CRANSTON, R.I. (WPRI) – A.T. Wall says his first year running the R.I. Department of Corrections was also his most challenging.
In 2000, the union representing the prison’s correctional officers staged a “wildcat” strike after a breakdown in contract talks. Then-Gov. Lincoln Almond called in the R.I. National Guard for the one-day walkout in an attempt to maintain order in the prison. But Wall recalls it was still chaos inside the Adult Correctional Institution.
“Those were very difficult times,” Wall said. “But we got through them.”
Now, after three decades in public service and 17 years as the head of the state’s prison system, Wall has decided it’s time to retire. He does so as the longest-serving corrections director in the nation.
Wall, 64, said his decision was sparked by Gov. Gina Raimondo’s retirement-incentive program that offers eligible state workers up to $40,000 to retire.
“At first I wasn’t particularly interested because I love my job and I enjoy coming to work,” Wall said in a wide-ranging interview. “However, when she put the financials out for people to see, I realized there was going to be a real incentive to retire.”
Looking back at his years in corrections, Wall said the job has changed dramatically from when he first began. He described prisons then as “warehouses” for those convicted of a crime to serve out their time.
“We as a profession have learned a lot since those days [and] we now know the advantage of much more sophisticated tools such as techniques for recidivism reduction,” Wall said, citing educational programs that inmates can use in exchange for receiving good time credit against their sentence.
“That can be controversial, some people feel a convicted offender doesn’t deserve that kind of opportunity … To the public I say, you need to know that education is considered the most important driver of recidivism reduction of any program that exists in corrections,” he said.
“It would be foolish of us not to encourage inmates to pursue their education while they’re behind walls,” he added.
Wall has been a vocal supporter of incentive programs for inmates: dangling the carrot of a reduced sentence in an effort to entice them to take programs and courses that may put them on better footing when they are released. He said it’s been a challenge to convey those benefits to the public.
“It’s hard to get that money out of the public’s mind because they think of themselves as basically subsidizing criminals,” he said. “People will make jokes about the kind of time that is given, and say, ‘oh so you can earn 20 days for basket weaving.’ Absolutely not – that is insulting, frankly, and it does not reflect the ethos of corrections.”
“You get good time if you have earned that good time,” he said.
A Target 12 review of federal court records found Wall has been named as a defendant in 302 cases since he was named director, and the attorney general’s office has told him he is the most-named defendant in the state.
“That comes with the territory,” Wall said. “I am the CEO of the correctional system and if somebody is wanting to take issue with what we’ve done, then I’m the person they are going to name in their lawsuit.”
One inmate that has had a history of being litigious and problematic for the prison is convicted murderer Craig Price. Wall described Price as a “very disturbing person.”
“People who are profoundly antisocial and unwilling or unable to not only to comply with our institutional rules but with the laws of society and the norms of the public, we don’t forget those people,” he said.
Price was so notorious, corrections officials shipped him off to the Florida prison system in 2009. Price’s continued problems behind bars have kept him locked up beyond his original sentence. (He was a juvenile when he admitted to murdering four people.) He is currently facing an attempted murder charge for allegedly stabbing another inmate in Florida.
“I tell myself that given the way he has behaved not only in custody but of course in the community, that he is unlikely ever to be released again,” Wall said.
Looking ahead, Wall said corrections officials hired a research firm to examine potential population trends at the prison and found they do not expect a dramatic increase in the coming years.
“It appears that our growth years are more in the rear-view mirror than they are ahead of us,” Wall said. “That gives an opportunity to take a deep breath, stabilize the system, and move forward.”
But Wall’s biggest concern when it comes to the future of prisons nationwide is the increasing number of inmates with severe mental health issues.
“The issue of mental health has emerged as one of the most significant challenges we face in corrections,” he said. “I think we as a society have not done right by the mentally ill. In other words, they slip through the net of the mental health system, eventually they will make their way to the correctional system and when they do, they now bear the label not of mentally ill, but criminal offenders.”
“That’s a difficult label to overcome,” he added.
Wall said prisons have to continue to adapt to deal with mentally ill patients who often can’t conform to the rules of prison life and find themselves segregated from the general population.
“It is true our model is a different one than mental health, but increasingly we have been called upon to deal with those very issues,” Wall said. “It’s a very difficult problem and our staff at all levels are – contrary to what people might think – are very sympathetic to the issues faced by the people that they are watching and observing and treating.”