Friday, February 04, 2005

Prison Workers Need Safe Workplaces Too

When I was at AFSCME, workplace violence was one of the major issues we dealt with in the health and safety program and one of our major areas of focus was preventing assaults against correctional officers. We even tried to get OSHA to do something about assaults in prisons. Some thought that was kind of dumb; of course correctional officers were vulnerable to assaults -- that was their job after all.

But in addition to running the health and safety program, I was also staff liaison to our correctional affiliates. The dual reponsibilities landed me in quite a few investigations and negotiations over hazardous conditions in prisons. And lo and behold, it turned out that there were a number of ways to make prisons more safe for officers, as well as prisoners. And, unfortunately, there were a number of way to make these institutions much more dangerous than they needed to be. -- sometimes much more dangerous.

Los Angeles County's largest jail is so outdated, understaffed and riddled with security flaws that it jeopardizes the lives of guards and inmates, the county's expert on the jail system concluded in a confidential report recommending that the facility be closed.

Special counsel Merrick Bobb sharply criticized Men's Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles for failing to prevent dangerous inmates from being housed with lower-risk inmates and said the cellblocks' design ensured that any response to an inmate takeover would be extraordinarily bloody.

The 6,338-bed jail, the largest in the country, "is nightmarish to manage" and suffers from "lax supervision and a long-standing jail culture that has shortchanged accountability for inmate safety and security," Bobb said.The Board of Supervisors ordered the report, obtained by The Times, after inmates killed five fellow inmates in county jails between October 2003 and April 2004.

Four of the slayings occurred at Men's Central, one of six jails — housing 18,495 inmates total — that the county operates.

One of the main problems is staffing. The facility has "one of the worst staff-to-inmate ratios in the country. The jail has one staff member for about every 10 inmates, while the national average is one for every 4.3 inmates." The report recommended that the staff ratio be increased to one guard for every four, or at most five, inmates. The facility also houses highly dangerous inmates with lower risk inmates.

But the problems are more basic, which is why the report recommends shutting the place down and building smaller facilities:
Many of the jail's problems stem from its design. Built in two phases during the 1960s and '70s, cells are arranged in long corridors and can only be watched if deputies walk the corridors to peer inside each cell.

More modern jails, like Twin Towers across the street, are built with cells around a control booth that allows deputies to monitor each cell from the booth.

An enormous concrete building, Men's Central is a labyrinth of corridors, rows of cells and metal gates — a maze that only veteran inmates and deputies can easily negotiate. Garbage bags and sheets hang from cell doors, obstructing the view. Shouts, curses and clanging doors echo through the facility, which is penetrated here and there by a few shafts of sunlight.

The jail houses many defendants — including the county's most violent inmates — awaiting resolution of their cases. Currently, 596 are charged with murder or attempted murder.

"This is a one-of-a-kind jail in terms of size and the number of people moving back and forward from court," said Michael Gennaco, head of the county Office of Independent Review, which also monitors the Sheriff's Department for the Board of Supervisors. "It is phenomenal there hasn't been another murder there."
Prisons are one of the many public employee workplaces where you couldn't pay me enough money to work. Yet our society demands that publlic employees do the job -- and they don't exactly make the big bucks to do it.
The County Board of Supervisors say there's no money to demolish the facility and build a new one.

After all, they're just prisoners -- and just "guards."