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Conditions in super-maximum security prisons tend to foster unusually hostile relations between prisoners and guards. The simple fact that prisoners have been labeled the “worst of the worst” and are subject to extreme controls and have minimal and highly structured interaction with staff encourages correctional officers to view them in a dehumanizing way and to treat them more harshly.

The quality of staff in a super-maximum security facility is, therefore, “the single most important factor in ensuring safe, secure, and humane operations.”43 In addition to personal qualities, it is important that the facility have a diverse workforce with an appropriate racial, ethnic and gender balance. “Racial and ethnic balance is critical in the minimization of anger, creation of perceptions of fairness, providing equity in interpersonal dialogue with under-represented inmate groups in the population, and maintaining cultural sensitivity.”44

The preponderance of inmates at Red Onion are black, and the staff is almost entirely white, drawn from the rural coal-mining area in which the prison is located. Many of the staff have family or community ties with each other. They have had little or no direct contact with blacks before beginning work at Red Onion.

We do not know what selection process or special training the DOC has provided staff at Red Onion. Inmates assert that many of the staff are respectful and professional. But they also describe some officers as determined to show “they can be badder than we are.” These officers are quick to use derogatory terms and slurs, quick to use force, quick to impose their authority unnecessarily and capriciously. One inmate described to HRW the relations between staff and inmates as follows: “The guards are young—for the most part—and possess the mentality of juveniles—as do most of the prisoners—and they are into the macho mentality—as are most of the prisoners. The two do not mix well.”

Tensions and misunderstandings perhaps inevitably arise from a clash of cultures in which both black prisoners and white staff hold misconceptions and believe in caricatures about the other. But in a well-run facility with appropriate staff selection, training and supervision, those tensions can be minimized and kept from escalating into provocation, confrontations and violence. Unfortunately, white and black inmates alike at Red Onion describe an atmosphere of pervasive and blatant racism. Inmates claim that officers routinely use such terms as “boy” and “nigger”. One white inmate told HRW that an officer said to him, with reference to a black inmate with a reputation for sexual misbehavior, “What do you expect from a fucking nigger?” Another white inmate wrote to HRW that he had talked with an officer escorting him about a shooting. He described the officer as “so excited about being able to shoot ‘niggers...’[H]e couldn’t wait to shoot some of them black bastards.” A black inmate wrote HRW the following:

One night...this sergeant on the mid-night shift knocks on my door. He stated that he had found my baby picture, and being that I was locked-up [in segregation unit] and my personal property was badly handled I asked for it. What he revealed was a computer like print out of a doctor holding a black male child by the feet with a very large penis.

Another black inmate wrote to a family member:

The treatment of brothers is inhuman and words alone cannot explain it. Imagine, if you can, creating an atmosphere of so-called criminals (mostly black) who is considered less than human, who has no outside support to hear his cry. Place him in an environment where he is governed by staff (all whites) whose only contact of blacks has been though media propaganda etc.

A third black inmate describes staff-inmate relations as follows:

White guards constantly try to provoke black prisoners into physical altercations by calling them boys, hollering at them to get their attention, pointing the gun at their backs, threatening them. These guards have shot more black prisoners, more warning shots for the least little actions by black prisoners....

43 NIC, Supermax Prisons, p. 16. “[S]taff should possess the characteristics of maturity, intelligence and good judgment, and—at least for custody positions—be physically capable of performing the rigorous duties required of them. They should be even-tempered, consistent, and capable of respecting diversity in the inmate population...a mismatch of skill, experiences, interests, and temperament can negatively impact the operation of the facility and can create a dangerous situation, [and] hinder the adjustment of the inmates to difficult conditions....” Ibid. 44 Ibid., p. 17.

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