[Hpn] Prison Guards See Trailer Park as Symbol of Hard Times

chance martin streetsheet@sf-homeless-coalition.org
Thu, 22 Feb 2001 18:54:24 -0800


February 22, 2001 

Prison Guards See Trailer Park as Symbol of Hard Times
OSSINING, N.Y.  A trailer park sits so close to Sing Sing that the lodgers
there could play handball against the prison wall if the man in the rifle
tower allowed it.

The trailers rest on cinder blocks and two-by-fours and have no toilets or
telephone lines or running water. They are separated from the Sing Sing
Correctional Facility by a chain-link fence and an asphalt road. The
trailers do not house inmates or welfare recipients or even schoolchildren.
They house correction officers who are too poor to afford decent
accommodations in town. They call it Tobacco Road, or sometimes Tin Pan

Mathematically, it appears that the correction officers should be able to
afford an apartment somewhere. The pay for state prison guards is $26,500;
after five years it goes to $36,302.

But the job is a hard sell. It has a bad image among the public. The county
jails pay their guards much more. Few downstaters want to work for the state
system. So the state depends on people from the depressed upstate regions to
make their careers in the penal vocation.

This little stretch of 28 trailers is only meant to be temporary housing for
about 100 of the officers, many of whom support a family and a mortgage back
home. They will move out as soon as they accumulate enough seniority and are
transferred to a prison near their homes, the thinking goes.

But the trailers have become something more permanent. With the number of
state prisoners dropping for the first time in 27 years  to 70,283 inmates
on Feb. 1 from 71,750 inmates a year earlier, a decrease of 2 percent  the
state has decided to cut $20 million and 414 jobs from its prison security
budget. Most of the cutbacks will be aimed at the medium-security prisons
upstate that house nonviolent criminals and drug offenders, the prisons near
the correction officers' homes. This is tantamount to a life sentence at
Sing Sing, the denizens of the trailer park said.

"It's just gone from bad to worse," said Paul Mikolajczyk, a bristle- haired
man who looks as if he is built from an erector set with an elephant hide
stretched over it. "Now, with the cutbacks, there are a lot of guys around
here wondering if they're ever going to get out of here."

Officer Mikolajczyk, 37, who has worked in the prison system for eight
years, explained that the typical workweek for an officer was four days on
and two days off. To get a four-day weekend that allows him enough time to
make the 500-mile round-trip drive to Rochester, he will "swap" days. Under
this arrangement, he works four days of double shifts and has four days off.
This also allows him to stagger the use of the trailer with men working
opposite shifts.

"Without the swaps you'd never be able to do this job," he said.

The trailers are spartan, usually equipped with electric stoves and 75- watt
heaters. Many men do not hang pictures of their families. "You never want to
keep the trailers too nice because you don't want to feel too comfortable or
too soft," Mr. Mikolajczyk said. He split with his wife last year, an
occupational hazard common to many of the men. It is the strain of the
distance and the strain of working around bad people, he said.

Corrections officials project that the prison population will continue to
drop, to roughly 65,200 in 2002 and perhaps even lower if the governor and
legislative leaders agree this year on overhauling the state's
Rockefeller-era drug laws.

But the number of violent felons behind bars grew by 9 percent from 1995 to
2000, said Katherine N. Lapp, the governor's criminal justice coordinator.
Sing Sing has reached its capacity of about 2,500 inmates. "Still," she
said, "in terms of Sing Sing, which houses the more violent population,
violence dropped by more than 30 percent from 1999 to 2000."

The criminals in Sing Sing are mainly from the New York City area, while 70
percent of the men and women who work there and in the other downstate
maximum-security prisons, Green Haven and Bedford Hills, are rural New
Yorkers, according to officials with the New York State Correction Officers'
Benevolent Association, the union representing the correction officers.

The four major downstate prisons employ 2,300 officers, and 1,500 of them
are awaiting transfer up north, union officials said. At Sing Sing alone,
half of the 700 officers are on that list.

Besides struggling to find housing they can afford, state officers are paid
much less than county officers, making it harder to recruit downstate. The
starting salary for New York City correction officers, for instance, is
$27,838 and increases to $52,268 after five years. In Suffolk County, they
start at $32,990 and increase to $56,141 after six years. And in Westchester
County, starting pay is $36,980 and reaches $58,135 after five years, nearly
$22,000 more than a guard at Sing Sing makes after five years.

The fact that their work is worth so much less while the clientele they
serve is so much worse snuffs the humor of the men at Sing Sing. "The pay
and the stress grind you down," said Officer L. Peguero as he stood
smoothing himself in a mirror hung on a trailer door. "You can't live off
what they're paying, so the funny thing is I'm praying for more prisoners
and less officers and this way I'm making it on the overtime. I got two kids
and an alimony payment."

About 50 yards from Tobacco Road is a green shed with a shower and a toilet,
and behind that is a pay phone protected by a wooden booth. On the western
slope of the prison, which is along the Hudson River, about 30 miles north
of New York City, is a state-owned building that serves as commanding
officers' quarters, with 42 bunk beds, two toilets, two showers, racks with
reams of clothes and no walls. The place smelled of microwaved Salisbury

The state is not obligated to house its correction officers, and issues of
housing are a matter of negotiation between the union and the State Office
of General Services, said Jim Flateau, a spokesman for the Department of
Correctional Services.

"Most states do not provide housing," Mr. Flateau said. "We provide some. If
they want more, they should ask their union to take it up with the
appropriate agency."

The lives and careers of prison guards are not coveted ones. The guards
produce nothing, and this gnaws at them. A good day, they say, is a day when
they and their colleagues have not been hurt and when they have not been
pelted with feces or doused with urine by an upset inmate.

The ratio of inmates to officers at Sing Sing is 14 to 1 on any given shift,
and in the exercise yard of A Block, the ratio is 125 to 1. The union says
that the life expectancy of a correction officer is 10 years shorter than
for the average American, and that the occupation has one of the country's
highest rates of divorce, heart disease and suicide.

"The opinion of the C.O. is low," said Dennis Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for
the union.

"They're considered the James Cagneys of the world, the Brubakers. They're
not treated with the same amount of respect or enthusiasm as other law
enforcement officers, and quite frankly, instead of cutting jobs, the state
should be offering more pay."

Paul M. came to Sing Sing to work a few years ago from Buffalo. He stood in
the cold in his civilian clothes and told this story. He used to own a house
upstate and made the commute a few times a month. When he couldn't meet the
mortgage, the bank took the house and he stopped going home.

"I couldn't get a house now if my life depended on it," he said. "My credit
is zilch." He did not want to give his last name because he lives full time
in the trailer now and is afraid that if the state finds out, he will be
made homeless.

"I'm afraid to get married, too," he said. "Can't have a family with this
job. It's a living. But looking back, I should have went to college, you

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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