Cleaning up prison system takes more than tooth brush |

Cleaning up prison system takes more than tooth brush

Jeff Ackerman

I heard from a Las Vegas woman last week who seems to know a lot more about the Nevada prison system than I do. That’s probably why she has two MAs and an MS after her name.

She said she’d read my last column, wherein I indicated that Nevada’s correctional officers ought to get paid more than they currently earn, considering the job requires them to tolerate more than government clerks who often earn more.

The woman said she agreed that the correctional officers ought to make more money. In fact, she said “they ought to get professional degrees, earn $50 per hour … learn how to inspire prisoners through their elevated treatment of them.”

She said it works in the military and wondered why prisons can’t be run like that.

I don’t exactly remember getting “elevated treatment” when I was in the military. I do remember being told to stick my face in the mud or face a court martial. I also remember being ordered to scrub the floor with a toothbrush.

In her telephone call to me and her subsequent fax, the woman identified herself as the director for Nevada CURE (Citizens United For Rehabilitation of Errants).

She didn’t say if CURE considers Gerald Gallego, who resides in a Nevada prison for raping and murdering teen girls, an “errant.”

While I’m certain there are many “errants” inside Nevada prisons, I doubt many of them live on Death Row.

In the literature that was faxed, I read that CURE’s goals are to make sure that “prisons are used only for those who absolutely must be incarcerated and that prisoners have the resources they need to turn their lives around.

Sounds reasonable enough to me. I don’t think prison is necessarily the best place for drug addicts or alcoholics. And I suppose budget cuts in mental health spending have added to the overpopulation of our prisons.

And so long as we’ve decided to lock society’s misfits behind bars, we may as well do something to help them return to society in better shape than they left it.

I’m not talking about the kind of shape capable of a 300-pound bench press, either.

The literature points out that CURE is not soft on crime. “Sound reasoning as well as statistics overwhelmingly show that CURE issues reduce crime,” reads the brochure.

The director of Nevada’s CURE chapter wondered if I was serious when I wrote last week that correctional officers must mix with “some of the worst psycho killers on the planet.” She said that kind of statement creates more shame and fear and separation for the prisoners’ families.

I told her I was sorry, but that I meant every word. Correctional officers really do work with some of the worst psycho killers on the planet. Mr. Gallego is one of them and there are probably a couple of dozen like him. There are also some of the worst psycho rapists on the planet inside our prisons, mixed in with some of the worst psycho child abusers on the planet, sprinkled with some of the worst would-be murderers on our planet, if only their victims hadn’t survived.

Yes, I do feel bad for the families of the prisoners. But I feel a lot worse for the families of the victims.

Lots of folks have gotten out of prison. I haven’t heard of a single one leaving a grave.

The CURE director did make some excellent points in both her phone call and fax.

“If Ely prisoners were not warehoused, but able to work and also be busy learning, both prisoners and guards might be able to have more healthy relationships with each other,” she wrote, pointing out that, “an idle mind is the devil’s playground.”

I agree wholeheartedly. Nevada needs to find a way to put the prisoners to better use. You can only make so many license plates.

Seems to me there’s plenty of government land out there in the Silver State (especially around Ely) just waiting for some strong hands to make something of it.

But it’s probably not worth the grief we’d get from the AFL-CIO, ACLU, or SPFTTOTT (Society for Prisoners Forced To Turn Off The Television).

The CURE official wrote that she and her husband had recently visited three British prison systems in the West Indies.

“Imagine this scene,” she wrote. “Twenty-two prisoners with machetes caring for cemetery grounds … watched over by guards there who carry no guns, no shields, no clubs, no pepper spray. I asked about this absence of weapons. The officer replied and laughed, ‘Yes, we have weapons. We have this pen and paper and we have this,’ pointing to his head.”

She said prisoners there live with a purpose. They learn skills like masonry, carpentry and horticulture. One prison receives free seeds and plants from a sponsoring company in Taiwan. Prisoners grow their own fruits and vegetables and sell the remainder to the community. They are paid $5 per day.

It all sounded great and I’m sure most Nevadans would love to see such productivity from our prison system. It’s better than having inmates kill each other in their cells over an orange, as reportedly happened in a Nevada prison recently.

As the woman points out, there are 5 million people in the U.S. under some sort of criminal justice supervision today and billions are being spent each year to support the burgeoning system.

Over the past decade politicians have done their best to out-huff-and-puff one another in their zeal to take full advantage of a society looking to make its streets safe. That same society, however, isn’t as excited about paying more taxes to do so.

In the end, I thanked the woman for her insight and wished her luck in her endeavors to clean up the system.

And in the meantime, I told her, I’ll do what I can to get the correctional officers a well-deserved pay raise.

Jeff Ackerman is publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal.

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