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40 years later, the system is not all right

Corrections officer Aldon Wade, left, and Sgt. Bobby Varela, right, escort a prisoner out of one of the cell pods in the new maximum security unit at the South Unit at the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Corrections officer Aldon Wade, left, and Sgt. Bobby Varela, right, escort a prisoner out of one of the cell pods in the new maximum security unit at the South Unit at the Penitentiary of New Mexico near Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Department of Corrections has not learned from the horrific lessons taught by the 1980 riot. Staff shortages, rolling lockdowns, excessive use of solitary confinement and corruption still plague our prison system.

In a recent series of Journal articles, the president of the Correctional Officers’ Union warned that the same issues present before the 1980 riot still exist today. Former Secretary of Corrections Gregg Marcantel summarized the policies of the last 30 years as “containment,” which has encouraged violent social groups – gangs. Marcantel candidly explained that inmates leave the system “more violent than when they entered.”

In disturbing contrast, current Secretary of Corrections Alisha Tafoya Lucero thinks things are fine. When speaking to the Journal she said; “I believe our institutions are safer.” Which institutions is she referring to? Certainly not the ones that house approximately 7,000 humans living in constant fear. Certainly not the facilities that face 26% staff shortages and turnover rates that would cripple a normal business.

During the Jan. 29 Journal/KANW town hall meeting about the riot, the union president said his staff does not feel safe. Tafoya Lucero was asked what she would do if she were given a “magic wand” to make changes in the system. Incredibly, she had no ideas. Instead, she used her allotted debate time to congratulate her staff on the wonderful job they do.

She didn’t address the union president’s concerns about safety or use the “magic wand” she was offered. She didn’t wish for an educational program that could teach prisoners basic life skills or college degrees. She didn’t consider asking for a facility where she could safely house inmates who wished to extricate themselves from gangs or consider asking for a non-profit medical provider to provide adequate care to prisoners and staff alike. She didn’t think to say she needed money to pay for Hepatitis C treatment, a disease that currently infects 45% of the prison population in New Mexico – who, when released, then spread it to the community. She didn’t ask for a more comprehensive staff training program that focuses on rehabilitation techniques and takes two years, like the one Norway has. She could even have waived her wand for a 6-month training program such as the one the Russians use, but instead, she bragged about the 8-week training program New Mexico offers.

She didn’t ask for technology to be introduced into the system, such as electronic medical records or case-management software. She didn’t think about the aging prisons whose maintenance has been ignored from one administration to another, leaving facilities with leaking roofs, mold infestations and sewage back-ups. She didn’t express any need for an independent anti-corruption unit to weed out staff and prisoner misconduct, or any room for civilian oversight to deter human rights violations and to monitor the millions of taxpayer dollars spent every year. She was offered a “magic wand” but did not have the foresight or courage to use it.

The Department of Corrections has failed to understand that regardless of resources, successful prisons work when cooperative relationships are developed between inmates and staff. In the 40 years since the 1980 riot, the relationships in our prisons have been entirely coercive, using punishment and solitary confinement as the primary avenues of communication. The excessive use of solitary confinement has manufactured mental illness and encouraged greater violence, a language gangs know how to exploit. In the absence of positive inmate/staff relationships, the system will never improve even if the state injected it with millions of dollars.

What we need is a Secretary of Corrections who can change the culture in our prisons. Someone who is not satisfied with an antiquated 8-week training program. Someone willing to recognize the problems and address them head-on. We need safer prisons from which inmates return to society less violent than when they went in. What we don’t need is a pep rally from a Corrections secretary in a state of denial.

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