Experts say culture is often to blame when blockages get out of hand

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Sheriff Ed Gonzalez inherited a mess at Harris County Jail when he took office in 2017. The Houston lockdown was known for a culture of abuse, with beatings, suicides and sexual assaults .

But Gonzalez promised the change. He has put in place new leadership, advocated for the incarceration of fewer people, and launched suicide prevention initiatives.

Yet four years later, in the midst of a historic winter storm and a power outage in February, jailers beat inmate Jaquaree Simmons so severely that the 23-year-old died a day later. Three months later, Gonzalez fired or suspended 17 staff who he said were involved or helped cover him up. (According to union officials, several have since appealed.)

“We have a duty to protect those entrusted to us, and that did not happen that day,” Gonzalez said in May. “It doesn’t reflect the rest of our team.”

But the fact that so many staff have been accused of participating in the fatal prison incident reflects a widespread problem in corrections: It is difficult to change the culture of a prison or prison.

“You can bring in reformers, and they’re looking to turn around and make huge changes,” said Michele Deitch, senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin. “But these changes don’t happen overnight, and cultural changes take time.”

While there are many studies on deaths in custody, there is much less research on identifying and repairing the troubled cultures that can lead to them. In part, that’s because it’s difficult to capture in numbers the attitudes and actions that add to the daily humiliations – and dangers – for those behind bars.

“We shouldn’t be interested in it only when something horrible happens – because it can be predicted if we know more,” said Alison Liebling, a professor at the University of Cambridge who studies prison culture.

Before I became a journalist, I saw firsthand the glaring difference between prison cultures: after being arrested in 2010 for drug trafficking, I was sent to Ithaca prison, New York. It was a small dungeon, and most of the time there were more people than cells, so some of us were sent to neighboring counties with extra jail space.

Neighboring counties were similar in some ways – small, rural prisons just an hour or two apart. But we all dreaded being dispatched, in part because the prisons that usually had space seemed so much harder. The guards were screaming more, hurling sarcastic slurs and seeming too eager to hand out disciplinary offenses. In one county, you had to spend the first two weeks in isolation, and something as trivial as having an extra sweatshirt could send you back for days.

We weren’t surprised when in 2012 the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin published a video of a lieutenant in that same prison brutally beating a man handcuffed to a reservation room bench. The lieutenant was named the state’s Correctional Officer of the Year the next day, but he later resigned, apologized and was sentenced to federal prison. It is not clear if the sheriff commented at the time, and he did not immediately respond to my email this week.

Liebling – who interviewed hundreds of prison guards and administrators – said that one of the keys to preventing culture abuse is paying more attention to staff: Do they hate their jobs? Do they feel safe at work? Are they talking about prisoners as human beings or as objects?

“The question of the red flag is how they talk about prisoners who try to kill themselves,” she said. “If they think prisoners who attempt suicide are manipulative and seek attention, that’s a wake-up call.”

To find out who – besides Gonzalez – is trying to change the culture of prisons, I asked liability experts. They pointed me to county sheriffs who campaigned on progressive promises, like ending prison cooperation with US immigration and customs, allowing in-person visits, and cutting their own budgets.

When former Detective Garry McFadden took over the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office in Charlotte, NC two years ago, he decided to start with small changes.

“I said, I’m going to go in the next 100 days and do some simple things – like change the terminology,” he told me. “Instead of ‘inmate’, change it to ‘resident.’ Instead of “prison”, replace it with “detention center”. I made them change every sign.

McFadden knew he would have to take on more difficult tasks as well, but he was hopeful that a change of language could lead to a broader change of mindset.

A few hundred miles south, Kristin Graziano took over the Charleston County Sheriff’s office in South Carolina last year after running on a promise of culture change. On the first day of his tenure, prison deputies tased a man named Jamal Sutherland, then knelt on his back until his death. Starting with small things didn’t seem like an option.

Graziano instituted a policy of duty to intervene and overhauled the training of jailers. Then, in an effort to win the grassroots, she began to hold regular listening sessions, allowing staff to broadcast frank complaints without their bosses being in the room.

“It’s about building relationships with people who didn’t have a voice before,” she told me. “So I did not see hindsight with [jail] the staff as much because I listen to them.

McFadden and Graziano have both put in place many other reforms and are optimistic their plans are working, but it’s probably too early to tell. As Steve Martin – the federally appointed judicial reviewer for the notoriously violent Rikers Island prison in New York City – explained: Change comes slowly.

“It’s not just a new manager coming in and, boom, he’s firing everyone,” he said. “But if you can get better transparency, then you can get more factions to support the change – like watch committees or even the public.”

Sometimes things come to light through lawsuits – and on Monday, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office was hit with a complaint filed by anonymous prison officers, alleging deteriorating conditions and a dangerous understaffing. The plaintiffs blame not only the sheriff, but also the five elected officials who control the county budget and are accused of not having funded the prison enough to make it safe.

One of those officials called the trial a “political coup”, while Gonzalez issued a statement claiming that the pandemic had placed “unyielding and unprecedented” pressure on the criminal justice system and that everyone involved was agree that “the current trajectory is unsustainable”. But he declined to be interviewed on broader cultural issues for this column, citing his pending confirmation as the new head of ICE – an even larger agency with even more problematic bottlenecks to correct.

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