Correctional Officer Aaron Scott doesn’t discuss what happens at work with his wife. He doesn’t talk about how he’s routinely surrounded by hundreds of drug dealers, gang members, and professional killers. He doesn’t tell her how these prisoners use weapons made with broken toilet seats, light fixtures, or whatever they could find to stab other inmates and staff members. He doesn’t share the fact that these inmates speak with their family members in code, that threats against staff are constant both inside and outside the prison walls.
“When she asks me how my day was, I’ll tell her my day was fine,” Scott says. “I don’t think correctional officers really want to drag some of the stuff that we do into our family lives.”
What he does at the high-security United States Penitentiary, Canaan, in Pennsylvania, isn’t any nine to five job. At 9 p.m. when most people in this town are spending quality time with their loved ones or trying to wind down before bed, Scott is standing at one end of a housing unit making sure that another officer who’s walking from cell to cell manually locking each cell door is not attacked by prisoners.
Two hours earlier, he patrols the recreational and educational area where hundreds of inmates roam free. The corridor that links these departments is only 300 yards long and 15 feet wide, but as the inmates move around, sometimes it’s impossible for Scott to find his partner even though he’s only 20 feet away. It has crossed his mind that, with the area being so congested and noisy, if he or his partner were ever attacked, it would take several minutes before the other realizes what’s happened.
Scott has been with the Bureau of Prisons for 14 years. Growing up in Thorndale, Pennsylvania, Scott went to East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania where he majored in sociology and minored in criminal justice. After college he worked at a residential treatment facility for kids with mental disorders and abuse victims before joining BOP at low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Milan, Michigan, in 2000. He applied and transferred to a brand new BOP penitentiary at Canaan in 2005.
Canaan employs about 400 employees and is one of the only 11 high-security federal prisons in the country. The massive 14-acre prison complex consists of six two-story housing units, one two-story special housing unit, a Federal Prison Industries factory, a recreation and education corridor, a huge recreation yard, a maintenance building, and seven guard towers. It houses nearly 1,500 of the most dangerous inmates in the country, including leaders of street and prison gangs. When other prisons can’t handle certain inmates, they send them to Canaan’s Special Housing Unit, the prison inside the prison just one step below the Supermax in Colorado.
Canaan has a large number of gang members, including the Mexican Mafia, Aryan Brotherhood, Crips, Bloods, and Sureños. Jesse Con-ui, a New Mexican Mafia assassin, had been locked up there before he brutally killed Correctional Officer Eric Williams in 2013 and was subsequently sent to the Supermax. There also are Al-Qaeda operative Abdul Kadir, who was convicted for his foiled plot to bomb JFK Airport in 2007, and drug lord Juan Ramón Matta-Ballesteros, convicted of kidnapping and murdering a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent.
Many people assume that once these convicted felons are behind bars, they resign themselves to a solitary life in prison. Some prisoners do behave, but some don’t. Those who don’t behave terrorize other prisoners and staff. They try to find ways to carry out crimes both inside and outside the prison. For example, one of the ways that these criminals have been able to get drugs inside the prison is putting them underneath a postage stamp that their family mail to them. Their verbiage that they use in the phone when talking to family members is coded. Some of their letters have to be sent to the FBI to get decoded. Correctional officers also spend a lot of time inspecting light fixtures, toilet bowl seats, beds, lockers, and so on to see if prisoners have been cutting metal or plastic out of these materials to make homemade weapons. It’s an ongoing battle that staff fight to try to figure out what is going on.
“One of the things that people may not understand is that even though these people are criminals and they’ve chosen a life of crime, it doesn’t make them unintelligent,” Scott explains. “Once they get in there, they have to figure out how to keep their criminal enterprises going. It’s not a stupid person that does that.”
At Canaan, Scott comes to work at 1:30 p.m. After receiving an update on inmate location from the day shift, he and another officer monitor the metal detector as 500-600 inmates move to and from housing units to the education and recreation corridor. At 4 p.m., he helps lock inmates in their cells in preparation for inmate counting. At 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. he again supervises hundreds of inmates as they move to and from their cells to the corridor. At 9 p.m., he helps locking inmates in their cells before doing an institutional count again. Throughout the shift, he also patrols the recreation and education corridor and responds to incidents. Because of the sheer number of inmates, his presence doesn’t necessarily create that kind of safety and security required in a high-security prison. When the religious service holds an event attended by 300 inmates, for example, it doesn’t take much for two or five or 10 of them to gang up on him. Yet he’s tasked with protecting other inmates and the chaplain. Or a teacher teaching a class of 30 inmates. Or a library employee supervising 60 inmates. Since the start of the new year, there have been more incident reports from Canaan than from any other prison in the country – 11 incidents were reported with one involving 30 inmates fighting with weapons in a housing unit.
Scott’s 2-10 p.m. shift has the least amount of staff while the inmates are not locked in their cells. Even though Canaan is a high-security prison, inmates are outside of their cells most of the time between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. They either work, watch TV, play sports, hang out, or are in different programs. Seven hundred inmates roam free in the rec yard where they play basketball, soccer, softball – all the while being supervised by one recreational specialist.
Besides corridor officers like Scott, there are housing unit officers who monitor inmate activities. They walk around to make sure inmates are not doing anything illegal like making alcohol, tattooing, or making weapons. They monitor a metal detector to make sure metal objects and weapons don’t go out to the recreational area. They conduct pat-down searches and breathalyze prisoners to check for alcohol.
Then there are compound unit officers who are in charge of dictating the pace of the prison. They’re the ones who know what’s going on overall, if someone’s being sent to a special housing unit for breaking the rules, for example. They also call the movement on the yard, doing pat-downs, and directing inmates.
As most staff go home after 4 p.m., evening shifts are the most dangerous. The death of Scott’s colleague, Officer Eric Williams who had been stabbed 129 times, proved how bad it could get. Williams, armed only with a radio, handcuffs, and a set of keys, worked the 4p.m.-midnight shift and was manually locking cell doors by himself when he was attacked. Until 2005, two correctional officers per housing unit had been standard, but then BOP eliminated 2,300 positions and reduced the staffing ratio to one officer per cellblock to save money. That changed after Williams’ death, thanks to the demands by their union, AFGE. A second officer has been added and pepper spray is provided to certain posts at Canaan.
But that doesn’t mean Scott can let his guard down. Because staff is significantly outnumbered by inmates, he is on high alert most of the time. “You’ll be next” is the threat officers hear constantly from prisoners referring to what happened to Officer Williams.
“Imagine having a job where you think about things like keeping your mouth and teeth closed so if you get punched in the mouth, you’re less likely to get knocked out or broken teeth or bite off a piece of your own tongue,” he notes.
It’s not a secret that the Bureau of Prisons has been underfunded and understaffed for years. Only 25,000 inmates were confined in the system in 1980, compared to nearly 219,000 prison today. The explosion in the inmate population is the direct result of Congress approving stricter anti-drug enforcement laws with mandatory minimum sentences in the 1980s. Half of the 219,000 inmates in BOP prisons are serving sentences for drug-related offenses.
Even though the inmate population has skyrocketed, the number of federal correctional workers hasn’t kept up. The BOP system is staffed at about an 89% level, compared to 95% in the mid-1990s. This 89% staffing level is below the 90% that BOP believes to be the minimum staffing level for maintaining the safety and security of BOP prisons. The BOP prison system is also overcrowded. For high-security prisons like Canaan, overcrowding is at a whopping 54%.
What does understaffing mean to each facility and employees working in it? It means that at Canaan, only two of the seven guard towers are manned. BOP relies heavily on electric fences that don’t have eyes and can’t make phone calls when fights erupt or officers are attacked. Canaan has never operated fully staffed. In custody alone, they’re down 17 officers. Food service and education are three employees short each. Education, recreation, counseling, case management, the medical department, and other functions are also understaffed. The officer-inmate ratio at this massive complex is one to 200.
Then there are attempts to take away the Federal Prison Industries inmate work program that has been instrumental in reducing prison violence. Known as UNICOR, the program manufactures products such as furniture, clothing, electronics and machine parts, and sells them to federal agencies. According to research, it has done its job. Compared to prisoners who don’t participate in the program, those who do are less likely to commit crime while in prison, are more likely to find jobs after release, and less likely to return to prison. But over the years, Congress came up with rules and laws restricting UNICOR’s operations, claiming that the program was unfairly competing with private businesses as federal agencies were required to purchase products it manufactured. The mandatory source designation was eventually ended. Citing cost control, BOP also has closed 26 UNICOR factories and downsized seven others since 2009. It has plans to either close or downsize 12 more.
“People outside should understand that although you may not agree with all of the programs, we need these programs and we need things that these inmates can do so they don’t focus on bringing in drugs and making weapons,” Scott argues. “Left to their own devices, they’ll revert back to their criminal activities.”
But prisons won’t be any safer without tools that allow employees to protect themselves. AFGE had for years asked BOP to provide officers with pepper spray. The agency had been reluctant and opted to create a pilot project in 2012 that allowed officers at seven penitentiaries to carry it. The death of Officer Eric Williams a year later prompted the agency to expand the program to include all high-security prisons, including Canaan.
As assaults on staff don’t occur only at high-security prisons, AFGE is asking that pepper spray be provided to officers at every BOP prison and to all staff because other employees such as cafeteria workers, medical personnel, recreational specialists, counselors, and case managers also interact with inmates and are routinely surrounded by dozens or even hundreds of them at a time. A month before Officer Williams was killed, for example, a food service worker who was working a night shift was stabbed in the face several times by an inmate. He didn’t have pepper spray then; he doesn’t have it now. BOP is more concerned about the misuse of pepper spray even though in the entire year they have had it, there has not been one single allegation or disciplinary action for misuse of pepper spray. As much as we want to ensure safety and security of prisoners, the agency cannot have staff and other inmates being targeted for assaults and murders.
But one of the hardest challenges proves to be one that’s largely overlooked when people talk about BOP issues: how to effectively communicate with prisoners. Most of these inmates are simply not used to being told what to do. A single command – a search of cells for suspected weapons, for example – could be taken as disrespect, which could get the officer beaten or even killed. If they think an officer looks at them the wrong way, that too could get him in trouble. Even though new officers are sent to familiarization training for three weeks, most of the communication skills are learned on the job.
“Until you’re face to face with an angry inmate over something that you have no control over, there’s no way to teach it,” Scott says.
Another challenge that officers have to deal with on a daily basis is safety outside the prison walls. BOP tries to keep inmates closer to their families to help calm them down, but that could produce an unintended effect. Inmates know where officers eat or shop, where their wives go to work, where their kids go to school. Officers may be walking down the street and someone aims a container of feces or even a gun at them. That’s what happened to Officer Osvaldo Albarati who was gunned down by a drive-by shooter while leaving work at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico. All indications are that his murder was a result of his investigations into cell phone smuggling at the prison.
Just like when soldiers go to war, correctional officers heavily rely on each other, only more so because their war continues daily. They risk their lives and watch each other’s back. Lately Scott has become more active in the union. He says it gives him satisfaction that he’s getting the things that they need and that he’s helping his co-workers other than just running to a body alarm. It’s that sense of camaraderie that gets him going and what he likes most about his job.
As his “office” is possibly one of the most dangerous buildings in the country, we ask him what is considered a good day at Canaan.
“A good day is when you don’t have to break up inmate fights, and everybody goes home to their loved ones at the end of the night. That’s a good day.”