c. 1997 Religion News Service
(Samuel K. Atchison is an ordained minister and has worked as a policy analyst and social worker to the homeless. He currently is a prison chaplain in Trenton, N.J.)
UNDATED _ I have an eerie feeling in my bones. It is a sense of uncertainty and anticipation, such as one experiences when encountering the unknown. It is an emotion being felt throughout the New Jersey prison system today (Aug. 4), because a corrections officer is about to be buried.
Officer Fred Baker of Bayside State Prison in Leesburg was stabbed to death last week, the first New Jersey prison guard slain since 1972. Fearing a chain reaction of violence throughout the entire system, Department of Corrections Commissioner William Fauver ordered a lockdown of all prisons in the state.
As a result, all but the most basic prison activities were halted. Inmates were confined to their cells, even for meals. Community volunteers, who provide a large share of the enrichment services available to prisoners, were escorted from the institutions. Recreational, educational and group religious activities were canceled. Counseling from the social work, psychology and chaplaincy departments was made available only on a cell-to-cell basis.
As the head chaplain at Trenton State Prison, my job would normally be to ensure that my staff _ two denominational chaplains and a seminary intern _ remained highly visible to the prison’s 1,700 inmates.
However, due to the summer vacation schedule and the timing of the commissioner’s actions, I found myself the only chaplain available as the drama began to unfold.
As I toured the facility, speaking with inmates and officers alike, I noted two distinct perspectives on the situation.
Among the inmates, particularly the veterans, a sense of resignation _ been there, done that _ prevailed. It was no big deal, they said. A lockdown is a lockdown. Several inmates expressed sympathy, even offering prayers for the slain officer’s family.
However, a few noted that”conditions”within the prison system, particularly tensions between inmates and officers, made such incidents almost inevitable.
The officers, of course, had a different viewpoint. In speaking with them, one knew they felt a significant line had been crossed. Their language put the incident in the realm of a”reality check”and”wake-up call.”A fellow officer _ a 10-year veteran _ had been killed. If it happened to him, it could happen to any of them.
Thus, as I prepare for work this morning, I feel a little uneasy. Officer Baker is to be buried today and the mood in the prison is likely to be somber _ and tense.
Law enforcement personnel from nearly 30 states are expected to attend the funeral. Flags throughout the state are flying at half-mast, and all state prisons are on a reduced schedule.
While the media will likely focus their attention on the grief of Officer Baker’s family and comrades, I am more concerned about the aftermath. The already fragile relationship between inmates and officers will no doubt be strained even further by the events of the day.
After the funeral, some officers, particularly those who are young and impressionable, will return to their facilities determined to take a tougher attitude in their treatment of inmates so as not to become the next victim.
At the same time, some inmates _ already feeling dehumanized by the circumstances and conditions surrounding their incarceration _ may feel threatened by the officers’ new attitude and be tempted to draw a line of resistance in the sand.
The result would be to add fuel to a fire that is already smoldering in many institutions. My prayer on this day, therefore, is that both sides will exercise wisdom. For, as the proverb says,”There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.”
DEA END ATCHISON