Eastern Correctional Maximum Security Prison houses 1,100 men and hundreds of law enforcement officers tasked with overseeing and supervising the prisoners. It is a microcosm of society populated primarily by police and criminals.
With all the news about police officers’ abhorrent behaviors, one would assume a prison, mostly a secret place, would be a breeding ground for violence, division and abuse of power. Not a place where kindness and even love abounds.
Yet, there is a man living in New Paltz who is a legend in corrections. For decades, David Miller as superintendent of Eastern Correctional Facility, created an environment where he was loved and respected by the police, the prisoners and all the support staff, a rarified accomplishment.
Yesterday, I came across a memoir written by a former Eastern prisoner, Nasihah Jones, dedicated to Superintendent David Miller.
Too much is being covered about the race of the police perpetrators by both the political right and left, as if that is the only pertinent issue.
Without the political discourse, I wanted to know how Dave Miller created such an unusual culture at Eastern Correctional.
What he said applies not only to policing, but is also applicable to the problems facing the society.
“It’s not enough just to care. You can sit in your office all day and care. Caring has to be combined with a plan to make it better.”
Dave Miller talked with conviction about oversight, proximity and visibility by leadership being the key to preventing wild catastrophic behavior like what happened in Tennessee.
He was present for every shift change, three times a day for decades, working long hours to supervise smooth-running transitions. He never assumed he could wind down his vigilance. He knew all the employees and prisoners. Every day he walked the prison rooms and corridors multiple times, giving each person the chance to approach him directly with an issue.
Groups of men didn’t just arrive at Eastern without going through a “funnel” system. Each man was greeted and welcomed by David Miller. He is famous for saying during orientation, “We need a few good men here at Eastern.” He knew there were many “good men” in prison. He believed no one should be defined only by their crime. His recognition of this at the onset was a self-esteem builder for many disenfranchised and traumatized individuals.
He had a plan for dealing with potential problem prisoners and staff. With close observation, he could identify which persons needed to be managed. The older and wiser prisoners, as well as the older and wiser correction officers, were tasked, in a fluid mentoring system, to guide people who might have difficulty adhering to the culture at Eastern.
If he could not influence and teach a staff member or a prisoner to adjust to life as required at Eastern, the problem person would be transferred or assigned to be retrained by a security official. Correction officers who desired to have “tough guy” images often didn’t fit in at Eastern and voluntarily asked to be relocated.
When a prisoner’s status changed, allowing him to be transferred from a maximum facility to a medium, where there were more privileges, he often requested to remain at Eastern.
David Miller made sure there were copious positive activities available. He improved the quality of life though program innovation. That is what needs to happen in all poverty crime-ridden neighborhoods improving well-being in daily life on all levels.
David Miller’s counterpart, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, said video of the January 7 traffic stop that led to Tyre Nichols’ death left her “horrified, disgusted, sad and confused.”
Her and everybody else. If she had employed the same strategies as David Miller did at Eastern, she would have known that the Scorpion Squad needed administrative controlling. She could have practiced better vigilance, proximity and oversight. At least one of the five officers’ behaviors had come into question prior to the incident.
I know people, friends of mine, who believe there are no decent “good men” police officers anywhere. I know there are people who believe black men are more dangerous than whites. Ignorance at both bookends is supporting deadly prejudicial assumptions. Beliefs like these slam the door on rational solutions.
After talking with David Miller, I have faith that common sense and kindness can overcome a toxic culture.
Recently, there was a meeting about policing in New Paltz. The next morning I received a text message stating my friend went to the community conversation about policing. She told me, “New Paltz is very blessed to have Rob Lucchesi as police chief.” The phrase “police chief” and “blessed” in the same sentence is cause for hope.