Falling down

By LANCE TAPLEY  |  November 5, 2008

Stress also causes guards to get tough on themselves and their families, says corrections consultant Richard Lumb, of Wilton. A former college professor and police chief, he says guard stress leads to health problems like smoking and overeating and “aberrant behavior” such as domestic violence.

Stress may be inescapable in a prison, but its level varies from institution to institution. The academic studies note that lots of overtime hours and inadequate pay put guards under special psychological strain. At the Maine State Prison, according to much testimony, including Commissioner Magnusson’s public remarks, guards are not paid well enough for the difficult work they do, and they are worn out by mandatory overtime resulting from staff shortages. The ensuing high guard burnout compounds the staff shortages — a vicious circle that can get literally vicious in a high-security environment with nearly 1000 convicted criminals. Corrections says the guard turnover rate was about 20 percent in 2007, well above the national average of 16 percent, which prison experts consider too high.

A legislative Labor Committee session earlier this year — arranged by Senator Ethan Strimling, a Portland Democrat — opened a window onto the difficult working conditions for prison guards.

Paul Cabral, a steward in the 900-member, statewide union, described the inherently dangerous and taxing nature of the job. Himself a guard at the medium-security Maine Correctional Center in Windham, Cabral described an assault by a 300-pound, six-foot-five boy at the Long Creek Youth Center in South Portland that sent two guards to the hospital. In Maine’s prisons, as in other states, “Officers are assaulted every day,” he said.

In addition, guards risk contracting diseases such as hepatitis, which is not uncommon among prisoners. Nationally, he said, the average lifespan of a correctional officer is 59 years. (Which would be about 20 years off the average lifespan.)

Information given to the committee and gathered in interviews by the Phoenix suggests stress is most acute, compared to other Maine prisons, for the guards at Warren. Former Local 2968 president Scherr, then a guard at the prison (he has since quit in a dispute with prison management), told legislators that the strain on guards was so serious that “Officers on psychotropic medicine and light duty for stress are common.”

In response to the staff shortages, Scherr and others report, the prison has begun to recruit very young guards, including teenagers. Veteran guards are concerned about the young people’s lack of maturity and experience in such a stressful environment.

Roy Hooper, who works in “central control,” the prison-security nerve center, said in an interview, “It’s very difficult for a 19-year-old kid to tell a 50-year-old prisoner serving life what to do.”

Hooper felt the state “needs to step up and provide wages that will draw the proper quality of people,” given all “the hazards and risk and grind of the position.”

Even three years ago, in a memo to prison management when he quit — leaked to the Maine “Supermax Watch” Web site — a guard sergeant, George Mele, saw the staff turnover exacerbated by the hiring of young guards: “Placing an 18-year-old or 19-year-old person in a pod with 64 sentenced criminals is just not conducive to a good retention rate.”

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