiate a disciplinary action against me for failing to disclose my source. The grounds for the action were, to my great surprise, that there is no clergy/client privilege between chaplain and inmate. In fact, I could have been criminally prosecuted by the Attorney General's Office as an accessory after the fact had an assault occurred after my disclosure.

My ace in the hole — one that should now come as a surprise to upper management — was that I had already been given permission by the inmate to disclose his name. I was protecting him out of respect for his safety. Meanwhile, the legs were cut out from my effectiveness as a confidant.

Who would confide in a chaplain who has to reveal his source? The official answer is that this applies only when security is threatened, a rather subjective judgment at best. Suppose a sexually active inmate should confess his guilt to the chaplain? The chaplain is then required to report the confidence and identify the inmate because there is a policy directive from the Department of Corrections calling for a zero tolerance for sex within this high-testosterone, 1,000-man facility.

This kind of policymaking that discourages the flow of information is the centerpiece of a history of violence and abuse within prisons. The greater good is a subjective judgment made by chaplains, educators, librarians, social workers, medical personnel, substance abuse counselors, case workers and others because everybody's sense of the greater good is different. Too often, the greater good gets tangled up with the need for a job, overriding the desire to do the right thing.

In order to protect our own turf, we turn to protecting the turf of other staff members through a shroud of secrecy. Under those conditions, violence and abuse are swept under the rug. So long as there is not an unattended death, the trigger for outside investigation fails to respond.

Bruce Franklin, a John Cotton Dana professor of English and American studies at Rutgers University, recently wrote and published an article titled "The American Prison and the Normalization of Torture."

Dr. Franklin begins that article with the following observations about the public interest:

"The prison has become a central institution in American society, integral to our politics, economy and culture. Between 1976 and 2000, the United States built on average a new prison each week and the number of imprisoned Americans increased tenfold. With a current prison and jail population of over 2 million, America has become the uncontested world leader in incarceration.

"Prison has made the threat of torture part of everyday life for millions of individuals in the United States, especially the 6.9 million currently incarcerated or otherwise under the control of the penal system. More insidiously, our prison system has helped make torture a normal, legitimate, even routine part of American culture."

All this, one could say, is the result of prison employees creating a shroud of secrecy by yielding to their own sense of what is the greater good, a self-righteous exercise at best and complicit to torture and abuse at worst.

In Maine, there are more than 4,000 inmates and nearly 10,000 out there under the probation system, both increasing at the rate of nearly 9 percent a year under a 58 percent recidivism and probation violation rate. At an annual cost of nearly $1,000 for every family in Maine, is it not time that those paying the bill had a look at what they are buying, and that they expect a professional performance across the board?

The answer, of course, is to transfer nonviolent prisoners to home confinement, build a public/private initiative for successful re-entry and open the prison system to public scrutiny. In order to do that, however, prison officials must be held accountable for lip-service and sound bites and must be ready to face up to the attendant job insecurity that is common in business and industry where the rest of us labor.

Let me remind you of some favorite heroes of history who steadfastly refused to ignore abuse in the interest of advancing their own versions of the greater good, beginning, of course, with Jesus Christ, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Those are a few off the top of my head.

More important, however, are those people "in the trenches" who daily put their own job security and social agendas on the line in the interest of doing the right thing rather than the expedient thing, which is, of course, to remain silent and congratulate yourself for your good work.

Stan Moody, former state representative and a former 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.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Jacqueline Weddle | Jan 25, 2010 10:22

Stan, you worked at MSP for less than one year part-time with little to no experience in corrections, leaving due to stress.  Politics isn’t the enemy, Stan; you’re a former legislator whose self-esteem is determined by what your former political colleagues think of you, that’s all.  That’s not bad thing.  If self-esteem wasn’t an issue then why use notoriety as a catalyst?  Certainly with your experience and connections you’d be able to implement change on a far higher plateau than media.  Think of the interviews, Stan—“local minister does good.”  Your humility alone would speak volumes, and that would have a far better return on its investment.  For you & the facility.

If a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it fall, does it make a sound?  If Stan implements change on a legislative level and the public doesn’t know it’s him, does it really count?

I was stabbed, held hostage, and threatened with death.  I was back to work at MSP within 2 weeks.  No one paid me off, threatened me, or otherwise coerced me demanding I had to come back.  I am not scare, frightened, stressed out, or otherwise looking over my shoulder waiting for it to happen again.  That is the nature of my disposition.  I neither explain nor apology for being who I am.  This is, however, a prison.  People don’t get arrested for flunking out of Eagle Scouts.

When a legislative sub-committee did a tour of the facility shortly after this incident I spoke with them briefly about my experience.  You seemed so happy, Stan, like fame by proxy.  Ah, Sweetie, please don’t tell me you’ve been punked out by the librarian!  J



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