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Inability to properly supervise prison guards feeds a brazen culture of entitlement

It’s an old question, but one that has desperate relevance in New York’s prison system: Who watches the watchmen?

As in so many of New York’s public institutions, responsibility for operations has been given away by management to the unions that work in them. With prison guards, the consequence has been to allow creation of a system without adequate controls and a population of guards who are given to believe – perhaps with cause – that they are beyond accountability.

The guard who tipped his hat to the camera that captured his sexual assault on a female inmate certainly thought so. James Ford Jr., a guard at the now-closed Bayview Correctional Facility in Manhattan, impregnated the woman, whom he had repeatedly raped. Even then, he was beyond the prison system’s disciplinary grasp, but fortunately, not beyond the criminal justice system’s. He was convicted, but sentenced to just three years in prison.

That may be among the most lurid of the stories to come out of a New York Times report on efforts of the state to regain control of the prisons from the guards’ union, but it’s not the only one. It’s why it is a relief that the system’s internal affairs unit has been overhauled and is determined to confront reports of brutality, even acknowledging the contractual power of the union not to care about it.

Here’s how bad it is: So ineffectual has the New York State Corrections Department been about policing its own members that the federal government launched a series of investigations into brutality by guards. It’s no wonder. After the escapes of Richard Matt and David Sweat from the prison in Dannemora last year, guards terrorized inmates for information about the two killers, according to reports.

Closer to home, three guards at Attica punched and kicked an inmate and struck him with a hard object that may have been a police baton. By the time they were done, the inmate had suffered a broken shoulder, two broken ankles and a broken eye socket. And the guards planted a razor blade on him to justify their assault. The man hadn’t even done anything. The guards had mistaken him for someone who had yelled a crude insult. They were convicted of misdemeanors and resigned but, even then, saw no jail time.

It seems clear that a culture of entitlement has overtaken much of the state prison system and, in particular, its guards. We are sure many, if not most, guards are honorable men, but even then, they stay silent as vicious crimes are committed by their peers.

Yes, prison is a tough place. Guards are not policing Boy Scouts. But, as with the rest of society, there have to be rules, even in prisons. A fundamental rule has to be that guards cannot commit crimes in the course of performing their duties, whether it is beating prisoners to within an inch of their lives or raping others.

It will be hard work imposing order. Asked by a New York Times reporter whether brutality by guards was a problem, union President Michael B. Powers responded, “What are you talking about?”

But the fact is that either the union will acknowledge the problems in the system or prosecutors will have to force the issue.

Prison inmates aren’t readily sympathetic victims, a fact that abusive guards no doubt understand. But the test of a society is its commitment to equal protection of the law, just as a test of individual character is how a man behaves when he thinks no one will find out.

Because too many guards are failing that latter test, the prison system and prosecutors will have to live up to the former.