Keystone Cops

keystone cops

Corrections Officers (COs) are trained professionals, some with previous military or law enforcement experience, and a minimum of an associate degree from an accredited university. At each prison there is a command structure for custody staff similar to that found in most police departments: Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants, Officers, and Inspectors.  The custody staff reports in a silo to the Warden and Deputy Warden to carry out day-to-day custody operations.  Where ever there are inmates there will be COs watching over them, often times directly, at other times by surveillance camera.  At least that is the theory, however the reality of the situation is not so straight forward.

Officers conduct periodic rounds of their assigned areas to visually monitor inmate activity.  Routine searches are conducted to look for contraband such as weapons, stolen property, alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, tattoo paraphernalia, and everything else forbidden to inmates by policy.  Innates are subject to pat downs in any place at any time at the discretion of the officers.  There is even a quota of random searches intended to make inmates think twice about participating in illegal activity.

Corrections Officers are all part of a union that advertises that theirs is the most dangerous job in Michigan.  They lobby the legislature and administration continuously regarding staffing levels, compensation, prison closures, use of Tasers, prisoner personal clothing, and an endless list of wrongful termination cases to protect their fellow officers.  From my personal observation the majority are overweight, out of shape and aging, especially in Level I.  They sit around in offices, especially second and third shift, doing nothing but talking or surfing the internet.  They don’t enforce the rules consistently and turn a blind eye to theft, illegal activity and bullying.  They show favoritism and will single out inmates, often based on their crime for harassment or worse.

There used to be a position called Regular Unit Officer (RUO) and for each shift there would always be the same officers working in the housing units.  They knew everyone’s names and faces.  They knew who caused trouble, who was troubled, and those who stayed out of trouble. They received higher compensation for the position than COs that worked in other areas.  The position was eliminated a few years back as a cost savings measure.  The COs and their union were not happy about this.  The COs that worked in the housing units tended to have higher seniority and resented the loss of income and position.  Officers can now be assigned to other positions on their shift at will.  The result has been a work slowdown, a form of silent protest.  I watched it happen first hand.

Officers in the housing units still tend to be routinely assigned to the same unit, but they tend to do the bare minimum for their required duties.  It is the younger officers that don’t routinely work in the housing units that are making the big busts, actively shaking bunks and inmates down.  The older officers are too predictable in the timing of their rounds, lax in their searches, and even turn a blind eye to illegal activity.  They spend their time in the office on the internet or phone. Loss of Privilege (LOP) is the restriction of an inmate to his cell or cube as a punishment for some ticketed behavior or activity is not enforced very strictly, to the point that inmates are on the phone or on the yard instead of on their bunks.

Unless you front-off a CO you can get away with almost anything.  Rules enforcement is inconsistent at best.  In an incident in a housing unit where I lived the CO put the following warning message on the board:

”Unless the spud juice stops tickets will be written no questions asked for the following:

  • Use of the bathroom during count time.
  • Going down the hall beyond your cube.
  • Use of the back bathroom, if you lock in the front hall.”

In other words, unless the drinking is brought under control we’ll actually have to do our jobs.  Too bad they didn’t want to enforce the other rules like not cutting hair and no tattooing, since the bathroom is a barber shop/tattoo parlor, in addition to being a brewery.  The CO actually thought that by making these threats that the inmates might either exercise self-control or positive peer pressure to bring the situation under control.  During Emergency Count, two 5-gallon buckets of spud juice were placed in the toilet stalls on the toilet seats, since the COs would never check there.  There are so many issues like this I don’t know where to start.

Sugar is the major ingredient in spud juice so they took it off the commissary, so instead it is stolen out of the kitchen in bulk.  Officers fail to adequately monitor food service worker activity and the inmates are able to walk out with it hidden on their person or pass it off to others during chow.  The 5-gallon plastic buckets are what the laundry soap, bleach, floor wax, and cleaning chemicals come in.  The empties are not secured or rendered unusable and are easily procured by the inmates right in the housing unit. During fermentation the 5-gallon buckets are even vented out the window using plastic tubing to keep the smell down that might give the location away.  Unit officers should be able to smell spud juice if it is in the cubicles since everyone else can.  Brewing debris left in trash bags should also be a giveaway that there is spud juice in the unit.

One time an officer tried to write a ticket for the spud juice she found, the lieutenant made her tear up the ticket and just dump the spud juice down the drain.  It is clear they know what’s going on and intentionally turn a blind eye to it.

The officer station is near the front entrance to the housing unit in the lobby.  This allows them to keep an eye on who is coming and going from the unit.  Only resident inmates are allowed in to unit (except for maintenance workers.)  But with irregulars working in the units who don’t know names and faces the inmates will take advantage of this situation and slip in for various reasons, usually up to no good.  Even with the regular officers there may be times when the front desk is unmanned and people can slip in and out.  One time a group of gang members raided a unit by turning their orange knit caps into ski masks so they wouldn’t be recognized on camera.  They went into a cube and beat a guy up who had done something they didn’t like.  Like a smash and grab, in and out in 60 seconds, and they got away with it.

Televisions are a big-ticket item that cost nearly $200 new for a 13″ model you wouldn’t consider buying on the street.  Nobody takes them home when they parole.  They are sold on the black market.  The prisoner’s ID is engraved by the Property Room before it goes to the owner.  If you are caught with a that has someone else’s number you could get a theft ticket, even if you actually paid the owner for it since there is no legal way to transfer ownership.  So, there is a hustle for guys that can sand off the old number and put a new one on.  While it may pass a casual visual inspection under the low light conditions in the housing unit, the property records are available on the COs computer so they can easily determine whether or not an inmate legally possess that TV.

The officers know that the majority of the TVs in the unit are contraband but unless there is an incident that really pisses them off they will let sleeping dogs lie.  More than a few times I’ve witnessed massive unit wide shake downs during Emergency Count where dozens of TVs are swept up as contraband.  If someone in the unit is tipped off in advance, the TVs will vanish off the shelves to be hidden in lockers or footlockers until the all clear is sounded.

When TVs are confiscated it generally leads to a rash of thefts, as guys who lost theirs will secure another one.  Sometimes the CO will make an announcement warning that the stolen needs to be returned, no questions asked and threaten additional retaliatory measures if not.  The funny thing is, usually the stolen TVs to replace one confiscated ones come from another housing unit and have been transported across the front yard in plain view.  The result is that the COs retaliatory round of contraband confiscation won’t turn up the stolen and only further propagates the problem.  The amazing thing is this happened before flat screen were introduced into prisons.  The old color CRT TVs were about 18-inch cubes.  So how is it that something larger than a breadbox could be carried out of a cube, out of a unit, across the yard, into another unit, and into another cube when all of these are under video surveillance and the supervision of COs?

I would hope that I am not the only one who is sick and tired of COs undermining, thwarting, confounding, ignoring, or otherwise circumventing the purpose of discipline in prison as the primary means of correction through their willful negligence, lax rules enforcement, dysfunctional internal security, and poor job performance.  No wonder prisons are so unsafe, the COs like it that way- job security.


Update to this essay- In the March 16, 2019 Detroit News there was an article regarding the lawsuite brought by the officers regarding the elimination of the Resident Unit Officer (RUO) positions in 2012.  The state Supreme Court declinded to revisit the decision by the Court of Appeals ruling that affirmed the Michigan Civil Service Commission decision authorizing the state to reclassify nearly 2,500 correction works to lower paid jobs.  If it takes nearly 7 years to resolve this dispute imagine how long it takes for those appealing their convictions.

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