Saturday, July 12, 2014

Former Correction Officer Calls for End to "Dehumanization" in NJ Prisons

by Milton Conway

I served as a Corrections Officer at Northern State Prison from June 1987 until December 1992. At the time of my hiring, the newly built facility had, as a requirement that Newark resident be given first preference of the jobs as guards and as civilian staff. "Of the 371 people employed, 217 are Newark residents and 26 live in other parts of Essex County." 

See article 

When I initially began working at the facility, there were very few of my family and friends incarcerated, but as the years progressed and the "War on Drugs" was waged, there were far more of those who I knew finding their way into the system and eventually onto my housing unit. I attending Corrections Officer Training Academy (C.O.T.A.) in June-August of 1987. The overall theme of the training was to instill in us that we, custody staff, were responsible for maintaining the security of the facility. As part of the "sensitivity training" that related to the dehumanization process employed within the State's Correctional facilities, the officers were each strip searched, dressed in prisoner jump suits, handcuffed, shackled, locked in cells and ignored by the officers conducting the training. As I went through this process, I couldn't help but feel a sense of loss: loss of the feeling of LOVE within my person and also from those who were serving as my custodians. The training seemed to make it easier to see the convicted felon as much less than human and therefore not worthy of human attention.

Custody staff and their concerns took priority over all other day to day operations within the facility. Social services, religious services, and other activities that would have served as Re-Humanizing elements were ALL suspended if there was a CODE BLUE or anything related to the work of the Custody staff. When a CODE was called, there were officers assigned to a specialized unit who were deployed in riot gear to the location of the disturbance. Most of the officers in this unit would appear to have no issue with cracking a head or two in order to subdue the perpetrators of any infraction that required them to "suit up."

I couldn't help but feel that some of my White colleagues, who were not raised in or around Newark, were a bit too anxious to "suit up" and "crack heads" back then. Most of the supervisory staff (sergeants, lieutenants, and captains) at that time were those who had served in South Jersey facilities and "made rank" by moving up to the newly built Northern State Prison. There was definitely a disconnect in the culture and life experiences of those who were serving as new hires and those who had been working the system's policies for quite a while. Soon, there were many more of my family and friends in the system and this presented many say the least.

One event in particular truly tested my resolve and helped to plant the seed of doubt in my mind regarding my future service as an officer. A cousin of mine was transferred to the housing unit where I was stationed. I worked the 3rd shift, which was the hours between 10:20pm and 6:20am. Now, this particular cousin had a very severe speech impediment which made it difficult for others to understand what he is saying. (my family even gets frustrated as we try to make out what he is saying) On one particular night, I walked the tier to take the count of all of the prisoners so as to deliver said count to Central Control. My cousin, who had been on my tier for about two months prior to this day, was considerably more quiet and subdued that usual so after I finished my count and called it in, I returned to his cell door to speak with him. 

As I approached his window I could see that my normally very animated family member was very lethargic. I asked what was wrong. He raised his head from his mattress and I could see that the left side of his face was very swollen and his left eye was almost hanging out of his face. He stated that "they got me messed up on that Thorazine" and I asked what happened to his face. Due to the speech impediment and the drugs that had been administered to him, it was impossible for me to make out what he was saying. I later inquired with the Central Control Blotter (administrative custody officer) and asked that he check the log book and incident reports to tell me what happened. He shared with me something to the effect that my cousin was found in an area that he did not belong and when questioned became belligerent and the responding officers felt threatened and had to "subdue" him. 

During the majority of my time there I was an ideal officer, with no disciplinary charges for the first 5 years, but in the months following that incident, I received no less than 3 Neglect of Duty and 2 Insubordination charges, all of which evolved because of the way the administration handled my cousins complaint. I challenged my superiors at almost every turn. I felt that the dehumanization of my family member was not going to go unnoticed and that there was something that someone could do about it. I was turned away and told that this was the "way that things are." I agreed, but made up my mind that they should not stay that way. I soon took a leave of absence from State employment and focused on the business that I had started with my younger brother a few months prior. I vowed that i would work to reduce the number of prisons that were needed in the Garden State.

For many years after I left Northern State Prison, I would ask my former colleagues how they could continue serving in a capacity that removes a person's humanity from them. Most would simply state the fact that the criminal did the crime and must pay the time. To which I would retort, "But what about the CORRECTIONS part of it?" "When do they get Re-Humanized?" At that point I got blank stares and the statement that they had to pay their bills. 

As time passed on, I began to see a direct connection between the dehumanization of the incarcerated and the breakdown of the Black Family and the Black community. I soon theorized that when a person is dehumanized they lose the capacity and ability to LOVE themselves. A person in this state has No Esteem, No Pride, No Sense of Self and can easily be trained, ordered and manipulated by others. Thereby making them easier to keep in custody. A human being with LOVE of Self will NOT readily or easily submit to Oppression and will Never Allow themselves to be held in Custody under a system as unjust as the American System of Justice has become over the years.

It is my mission to Re-Humanize The Dehumanized in the State of New Jersey and throughout the country. We must Educate them of their Inner Nobility and challenge them to help us bring the Kingdom of Heaven to this earthly plane. I am a member of the Baha'i Faith and we believe that Justice is our right as given by God. Time is the Divine Reconciler and now is the time for Justice in New Jerusalem (NJ).

I would like to call upon Corrections Officers and others employed in the prison systems to break the silence and expose the ongoing abuses of prisoners.  We can develop ways to provide source protection to get the informaition out.  I would also like to invite Corrections Officers, past and present, to join me in forming Corrections Officers Professionals for Decarceration (COPD) .  Contact me at .

Milton Conway is a founding member of the Committee to Decarcerate the Garden State

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