Ask the Warden

Correctional News columnist Tony Turpin offers expert advice for the corrections industry based on his more than three decades of experience. Turpin spent 28 years with the Georgia Department of Corrections, beginning as a Corrections Officer in 1980 and finishing as a State Supervisor in 2008. In 2007, Turpin became a founding partner and principal with Detention Management Group, and a principal with Southern and Associates. E-mail questions for “Ask the Warden” to
Q. Increasingly, inmates are found with contraband such as cellular telephones in their cells. How would you deal with this if it were on your watch?

The possession and use of cell phones in correctional facilities has become epidemic. The seriousness of this issue is obvious and as a result, the security of correctional facilities is compromised. As the warden of a facility, all means must be employed to determine the method of introduction. A thorough examination of all activities such as work details, inmate visitation, mailroom procedures and perimeter security must be reviewed for any vulnerability.
Unfortunately, rogue employees are also responsible for the introduction of cell phones and must be dealt with accordingly. The prosecution of employees caught providing cell phones to inmates should be pursued.
The following must occur to curtail this growing problem:
1. An intense review of “shakedown” procedures must be performed to include, but not be limited to, detail gate, detail buses and detail work locations.
2. Perimeter security must be vigilant. The inner property must be searched regularly and most importantly before outside activities such as yard call.
3. Random and scheduled shakedowns must be increased. Listen to the population for possible leads and develop an inmate information network. If top-level administrators are visible inside the facility every day, the level of awareness and job performance of correctional officers will increase.
4. Search procedures for the visitation room often times become lax. The familiarity of regular visitors lull officers into a false sense of security. Close supervision to insure proper procedures are being performed by correctional staff is paramount. Notice to visitors of the certainty of prosecution for the introduction of cell phones must be posted and adhered to.
5. Inform and train employees with regard to the serious consequences of this issue. Keep them aware and obtain “buy-in” with staff that checking employee personal items on a more consistent and frequent basis, especially at employee entrances, is for the safety of everyone.
6. The use of canines trained to detect cell phones is an additional and effective way to find these items. A facility must address the effectiveness of use of canines on a regular basis. Failure to do so will render any success of this measure as temporary.
Q. In what ways do you think modern prison design helps in the operation of a correctional facility?
A. Modern design of a correctional facility has evolved into more efficient use of space and manpower. The days of sprawling campus designs with large spaces for specific activities are less desirable. Administrators struggling with tight construction and staffing budgets have realized that space functionality and inmate flow drive the modern designs. Every square foot has to maximize sight lines and post locations. The use of modern video surveillance encourages both staff and inmates to follow facility procedures. The incorporation of new technology in the modern facility is a plus, however, it is only as effective as the officers walking the floors and manning the control rooms.
Q. What do you think of the case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court involving California and prison overcrowding?
A. The California Department of Corrections faces the most imminent overcrowding dilemma of all states. Issues include inmate management, staffing, overcrowding, gang activity and a bankrupt state budget. My experience with the federal courts leads me to believe the obvious issues involving conditions of confinement, inmate health and life safety — based on established correctional standards — will be mandated. The solution agreed upon will include a blend of categorized releases, use of private facilities, and new construction. Federal monitors, if they are not already, will be assigned to provide reports to the Court. The time-period for compliance will be extended to address the huge financial burden this crisis has caused.
Q. How effective are programs for offenders such as ones that allow them to get their high school diploma, learn gardening, or perform in plays?
A. As a facility administrator, I felt it important to assess the effectiveness of the programs offered to the inmate population. I determined that if a facility provided an environment that allowed inmates meeting classification requirements the privilege of attending [academic and vocational] school, a positive means to manage inmate behavior resulted. Effective programming allows for the involvement of inmates, which in turn reduces idleness. Recalcitrant inmates, who are behavior and/or security risks, cannot be allowed to contaminate programs that are incentives for inmates to follow the rules of a facility. Participation in activities such as drama, book clubs, chess tournaments and intramural sports can be used as a “carrot” if they are legitimate and meaningful.
I realized that at the end of the day, as the Warden, I should encourage an environment that promotes a safe and secure facility using all the tools in the box. The result will be less stress on employees and a better-behaving inmate population. Remember the 20/60/20 rule. Twenty percent of the population will be in some form of trouble. Twenty percent will be following the rules and guidelines. The sixty percent in the middle is the big target to positively motivate toward following the rules and guidelines of the facility.
Q. What measures did you take to reduce recidivism in your facilities?

A. Recidivism is a very complicated issue that involves many determinant factors. Age, education, employability as well as free world environment are significant indicators.
Preparing an inmate for release has to start when they first arrive in prison. Realizing that cognitive restructuring and changing skewed values is almost impossible for every inmate, the environment for change has to exist. Facilities should provide a means or at least not prohibit positive change in the course of confinement. It is sadly apparent that many inmates will not take advantage of educational programs or cognitive based activities, but some will. The basics of work, personal hygiene and the respect for oneself and others are at the core in breaking the cycle to recidivate.