[Masthead] Fair ~ 38°F  
High: 63°F ~ Low: 41°F
Monday, May 2, 2016

Ross Rambles:Unsporting behavior in prison

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

I was appalled to read in an Associated Press article recently that two Iowa state legislators want to restore the practice of using trained attack dogs to control inmates in state prisons.

Actually, I was appalled to learn that the state had, until last fall, been using attack dogs on "inmates who refuse to leave their cells."

Reportedly, the dogs were used 63 times between March 2005 and March 2006, including five times in which dogs bit inmates. Iowa was one of five states that used attack dogs, discontinuing the practice last fall after Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, issued a report critical of the practice.

I agree with Human Rights Watch. This practice poses an unacceptable risk of serious injury, both to the inmate and to the dog.

Some may think my comments mark me as a bleeding heart who has no concept of what it is like to work in a prison.

Actually, I know exactly what it is like, having worked at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison between July 1980 and Feb. 1983, a time when attack dogs were not used.

An inmate refusing to come out of his cell refers to an inmate scheduled for transfer to the disciplinary cellhouse, cellhouse 20 (I don't know how the cellhouse numbers were derived. There were never 20 cellhouses at Fort Madison). Occasionally, an inmate would refuse to come to the bars to be put into restraints -- cuffs, belly chain and leg shackles, required before transfer to cellhouse 20.

Cellhouse 20 was a place where inmates with less than exemplary behavior were sent for a period of anywhere between a few days and a few months, depending on how unexemplary the behavior was. Cellhouse 20 cells and all other cells at Fort Madison were, and as far as I know, still are, one-man 6 foot by 8 foot cells.

Cellhouse 20 inmates had no yard privileges or work privileges. They ate in their cells. They were not allowed any form of electronic entertainment such as radios, TVs or tape players.

They were escorted in full restraints three times a week to an exercise pen, where they paced back and forth for 10 minutes or so and then were locked in a shower cell and subsequently escorted in full restraints back to their cells.

The only other times disciplinary cellhouse inmates left their cells were to go to the infirmary or to a special area of the visiting room, under tight security in both situations.

Transfers to the disciplinary cellhouse from a general population cellhouse usually occurred toward the end of the 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. shift, after the general population inmates were tucked in for the night and locked in their cells.

Occasionally, an inmate would say, "Heck no! I will not submit to being restrained for transfer to cellhouse 20, gosh darn you!" - or words to that effect. To which the response would be, "Please reconsider your futile resistance to an orderly transfer. We would deeply regret the ensuing unpleasantness should you persist in your defiance." -- or words to that effect.

The procedure of "going in on an inmate" was highly organized, carried out by a five-man shield team. Two correctional officers would handle the two-man Plexiglas shield, two men would be responsible for cuffing the inmate after he was knocked down and one man would have leg shackles. The correctional officers not holding the shield would also carry batons, which is a French word meaning stick but sounds more sophisticated than stick or club.

Sometimes an inmate would spread liquid soap or some other slick substance on the floor but that generally had little effect.

The procedure was no rougher than many sporting events, at least not for the correctional officers. Even for the inmate, the procedure was much like a sporting activity -- like being a quarterback who was sacked, piled on and restrained with cuffs and leg shackles (That last part is currently not allowed under NFL rules).

Occasionally, an inmate refused to go into his cell for evening lockdown or for one of the counts during the day and had to be subdued outside of his cell. This tended to be a less formal procedure, with correctional officers simply taking down an inmate without the use of a shield or batons. This was a less common event than going in on an inmate in his cell.

I was only involved once in an incident of subduing an inmate who refused to go into his cell. I was on a shield team several times going in on an inmate in his cell.

During all of these times, only necessary force was used. The batons were never used to strike an inmate. No serious injury to an inmate or correctional officer occurred during these actions.

Violence initiated by an inmate was a much more serious event, but that is not what the state legislators were referring to in their support of using attack dogs.

When using dogs against inmates, the prison projects an image of barbarity. It is unnecessary and not very sporting.