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Heyl: Wanted: Increase in repeat offenders to keep prison guards on job

| Thursday, June 19, 2014, 10:54 p.m.

Those wedded to the belief that crime doesn't pay obviously never have been employed as a prison guard.

In Pennsylvania, those who earn a paycheck from prison work — from wardens to guards to support staff members who meticulously maintain the barbed wire — should be greatly concerned. Their jobs soon could be in jeopardy.

That's the disturbing implication in a recent report by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments. The center found that Pennsylvania's three-year recidivism rate dropped an alarming 7.1 percent in the past six years.

(“Recidivism” is a fancy word meaning an ex-con's relapse into the incarceration lifestyle. It occurs when criminals treat prison much like an extended-stay Marriott and book repeat visits through accommodating sentencing judges.)

The study failed to indicate why inmates apparently are not deriving the satisfaction they once did from the state's 26 state correctional institutions. Perhaps it's because of the lack of turndown service, inconsistent Wi-Fi accessibility or unwanted advances in the shower.

Whatever the reason, an increasing number of ex-cons prefer to remain in society these days rather than re-up for another stay behind bars. That trend should make the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections' 16,000 employees extremely apprehensive.

Know what their continued employment depends on?

Prisoners.

You can say what you want about their oft-casual disregard for the law, but prisoners are critical to a prison's successful operation. Take them away and you are left with less than luxurious lodging that couldn't compete for paying guests with even the shabbiest Motel 6 — and no need for armed guards.

Corrections department officials surprisingly insist they aren't concerned over the decline in repeat offenders.

“Any decrease is a good decrease,” spokeswoman Sue Bensinger said. “We're going in the right direction.”

Bensinger talked a good game. But evidence exists that corrections officials realize the direction they are headed will take them off a cliff unless they quickly improve their customer service.

On Monday, the department announced that it was tweaking inmate food options. At breakfast, for example, waffles that officials admitted in a release too often turn out “cold, hard or soggy” no longer are offered; neither is bread and toast, which have been replaced with delectable breakfast pastries.

That's a commendable start. But the department's prisons are going to have to do better than menu upgrades if they hope to successfully compete with an ex-con's freedom.

They should follow the model of boutique hotels and begin offering inmates amenities such as romantic cot canopies, down pillows, an honor bar featuring a variety of gourmet snacks, complimentary yoga accessories and premium organic bath soap, shampoo and conditioner.

If corrections officials are going to successfully reverse the declining recidivism rate, these changes can't come soon enough.

The more Spartan the cell, the tougher the sell.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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