Isn't It Time Correction Officers Had Their Own Monument, Too?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

If I were a consultant to the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, which I have never been, I would advise its members to try to get a monument to correction officers somewhere on Beacon Hill. 

The public needs to be reminded of the indispensable role correction officers play in society.

We need also to be reminded that correction officers serve on the front lines of public safety, doing a job as important as a police officer’s and a firefighter’s.

A monument to correction officers at the center of state government would serve those ends.

Standing today on the grounds of the State House, on either side of the building’s Bowdoin Street entrance, are the Massachusetts Law Enforcement Memorial and the Massachusetts Fallen Firefighters Memorial. 

Their beauty, their size and their prominence all proclaim that the people of Massachusetts will never forget those who have given their lives to protect us and will always honor those who continue to risk their lives in these professions.

It’s time we made a similar proclamation about correction officers.

We have no problem thinking and talking about the heroic exploits of police officers and firefighters.  But there’s something about the work of correction officers, and their workplaces, that brings out our squeamish sides. 

We’d rather not think about the people sent to our county houses of correction and state prisons, and the people responsible for keeping them under lock and key.

We’d rather not dwell on the crimes these prisoners committed, as they often involve extreme cruelty and depravity, or on the difficulty and danger of watching over such criminals on a daily basis.

Lots of attention is paid to high-profile crimes and to the trials of criminals who have done awful deeds.  But once the perpetrators are found guilty and locked up, we forget about them.  No one wants to be reminded of the hard work and high cost of keeping them locked up.  No one wants to consider for very long how imperfect our correction system is, and how the system grinds on the mental and physical health of the officers who keep it going so the rest of us can sleep safely in our beds.

On Friday, June 1, the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security conducted an annual program at the State House honoring state and county correction officers for their bravery, dedication and service to the citizens of the Commonwealth, an event known as the Correctional Employees of the Year ceremony.

Among those honored that day in the House chamber were eight officers at the Souza Baranowski Correctional Center in Shirley who had stopped a savage fight between rival gangs one day in early-February, 2011:

Lieutenant Donald Ferrara, Lieutenant Michael Moran, and Correction Officers Steven Mason, Kevin Shepard, Ryan Hills, Richard Barber, Michael Snow and Dustin Belland. 

Each received a Meritorious Recognition award for instantly disregarding his own safety and jumping into the fray.  Unarmed, these guards had to fight the prisoners hand to hand, disarm some of them, and restrain all of them in a matter of minutes.  Most suffered injuries in the process.  They were freely credited on June 1 by state officials with having prevented the fight from escalating into a major disturbance.

I would never take anything away from a police officer or a firefighter.  But should you ever find yourself in that nice park on the Bowdoin Street side of the State House, please ask yourself, “If I had to take one of only three jobs, would I rather be a police officer, a firefighter or a correction officer?”

Anyone who answers that question honestly, I believe, will have to support the idea of a monument to correction officers on Beacon Hill.

Note: The Massachusetts Department of Correction houses more than 11,000 inmates in 18 facilities.

Postscript: On Tuesday, June 26, 2012, the State House News Service published the following item:

DOC STICKS BY STATEMENT ON SHIRLEY PRISON ASSAULT: Patrick administration officials on Tuesday declined to release more information about an assault at a maximum security prison Monday that led to seven correction officers being taken to the hospital.  Noting the incident is under investigation by State Police and the Department of Correction, department spokeswoman Diane Wiffin said an incident report on the assault at the Souza-Baranowski prison in Shirley was not available and suggested that the News Service file a Freedom of Information Act request for the report.  Wiffin read a statement the DOC released Monday describing an emergency response effort launched at 1:30 p.m. Monday after a correction officer was assaulted by an inmate with a weapon in a general population housing unit.  During the response, according to the statement, two other officers were injured while trying to restrain the inmate and help their fellow officer.  Wiffin said the unit was secured two minutes after the emergency response was initiated and that the prison remains in lockdown Tuesday.  While the statement said three officers were injured, it also said seven correction officers were taken to the hospital and six have since been released.  Wiffin declined to say why seven officers visited the hospital.  She said the response to the incident was "quick and very effective."  Souza-Baranowski on June 18 had a prisoner count of 1,385; the facility is designed to host 1,024 prisoners.  12:16 p.m." 

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