Allowing Sets in Cells Brings Calm to Upstate N.Y. Facility : Prison Officials Gain Leverage Through TV Privileges
Violence and intimidation, traditional sources of power behind bars, have declined in a maximum-security prison here since officials began using a simple kind of leverage long known to parents of unruly children: threatening to turn off the TV.
Drug use, too, has lessened among the 800 inmates at Wende Correctional Facility.
“It’s become a very effective sanction,” said prison director Dominic Mantello. “All we have to do is threaten to take it away.”
Two years ago, the Wende inmates voted unanimously to give up their right to receive packages from the outside in exchange for the option to buy personal television sets for their cells.
The program was originally designed to stop most drugs coming into the prison, but authorities quickly noticed another benefit.
Walk Away From Fights
“They know if they act up, they’ll lose their TV privileges,” said Robert McClellen, deputy superintendent for security at Wende. “Now they walk away from most fights and turn their backs on trouble.”
Most state and federal prisons along with local jails have television sets inmates can watch in groups during recreational periods. Some allow inmates to have personal televisions, but few have programs like Wende’s, according to George Kamp, president of the Criminal Justice Institute, a New York-based corrections consulting firm.
In the beginning, Mantello said he was suspicious of the idea, thinking it would be viewed from the outside as “coddling” criminals.
“Let’s face it, these people were sent here to be punished,” he said.
What convinced Mantello was the improvement in security at the prison.
Instead of gathering in unmanageable groups at recreation time, inmates stay in their cells, which is the safest place for them and their guards, he said.
Has Sense of Safety
“I feel safer here than walking the streets in some parts of Buffalo,” Mantello said. The prison is about 30 miles west of Buffalo in the farming town of Alden.
As Mantello walks through the cellblocks, inmates nod and greet him with: “Hello, sir.”
“This is unlike any other max joint,” said an inmate who serves on the Inmate Liaison Committee. “You can walk around without worrying about taking one in the back.
“I know guys who transferred here who give a massive sigh of relief,” said the inmate, who asked not to be identified because he didn’t want to “advertise the fact” that he was behind bars again.
The program was the result of a meeting between state Corrections Commissioner Thomas Coughlin and the members of the inmate committee.
The inmates had suggested the idea, arguing that personal televisions would put an end to the sometimes violent arguments that arise when groups of inmates try to decide what program to watch.
Coughlin agreed, but set two requirements. First, he wanted the inmates to limit their right to receive packages.
Source of Contraband
Packages sent to inmates from family and friends were a major source of contraband. Although packages are searched, officials said some drugs and weapons get through because of ingenious methods of concealment and because so many packages are sent, particularly at holidays.
Coughlin’s second requirement was that prisoners adopt the swap unanimously.
Coughlin put the same proposition to inmates in the state’s 11 other maximum-security prisons, but only Wende approved.
More than 400 inmates have paid $55 for 12-inch, black-and-white sets with headphones from the prison commissary.
Inmates earn the money working in the prison. Top scale is about $1.50 per day.
“I’m not naive enough to think there’s no drugs,” Mantello said. “But the inmates and staff are comfortable with each other. I don’t have inmates ripping each other off for drugs. I have a safer environment.”
An average 58 inmates per 1,000 at the other maximum-security prisons are found in possession of drugs, state figures show. The rate is roughly half that at Wende: 30 per 1,000.
Last year, 23,000 inmates at 43 state prisons facilities underwent random urinalysis testing. Six percent tested positive statewide; only 2% tested positive at Wende.
“It’s totally different from any other facility,” said Deputy Supt. McClellen, who formerly worked at the nearby Attica Correctional Facility, the site of the 1971 riot that killed 43 people.