Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Hassle in New Castle (Pt. 3)—The Prisoners "Bare" Their Grievances

You hate to say "I told you so!" but such is the case for New Castle Mayor Tom Nipp. His import-inmates-to-Indiana-to-provide-local-jobs idea just went up in smoke (or teargas to be exact), as hundreds of prisoners rioted recently at the town's spanking new correctional facility.

Nipp, you may recall, decided to build a prison in New Castle in an attempt to bring jobs back for many of his townspeople who remained unemployed when Chrysler folded up their parts plant here for greener pastures overseas. And, with the 2,500 capacity prison at half full three years after its completion, Mayor Nipp decided to fill it with some prisoners from Arizona, whose jails had inmates to spare.

Unfortunately, when you're counting on the cooperation of hardened criminals, things rarely go as planned. Shortly after the arrival of the first six hundred transfers, the new guys from Arizona, allegedly upset over the lack of "recreational options" compared to their old haunts, decided to test the waters. The Arizonians took off their shirts in protest, and when ordered to put them back on, refused.

Being unaccustomed with prison customs, I'm not sure what response this scenario called for. Confiscate their shirts as evidence and let them go bare chested to make the bad boys easier to ID? Take off their own shirts and stage a guard/inmate flex-off? Of course my conversations with deceased friend Sam Principato about prisoners' weightlifting habits indicated the inmates would win this event—especially against a group that consisted of few gung-ho macho guards and a lot of former automobile assembly line workers trying to pay their bills. As it turned out, it was none of the above, as the guards, seeing the now emboldened inmates picking up sticks, barricaded themselves in their break room and called 911.

"They had sticks and knives and SHANKS!" said one frightened anonymous New Castle newcomer. Meanwhile, guard Larry Savage, who did allow his name to be used, didn't exactly live up to it, saying, "They started flexing their muscles in an attempt to show they could take over the prison whenever they wanted to ... which is pretty much what they did." In the end, about five hundred prisoners entered into the melee, breaking windows and furniture and setting fire to mattresses before some real guards and riot police arrived on the scene with guns and teargas to bring the situation under control. "The [prison] environment was different than what they were used to," sighed Indiana Dept. of Correction Commissioner J. David Donahue who less than a month ago was reassuring of the New Castle Rotary Club that their prisoners wouldn't actually be "violent." And, at press time, Trina Randall, spokesman for CEO Groups Inc. (the independent management group who took over prison operations in Jan. 2006), was "unsure" if they would comply with the prisoners' recreation requests.

But whether the men get additional video games or gym equipment (hopefully no more dumbbells!) Mayor Nipp is faced with a dilemma. With only two guards and seven inmates hurt in the insurgency (and none seriously), Tom can once again claim he nipped the problem in the bud, but that would be a hollow victory (and pun) indeed. With the next six hundred Arizona prison transfers put on hold, and several hundred of the fracas' worst offenders being sent to a downstate maximum security site (New Castle is a medium security) Nipp's immediate goal for higher New Castle employment has exited the town as well.

It is easy now to draw the obvious conclusions, such as putting a prison in your town is not the answer to economic recovery, in fact, it may be even a worse idea than building a Wal-Mart. And yet, when there are no easy answers, you have to give Nipp credit for at least trying. Is not building a prison with built-in (although admittedly tough) jobs, better than ignoring the unemployment problem and risk having your own destitute citizens become criminals themselves? Perhaps if enough people pray, Mary will appear to a poor but devout New Castle girl and the prison could be converted into hotels to house all the religious pilgrims. 'Til then, we can only hope that the remaining prisoners will keep their shirts on.

Fighting Irish Thomas: Catholicism, Politics, Saints, and Notre Dame

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