“Put money into people, not prisons.”
Crossett native Richard Walton is the civic engagement coordinator with an Arkansas nonprofit that works to educate, engage, and mobilize voters to shape a better future for our state. But before diving into civic engagement, Rich served as a corrections officer for ten years at the Cummins unit, a state prison that is part of the Arkansas Department of Corrections.
Rich graciously took time to chat with us about his experience as a corrections officer. Our talk covers what Arkansans should know about life inside state prison and how lawmakers can craft policy to keep us safe — not further endanger those in the prison system already putting their lives on the line everyday. Below is an edited excerpt from our conversation.
Q + A with Richard Walton
As a former corrections officer, what do you think about the new state requirement that inmates who commit certain crimes serve 100% of a sentence?
From my experience, I don’t think that’s the route we should go. Requiring 100% time served doesn’t help at all. What reason would an inmate have to try to behave or be rehabilitated?
There are already so many things a person has to do in order to be released early for a sentence. Let’s say an inmate has a 10 year stretch and has to do 100% of that time. Why would that person waste their time listening to anyone? It simply puts prison workers in more danger.
The Governor and some lawmakers also want to build a new prison, but opponents have said the Department of Corrections can’t even properly staff the prisons we have now. Why is that?
It’s a tough profession and a tough environment, including the mental aspect of it. You have to normalize things you wouldn’t be used to normalizing just to work in that environment everyday. And staffing shortages do have an effect on peoples’ safety.
Shortages in staff make it harder to maintain control as an officer, and it presents a more dangerous environment, because officers can’t pay attention to the all the things we need to when we are short handed.
I don’t know why they would want to build a prison if they cannot staff the ones they have now. They should definitely offer higher pay for prison staff. It’s a serious job, and people put their lives on the line to work there. Instead, we should focus on ways to keep people out of prison in the first place — their legislation should address that, not building new prisons.
Arkansas already locks people up for longer and at higher rates than most other states, yet our crime rate hasn’t gone down. How do you feel about that?
I don’t know if rehabilitation for inmates is even the goal of lawmakers? There is so much that goes on in prison… We already have programs — like welding — in place to help with rehabilitation, but I’m not sure more programs will solve the problem of reducing crime. We need to focus on longterm solutions for why crime is so high, and focus on the areas in Arkansas where crime is.
What are some of these things lawmakers should focus on to address crime?
We need to focus on neighborhoods. Again, I don’t think building more prisons is the answer. We can also focus on getting more employees to work in the prison system — and paying them more money.
Another thing: the furthest prisoners can be from their families is 250 miles, which in Arkansas can be a really long distance. I think it would be a help to put people closer to their families. When you don’t have anyone on the outside supporting you, it’s really tough. And those on the outside probably don’t realize that.
As an officer, you’re responsible for 80-160 inmates at a time; you can’t watch everyone at once, and that not only makes the job tough, but it also compromises everyone’s safety.
There are over 7,000 inmates that come through in a 10 year span. Yes, there is crime and some people deserve to be in there. But, we’ve got to figure out what steps we can take to get crime down. And we should figure that out together, as a whole.
So the job causes a lot of stress and trauma?
Yeah, I’m not the same anymore. Sometimes it’s hard to relax, and now, I’m always aware of my surroundings. It has its effects — I don’t want to go too deep into it, but you see stuff you don’t want to see, and it sticks with you.
When I was working as a corrections officer, I wasn’t aware of lawmakers and politicians being the ones making the decisions about my job. I was just happy to make it through the day and make it home safely.
Now that you work in civic engagement and talk with people about why it’s important to vote and be engaged, is it strange to think back to that time when you were unaware of how much power lawmakers have? What’s it like now to see them shaping criminal justice for the better or the worse?
Some folks I talk with now in my job agree that a lot of these state policies do have an affect them. But a lot of people don’t.
I hope this isn’t true, but things may get worse in the prison system going forward, especially if those on the new violent crime list have to serve 100% of their time. And that will change the attitudes of those who work in the prison system. The state is going to take away people’s hope… and people need opportunity and hope to get through.
And the inmates that aren’t in there for violent crime? Those inmates will also be in more danger going forward.
What else do you want Arkansans to know about your experience?
It’s already so hard for people to get out on parole. And time and time again people are denied parole. It’s really very tough to get out early.
Really? Then why are lawmakers saying it’s super easy for state prisoners to get out early? In fact, the Attorney General says serving in state prison is a joke for most offenders.
I don’t know. It’s hard for inmates to get out. They go up for parole but so many know they will get rejected even before they go up.
So it sounds like our state lawmakers aren’t really sure how to fix things. Instead they pass policies that aren’t real solutions for crime — and these new policies make it more dangerous for people that have your old job. Is that accurate or no?
Yeah I agree with that.
We need to get crime down, and we need to focus on communities; that’s a good start. Start with minority communities in the state that don’t get a lot of positive attention. There are plenty of problems in Arkansas that we could work on. Really, we need to put money into people, not prisons.