OUR VIEW: DOC openness should be applauded

It was the great Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky whose 1862 novel “The House of the Dead” contains the words “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Dostoyevsky may be seen as slightly prejudiced on this matter, if looked at through one lens. On the other hand, prisons are something with which the author was quite familiar. He was arrested in 1849 for merely belonging to a group of literati who discussed books that were banned because they were critical of the Tsar of Russia. That bought him four years in Siberia, and conscription into the Russian military.

We have entered a time when large segments of the masses are highly judgmental of those who might criticize law enforcement personnel. Only criminals, or those who have something to fear from the law, have bad things to say about cops. Statements like that are ubiquitous on Facebook pages in our own community as well as so many others, so much so that they are hardly original.

Jail guards are a special breed of law enforcement people.

We don’t choose here to use the phrase “correctional officers” which is what the people who run the jails and employ the guards prefer, but it’s not out of disrespect. It’s just that despite the attempts by officials in our state and others to correct behavior of offenders, we are not giving them the tools they need to ensure that correction occurs. Louisiana has some very valuable programs. But the state is in such condition now as to make the funding that is necessary elusive. The pervasive mentality that sees criticism of how prisons are managed or pleas for fair treatment of prisoners as anathema or “liberal propaganda” acts as a prophecy rather than just an opinion. We will pay for guards more readily than we do programs. No doubt a referendum on funding the rack versus funding rehabilitation would see the rack win out.

Nonetheless, despite our failings at giving them the tools they need to do the job the lofty title correctional officer imputes, our jail guards work hard. They are in prison every day, shut away, coping with the most difficult people imaginable, with those who are the way they are not just because they are criminally minded, but because of addictions that don’t get effectively treated and illnesses that go untreated, or at least not treated in the way they should be.

It is therefore not just with anger but with sadness that we view an unfortunate story that is in our newspaper today, concerning the alleged beating of a man from Terrebonne Parish, John Harold, and a subsequent alleged cover-up by the guards.

It is a given that these guards – like those they keep watch over – must be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and in this case the guards have not yet been charged. But we also note that the Department of Corrections, seen by many as insular and unaccountable because of crimes committed in the name of the people in the past, has taken the step of dismissing those guards who are accused.

As we must wonder at the root causes of crimes committed by the convicted prisoners these officers guarded, we must wonder after the guards themselves, their welfare and their motivations. How much might the effects of tight budgets and salaries that we would always wish higher if possible, gone to push these officers over the edge, if indeed they are guilty. This is serious food for thought.

At the same time we cannot condemn harshly enough what the Department of Corrections sees as inexcusable behavior in its own words. And if there is a bright spot that emerges through this sad story, it is the open manner in which the DOC has handled things thus far. Ken Pastorick, who handles communications for DOC, provided a detailed account of what his agency knows of this matter thus far. While we understand that Mr. Harold’s family is concerned because certain information was not included, we are thrilled that this much openness exists from an agency that could have given a bare-bones statement with far fewer details, had officials chosen to do so. For this, Commissioner James LeBlanc should be praised. It is a move that Dostoyevsky would certainly never have envisioned in his time, and which we are pleased to see in our own.