VIEWPOINTS: A CONVERSATION ABOUT RESPECT WITH MARK FREER AND CHAD PRINCE
As Told to Stacia Ray
Inside Journal asked a retired security director and a former prisoner about the importance of respect behind bars. Here's what they said.
MARK, RETIRED SECURITY DIRECTOR
I spent 34 years in the correctional system at five different prisons. In any prison, respect is what makes the environment tolerable for everyone. It's really a two-way road between inmates and staff.
When there was an issue between [a prisoner] and an authority figure, it was usually due to lack of communication. When I worked with officers, I always told them, "You've got to put yourself in the prisoner's place, and understand the stress they are under."
And I told [prisoners], "Remember that my officers are coming into this whole other world inside this building, but they don't get to leave all their problems behind. Many of them will come in grumpy, tired, or upset." Don't judge people until you have time to get to know what they are like on most of the days they are working.
When there is a conflict, it's good for everyone to take a step back and settle down, then work out the problem instead of getting distracted by anger. It's when the emotion starts rising, and the officer invokes their authority and the [prisoner] rebels against it, that things start to go haywire. If you're having a hard time managing the issue, the officer can say, "Let's talk to my supervisor," or the [prisoner] can say, "Can we have a conversation together with my counselor?" It helps to involve a neutral third party.
Respect is a learning process for everyone in a prison environment. Many people come into prison already having issues with authority. Some of those issues are well-deserved; there are some problems in our society with people abusing authority. That turns people very negative, very fast, at a very young age. But I hope we can get prisoners to stop and realize the whole world is not that way. We can break the cycle and work together as people.
The best way to earn the respect of officers is to understand what they are trying to accomplish by enforcing policies and procedures. Sometimes the rules may seem petty, but you can't take it personally. It might not do any harm if one person gets away with breaking a rule, but if the officer makes an exception for you, he has to make it for everyone else, too. Then we'll all have a real problem.
The job of the COs is to maintain the level of security needed for everyone to live and work in a safe environment. When people give in to negativity, the prison environment becomes like a jungle. No one wants that chaos. But when you show respect, act with integrity, and hold yourself like a man, you make the environment better for everyone. That's the kind of environment where people can make real changes in their lives, so they never have to come back. That's what we all want.
CHAD, FORMER PRISONER
I did my time at Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola or "The Farm." I had to learn how to have the respect of both staff and my fellow inmates to make the most of my sentence.
Having respect for authority in prison isn't about your intentions, although that is important. Other people can't read your mind—they can only observe your words and your actions.
One of the easiest ways to show respect is with your language around officers. "Yes sir, no sir, and right away sir" will go a long way. It’s also best to avoid cussing, complaining, and questioning their authority. Officers are just trying to get through the day the best they can. If your words are respectful and encouraging, it will make their job easier and they'll see you as helpful and compliant. But if you are routinely showing disrespect, you are worsening the environment for others, and you won't give the officers much choice but to exert their authority.
Your actions can also show respect. One of the best things I learned early on was to read the rule book closely—and then follow it. Officers generally won't have sympathy for prisoners who violate a policy or procedure, and then claim they didn't know it was wrong.
How you relate to your fellow [prisoners] will also influence how prison officials view you. If you stay away from negativity, that will help you stay in the staff's good graces. It won't take them long to see you as a helper instead of a troublemaker. Also, do your job well and do'’t act lazy. When they see you being cooperative, respectful, and resolving problems, they'll recognize you as a leader, and you'll have less tension in your day.