Hard-Cell Tactics

Critics charge that overcrowding and understaffing in the city's prisons puts the lives of inmates and staff at risk.

By Steve Volk
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 3, 2005

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The solution is to talk it out.

"That organization has a fever," says BJ Gallagher, a management consultant and author of several business books. "The high absenteeism is a symptom. They need to perform a diagnostic: 'Tell me what's working. Tell me what isn't working. Tell me where it hurts.'"

As a species, corrections officers often feel disrespected.

The starting salary for an officer hovers just above $30,000. A rookie on the Philadelphia police force earns $37,297.

The disparity makes some sense.

Police officers undergo 32 weeks of training compared to just 10 for an aspiring CO.

Police officers are more visible, showing up on TV news making dramatic arrests or engaging in shootouts. COs work in relative anonymity and make news only when there's a problem, like prisoner abuse or smuggling contraband.

COs avoid wearing their uniforms in public, never knowing when they might run across a former inmate on the street. To increase their anonymity, COs-unlike police officers-sign a form waiving their right to speak to the media. For that reason, active corrections officers are quoted anonymously in this article. (Retired COs are named.)

What COs do have in common with police officers are high rates of stress and suicide. According to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, a corrections officer is almost twice as likely as the average person to suffer from alcoholism, and to face mood and anxiety disorders.

These could be considered legitimate reasons for COs to wonder if they want to show up for work at all. But right now most of the ire seems directed specifically at prison commissioner Leon King.

"I like Leon," says Harry Moore. "I think he's a good man. He's just out of his depth."

Such backhanded compliments are common for King these days. Harry Moore is the brother of union president Donnie Moore and a former warden at Holmesburg, the House of Correction, the Detention Center, Riverside Correctional Facility, Alternative and Special Detention, and PICC. His sentiments are echoed among many officers, retired and current, who believe King is unqualified for his position.

"How are you gonna know how we feel," asks recently retired CO Edward Carter, "when you never worked on the block and had your life on the line constantly?"

"These people," says Burnett Monroe, another retired CO, "have no idea what it's like to work inside the prison."

It's an accusation that understandably rankles King, who took over as prison commissioner in December 2002 after serving eight years as a city attorney representing Philadelphia's prisons.

"You don't need to have been a corrections officer," says King. "You don't need to have walked a block to run the prison system. You need some knowledge of how the operation works, and you need good people around you-and I have that."

King's chief of staff Michael Resnick also represented the prisons as a city attorney. And other cultural concerns loom for King, who told the Philadelphia Gay News he was gay soon after assuming the commissioner's post. "I've never heard a negative thing about it," says King. "[The PGN] asked. I answered. It's a nonissue, and it has nothing to do with the job."

King is at once the city's first openly gay prison commissioner and a man with an ambitious agenda: He wants to make the prison system more visible in the community. He wants the prison system to be guided by current data and performance measures rather than past practice, and he wants to reduce recidivism.

"It's hard for the COs," says King, "to see the same faces keep coming back in here. They start to feel like they aren't doing any good."

Some of the obstacles King faces are particular to his situation. Part of his agenda to make the system more visible includes wearing the commissioner's uniform, complete with the stars and bars appropriate to his rank, even though he never worked as an officer, sergeant, lieutenant, captain or warden. "I want people to see us walk into a room and know there's a prison system here in Philadelphia," says King. "And we are part of the community."

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