Behind Bars: Correcting prisoners' bad behavior requires a positive culture

Monday , May 22, 2017 - 5:00 AM

BRIAN WOOD, Behind Bars columnist

The other day, as soon as I came back from work, an officer’s voice came over the intercom in my cell asking me if I still wanted to move to Ironwood – as per my request. (Ironwood is the name of the new housing unit at the prison in Gunnison).

Upon receiving my affirmation, he told me to roll up my stuff and be ready to leave in an hour. In a small cart, I pushed everything I own the two-thirds of a mile to the new building. When I finally got a look inside, I wondered if I had made a mistake.

The sections are a lot smaller than what I am used to. The building was made to accommodate maximum security inmates but currently is taking inmates under the premise of a privileged section.

 

RELATED: Behind Bars: Give Utah's inmates an opportunity to reform and they'll succeed

The first thing I noticed was that all of the cell doors were open because they’re on a slider system, meaning the control is in the hands of the officers. Open or closed doesn’t really matter much because the front of the cells, doors and walls are made mostly of plexiglass, giving the inhabitants little to no privacy.

The cell is smaller and doesn’t really have a desk, just a stool with some shelves above it. There is no window in the cell, only a fluorescent light that doesn’t turn off; it only dims.

The cell accommodations are Spartan to say the least, and yet I’m really glad to be housed there.

What I couldn’t see as I waited with my meager belongings to be assigned a cell was the positive atmosphere inside the unit. As part of being a privileged section, they have been selective as to who’s eligible to live there.

 

RELATED: Behind Bars: Poor health care in Utah’s prisons makes inmates want to avoid it

Yes, there are some added amenities — the mini-yard with weights and a basketball hoop is what sold me. However, that’s not the best part about living there.

The vibe is so much more positive than anywhere I’ve been during my incarceration. The vast majority of prisoners here have jobs, and none of them have received any “write-ups” (disciplinary action) in the last year. For the most part, these inmates are making the best of their situation.

It’s nice to get a little separation from those with a different agenda.

After a few days of living there, the officer who works in the middle of the section, (a feature unique to Ironwood) asked me how I like living there. That question was a deviation from the dialogue I am used to from officers, but his response, after I told him I liked it, made me realize just how unusual this place is.

 

RELATED: Behind Bars: Just take it away — most decision-making in prison is reactionary

He said, “Well, that’s good to hear. We’re glad to have you.”

That’s when I really started to pay attention. The officers working directly in the section have not only been courteous but also seem to function like a concierge, as opposed to other sections where you try not to bother the officers, and questions or minor concerns are rarely answered or resolved.

As I’ve thought more about the environment that has been set up in Ironwood and the way the officers treat us, it reaffirms my opinion: If the prison system hopes to become a place for corrections, it will need a much more positive culture than what currently exists, and that change needs to start at the top.

The officers have either been hand-picked for this area or coached to treat us differently. It’s probably a little of both. I was worried that having an officer in the section was moving us in the wrong direction because where trust is given, trust is earned.

I’m still not sure if the direct supervision model was adopted for the right reasons, but as long as the officers continue to take this cooperative approach, I see progress.

Brian Wood, formerly of Layton, is an inmate at the Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison. He pleaded guilty to nine felony charges for offenses from 2011 to 2014, including counts of burglary, drug possession and prescription fraud. He could spend up to 35 years in prison, depending on parole hearings.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.

×