The Management of Inmates: How to Avoid a Prison Break

MT. OLIVE, W. Va. — In September, there was an attempted jailbreak from the Mount Olive Correctional Complex in West Virginia. In this interview, Jennifer Ballard, director of programs, West Virginia Division of Corrections, highlights the challenges of managing the volume of prisoners in correctional facilities.

“Even though there were rules in place, staff had become complacent and weren’t doing the security checks that needed to be done,” she said. Read on to learn more about the issues within prisons, and an evaluation of the effectiveness of ‘segregation’ of inmates.

Q: Tell us about your history within corrections.

Ballard: I have been with the West Virginia Division of Corrections for a little over 18 years. I started out as a correctional officer at the West Virginia Penitentiary, which was court-ordered closed in 1995, and relocated about four hours away in the more southern part of the state, which is now called the Mount Olive Correctional Complex. While I was at Mount Olive Correctional Complex I served in the roles of correctional counselor, correctional case manager, institutional training officer, director of classification, and associate warden of programs, until I left and did a year and a half with our regional jail authority as director of programs. Then I came back to the Division of Corrections in November of 2007, and now work as the director of programs for the West Virginia Division of Corrections.

As you’re aware, there was an attempted jailbreak at the Mount Olive Complex. Three inmates tried to use dummies in their cells to fool correctional officers. Commissioner Jim Rubenstein, of the West Virginia Department of Corrections, admitted that there might have been some human error on the part of the facility.

Q: What do you think this example highlights about the challenges of managing the volume of prisoners in correctional facilities?

Ballard: Once there was a review of what had occurred there were some pretty amazing things that staff had done to stop this from occurring, but there was also some staff complacency that caused the issue to arise.

What happens when you’re dealing with mostly long-term offenders, are large amounts of prisoners (almost 1,100 long-term offenders) so ‘volume’ is always an issue. Then there is the fact that your staff and inmates work with each other for long periods of time because over half of the population at the long-term facilities — are there for the rest of their lives. So staff and inmates know each other very well and what tends to happen is that your inmates get into a routine, some of your staff gets used to them and not do not realize that the offender, that whole time, is processing a way of possibly escaping.

What we had in this situation was a staff member who, even though there were rules in place, had become complacent and wasn’t doing the security checks that needed to be done. It happened to be in the library, where the offender worked, so he was coming and going — even when he wasn’t scheduled to work. He was able to hide some things in the area and had gotten a couple of inmates to join in at the last moment. It took him two years to come up with this plan. The offender had even done some time in the segregation unit, to see that perspective of the prison and the secure perimeter. He was able to nearly make it out of the facility.

The librarian was a tenured employee who became complacent. She got used to her surroundings, nothing was happening on a regular basis so her guard was down. If by chance a correctional officer had not seen the inmates hiding after hours, it may have ended tragically.

So you had some officers that weren’t adhering to policy with counting prisoners. They just saw what appeared to be people in bed. You’ll see the pictures, very human like dummies, so the officer wasn’t ‘counting the flesh’— wasn’t having them stand out of the bunk — and thank goodness things happened the way they did and we were able to stop them before they made their escape. So as mentioned, staff complacency was the victim here.

Q: Highlight the main challenges of moving inmates throughout the prison. Staff complacency comes into it, as you mentioned, but how can staff assure that everyone is safe during this process and how important is that?

Ballard: I think the key to any safe movement throughout a facility is having a seamless security system. There are four components to that — the first is having the security information systems in place, what I mean by that, is having your information readily available to your staff. Having a computer system where you can pull up the information you need on the offender — things such as photos, disciplinary, tattoos, time and crime, and classification risk; personal information such as eye color, height, and weight. Knowing victims’ names, family members, and previous addresses — knowing information on the offender and having it available to your staff I think is very important for movement.

The physical plant is also very important. When I worked at the penitentiary in the early 1990s it was an old-tier system. It was set up in a way that I don’t think provided safety for the staff. The newer facility breaks the populations down into different housing units, so it helps provide security and safety, just by its physical layout. We have some facilities that still have dorms and as our population increases we’re putting higher-level risk offenders in these dorms. That alone causes issues with movement, so ‘physical plant’ is very important.

Another key piece is the classification of the offender. Corrections is nothing like the jails, to say, I can put high-level offenders at this facility, medium at this facility, low at this facility. Of course that’s going to differ, whatever facility you’re at. If you’re at a maximum-security facility you’re going to know the offender you’re managing needs to be there, so you take the extra precautions necessary because of the level of risk the offender has on you.

If you’re at a medium or a low facility you know those offenders, for the most part, have a history of violence, escaping or causing harm. Classification is key in terms of knowing where your offenders are, and then based upon where they are, what kind of security procedures need to be in place when you’re moving that offender from place to place.

The other piece that’s very important is the human resources piece, because recruitment and hiring qualified employees is a constant challenge for any division of corrections throughout the state. Any state. Then being able to retain those qualified staff. Once you have them make sure you do initial training — and we have a very good corrections academy in the state of West Virginia, I’m very proud of it — and then doing annual trainings; keeping the skill level where it needs to be to manage those offenders.

Q: Have lessons been learned as to the effectiveness of solitary confinement or the segregation of prisoners to ensure safety?

Ballard: Absolutely. Years ago when I was director of classification at a maximum-security prison, part of my responsibility was to meet with the administrative segregation offenders on a monthly basis, because our policy indicated that there wasn’t a limit on the amount of punitive segmentation time that you could give an offender.

If an offender had a really bad day, and assaulted people, you could stack punitive segregation time. Basically, you could have an offender in punitive segregation for years. Many times once the offender got into segregation and litigation would start.

Was this amount of time given to the offender excessive? Is there too much punitive time given based on the incident that occurred? After the offender would do X amount of punitive time, then an administrative segregation committee would review it to see if maybe the warden would want them to stay back a little bit longer based upon their security issues. We were constantly in court.

We had an assistant commissioner at the time that said, “I want to do something different. I want there to be criteria that the offender has to go through, instead of the decision being on us.” So we went to NIC [National Institute of Corrections] to see what Colorado was doing with their high-risk non-offenders, and we came back and totally re-vamped the way we handle our punitive segregation in our administrative long-term segregation offenders.

We went through our disciplinary procedures and reduced the amount of punitive given to 60 days. That was a shock to our tenured employees, because they felt as if the offender would become more violent because he knew that 60 days was as much punitive that could be given. The commissioner went forward and we trained our staff on what we called quality-of-life program, whereby after 60 days the offender is reviewed by a committee and either placed in administrative segregation or released. Once an offender is in that administrative-segregation process, the responsibility falls on him. It takes approximately 18 months to work through the program, and they have to earn their way through it. They have to show appropriate social behavior, they have to communicate appropriately to the staff that come into the unit, such as nurses, education staff, plus the staff in there. A chronological log is written on the offender’s behavior, and the offender can get in trouble and have sanctions immediately brought upon him for inappropriate behavior. For instance, if a nurse came in and an inmate is inappropriate with her an instant report had to be written, a violation report had to be written, a court date had to be figured out on a hearing date, and maybe two weeks after that the offender would get something taken away because of the action.

The way it is now, if a nurse is the victim of inappropriate behavior, the captain of the unit is notified and a sanction can immediately take place. That offender can immediately lose something, whether he’s earned a radio, extra visitation or whatever. The captain of that unit can take it away immediately.

Also, if they don’t do the work assignments of the programming assignments they don’t advance. So when we go to court with these offenders now, the judges say, “Well you know what you need to do to get out of this program. So why aren’t you doing it?” Instead of them, looking at us, and saying: “So what do you look at to get this offender back into main population?”

So our lesson was that more punitive time is not better. Having the offender work their way through the program is better for the State of West Virginia. We get less litigation and more compliance from the offenders because of the way we changed our long-term segregation process.

Q: What other challenges do you face in terms of programs in the prisons and what keeps you up at night?

Ballard: West Virginia has been blessed as far as economy. We have not seen things other states have seen as far as state budgets. A challenge that we do see is finding those budget dollars for the programming aspect that takes place inside of the prisons. Keeping qualified staff — it seems as if the State of West Virginia has a lot of federal prisons, which pay much more than the state prison system. So it seems as if we get qualified people, that are qualified facilitators for programs, and they move on to a more high-paying job.

Due to other staff shortages sometimes staff are pulled in other directions. So the biggest challenge is having qualified staff and having time set-aside for these offenders for programming.