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To Reform Prison System, Corrections Officer Put Himself In Solitary Confinement


Season 2 of the A&E series "Behind Bars" began last week. This time, we get a look at the challenges corrections officers face policing a prison that has the dubious distinction of being the site of the bloodiest prison riot in American history.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's most dangerous spot. Real - here amongst real killers - you know what I'm saying? Psychos.

MARTIN: It's the Penitentiary of New Mexico. And the man in charge is the secretary of corrections in that state, Gregg Marcantel. He's a Marine Corps veteran and a 30-year beat cop, but is fast becoming known and respected for his unorthodox approach towards reforming the state's prison system. Secretary Marcantel, thank you so much for being with us.

GREGG MARCANTEL: Thank you for having me. What a blessing to be here.

MARTIN: How do you feel about the notoriety that comes from a TV show like this? Because they're clearly looking for a dramatic story. They have picked your prisons because it's dangerous. Is that the kind of publicity that is complicated in some ways?

MARCANTEL: You know, the reality is - and you mentioned it in the introduction - is that over 30-some-odd years ago, we had what still stands as one of the most bloodiest prison riot in American history. We wanted to make sure that never happened again. But what can happen if you're not careful is that your single view of success can be avoiding another riot. And your expectations of inmates can, over the decades, be simply that you expect them to behave a certain way. You expect them to be violent.

Part of what I think you have to do to reform what we do behind prison walls is have the courage to set new expectations and hold those inmates accountable for pro-social prison environments instead of pro-criminal environments. The people that are placed in our prisons are going to return to our communities. They're going to join us in the grocery lines, with our families in the movie lines. They're either going to come back better or worse.

MARTIN: So how do you go about getting your hands around that problem? I mean, people have been talking about this for generations, the need to come up with different programs to rehabilitate inmates and to reduce the recidivism rate. What are you doing that's different?

MARCANTEL: There were some inmates that have got some very troubled, very violent histories, so the change had to be more baby steps. And so we designed a cognitive behavioral course. And the idea was - is that if you complete this, we will then let you take the next small step. So as we move forward, these folks graduated into a purposefully designed cake decorating course. So now we have guys that are so tattooed on their face some of them you can't even see much of their real face, and they're now working together decorating cakes. You know, there's progress. What we've got to do is we've got to embrace the reality that is our responsibility to create atmosphere and create circumstances for people to make choices.

MARTIN: I read that you decided to put yourself in solitary confinement. What was it like?

MARCANTEL: I started off sort of from the posture of what it looks like for those people that we can't put them into general population 'cause they're too dangerous. But they still get rights. I had an iPod to listen to. I had all of those things. So - and then halfway into it, I wanted to be transitioned into a disciplinary setting that is part of a behavior modification plan. And I was reduced to a pen, paper and a bible. Even within the short span of three days, I began to run out of things to think about and I then began counting cracks on the wall (laughter). You know, your mind goes everywhere. I'm not going to claim that three days in an environment like that taught me the whole world, but it got me up close and personal and allowed me to make better judgments from a policy perspective.

MARTIN: A big part of your job is thinking about how corrections officers do the work that they do. It's stressful. In the first episode of the A&E show, we hear from a young correctional officer named D'Angelo, and this is moments after he's gotten into a fight with an inmate. We've got that clip. Let's hear that now.


D'ANGELO CHAPARRO: The academy, they told us how to handle use of force. When you're actually in a confrontation with an inmate where your blood is flowing and your adrenaline's pumping, it's kind of hard to do exactly by the book. Since I'm from, like, a wrestling background, it's kind of easier for me to put hands on people. In the heat of the moment, you just kind of revert to what you know.

MARTIN: It is a dark, stressful situation that these correctional officers are placed in on a day-to-day basis. How do you train these people in a way that helps you get to your goal about raising the expectations of inmates?

MARCANTEL: You chose the most brilliant example in D'Angelo. It takes a very unique human being. They have to be ready and willing at the drop of a dime to visit violence if it comes their way. They have to have attention to detail and be very aware of their environment at any given moment. They have to also be complete enough human beings to invest their time and talent every day into other human beings that most of the world has the luxury of simply throwing away.

MARTIN: It's a big leap of faith, isn't it?

MARCANTEL: It's huge. It's a risky leap of faith, but it is what's noble about this work.

MARTIN: Gregg Marcantel is the secretary of corrections in New Mexico. He appears in season 2 of "Behind Bars" on A&E. Thank you so much for your time.

MARCANTEL: It's been a blessing. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.