As The World Turns

Stephen A. Carter

Every now and again you come across a new word, or at least a reconfigured word, that has some vague familiarity. When I recently toured a youth prison in Belfast, Ireland, I was introduced to “paramountcy.” Good charades word, eh?

Paramountcy is a key part of the strategy for addressing the needs of juvenile offenders in the Northern Ireland prison system — in matters dealing with an offender, concern for the offender’s welfare is paramount. Leave it to the elasticity of the English language to turn paramount into paramountcy.

Nonetheless, lessons were available to be learned from the application; the principal one being that the notion of humane treatment and ultimate resettlement is paramount in every decision that is taken regarding the offender.

Resettlement is another word that may sound a little strange to the American ear, but it essentially means the same as our term “re-entry.” However, as I passed through many young offender and adult house blocks of varying classifications, the one word that was uttered by every prison officer was the attention to matters of humane care and resettlement. The commitment to both was paramount to every decision. What would you say is paramount in our system; better yet, what should be?

Northern Ireland is one of the newest devolved governments in the world. With the historic seating of a popularly elected parliament of Catholics and Protestants in May of this year, soon many decisions that have historically been made in Whitehall will now be transferred to Belfast .

This matters because Americans care about the Irish, since (at least around mid-March) most of us claim a distant tie to the land of light hearts and dark beer. We want peace to last and for people who share last names, neighborhoods, and a zest for life, to equitably govern themselves.

With the historic ties to the United Kingdom , the prison system in North Ireland is heavily influenced by the philosophy, policies, practices and design concepts of the British Prison Service. During the era of “the troubles” (August 1969 to April 1998), the design and management of the UK-styled prisons was further influenced by a need to not only house members of paramilitary organizations, but everyday Protestant and Catholic inmates. During the height of “the troubles,” the U.S. evening news often featured the status of hunger strikers in the Maze prison and worldwide concern for the civil war in Northern Ireland .

With a peace accord signed by the Nationalists (Catholics) and the Unionists (Protestants) in 1998, a pathway towards peace was initiated. Nearly a decade has lapsed since the historic signing, during which time a fair and equitable framework began to evolve for governing the nation of 1.7 million people. What is paramount in the minds of the Northern Ireland citizenry is maintaining peace and working toward prosperity for all. That paramountcy extends throughout the delivery of governmental services, especially to the prison system.

In the last five years, the prison population has increased by 75 percent to 1,500 inmates. A number like this is hardly a blip on our radar of 2.2 million prisoners, but this rate of growth is a major concern for a new government that will soon be responsible for its own destiny.

My involvement came about through a study to benchmark prison operations with other English, Scottish, and U.S. prisons and moderate a series of workshops on the planning for anticipated growth.

After completing the first week of workshops involving more than 60 prison officials, I returned with a few notions about paramountcy.

Adversity Defines Attitudes. A prison system that has historically been defined by a need to maintain separation for political, racial, religious or practical reasons cannot help but impact the attitudes of staff.

To change the notion that separate is equal, a new focus on the paramountcy of successful reintegration of offenders into society is changing the attitudes developed in adversity. A major challenge in the design and future prison operation in Northern Ireland is the elimination of attitudinal barriers that often translate to architectural solutions that, in turn, influence operational decisions and offender behavior.

Values Matter. Shared values matter even more, and the willingness to share is what paramountcy is all about.

I am learning from the Northern Ireland Prison Service that even in times of adversity, a consistent focus on the values that are paramount in the performance of responsibilities will ultimately unify a prison service and guide the search for new solutions. Habits that evolved from years of adversity are difficult to overcome, but an underpinning of the universal responsibility for the humane care and resettlement of offenders has a far greater chance of success than an agenda that is exclusively punitive.

Success Transfers. Thinly veiled in this article is the comparison of Northern Ireland ‘s past to a hopeful future in Iraq . I am not suggesting for a moment that the religious, political, or economic issues are the same, and especially that the methods of incarceration are remotely similar. However, in the height of “the troubles” when for all the world civil war appeared to exist in Belfast , only a few visionaries thought peace was possible. When success is paramount, successful solutions transfer.

Accompanying me in Northern Ireland was Ken McKellar, a recently retired 30-year veteran of the South Carolina Department of Corrections. Rather than spend retirement stalking black bear from his cabin in West Virginia , he elected to join a U.S. Department of Justice team of specialists tasked with assisting Iraqi prison staff to become self-sufficient.

In Northern Ireland , Ken quickly saw the transferability of many ideas from the Prison Service to the Iraqi system that is now defined by the separation of religious factions. Only time will tell whether a culture based on the paramountcy of individual welfare initiated in the prison system can be sustained beyond the walls.

The question remains for the United States : What is paramount in the operation and design of our prisons. The Justice Department released figures earlier this year indicating we now average 932 new inmates arriving at our jails and prisons every week. That is equal to a Northern Ireland prison system every fortnight.

Of paramount importance to every jail and prison throughout the United States is the notion of safety and security for staff and inmates. Beyond that obvious objective, shouldn’t our paramountcy focus less on saving the taxpayer a few coins through the elimination of programs or the overuse of dormitories and far more on the requirements for re-entry or rehabilitation?

Unless I have misread a trend, the United State ‘s interest in re-entry and community-based corrections is on the rise. If this is truly paramount in the care and treatment of offenders from the moment of admission into our jails to the celebration of release, then everything from staff training to management style to housing configurations will come under re-examination. An era of anticipation and imagination waits, indeed?

Stephen A. Carter, AICP, is principal of Carter Goble Lee LLC in Columbia , S.C.

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