NO ESCAPE: The Future of American Corrections. By John J. DiIulio Jr. Basic Books. 301 pages. $22.95. PRISONS go to the heart of what we believe about human nature. In literate and humane circles prisons are monuments to our ignorance about the causes and prevention of crime. In a less vengeful society, one that spent its public resources more wisely, prisons would not exist -- or so the progressives say.
But this wisdom is now deferred for another day. Too many people have been touched by criminal acts to think about doing without prisons. As the author of this book succinctly puts it: "Most Americans think that criminal sanctions that make little or no use of incarceration fail to protect the public adequately, to deter would-be criminals and to prevent convicted offenders from finding new victims. Furthermore, they simply do not feel that alternatives to incarceration are an adequate moral response to the pain and suffering imposed upon innocent victims by often calculating and remorseless victimizers."
The progresssive then falls back to a position against American prisons as we know them. Overcrowded, violent and staffed by brutes, they are little more than warehouses for the idle and schools for crime. They don't change inmates, and they don't keep inmates from committing new crimes when they get back to the street. The fundamental offense inflicted by the idea of the prison is avenged, as it were, by the practical futility of actual prisons.
This remains the enlightened view; and it is to this that John DiIulio, a Princeton political scientist, offers an adroit, concise and jargon-free corrective, based on close observation of what really goes on in American prisons.
DiIulio is well-traveled behind bars. He's seen the best and the worst, and he is keen to the political climates in which correctional systems are obliged to operate. Judging from the result, I would say that when he visits a prison he keeps his eyes and ears open and his mouth shut. He checks his preconceptions at the main gate. What he learns should be encouraging to a public that is constantly told that prisons just aren't doing the job.
Along the way several of the most popular misperceptions about prisons get cleared up. A substantial proportion of inmates are thought to be nondangerous. Not so. Over 95 percent of prisoners are violent or repeat offenders. We are constantly advised to make better use of community-based alternatives to incarceration. We have in fact been doing just that, and we are now reaching "the limits of our capacity to manage offenders in the community."
Overcrowding is said to make prisons unsafe and unworkable, and to lead inevitably to mass disorders within the walls. But DiIulio looks at a place like the California Men's Colony in San Luis Obispo, a maximum-security prison where cell blocks are clean, prison industries and educational programs flourish, the food is good and violence has actually decreased, even as the institution has become "one of the most heavily populated prisons in the free world."
DiIulio's verdict is that "prisons and jails can be improved by changing the ways they are organized and managed, even without such improvements as more money, fewer inmates and better physical plants." Even the Tombs and Rikers Island in New York City have proved amenable to reform and humane custody. "The greatest enemy of better prisons and jails," DiIulio says, "is the idea that they are not possible with our current human and financial resources."
It is a message of thumping moderation and hopeful incrementalism, and a remarkably buoyant one, considering the bad rap that prisons get from many people of good will, and considering the facts from which DiIulio sees "no escape":
* More and more Americans in prison and jail, on probation or parole -- more than 4 million by the year 2000.
* More alternatives to incarceration, because even as we have been filling up places of detention we have been overloading probation, parole and other community-based handling of offenders.
* More institutional overcrowding, as the rate of prison construction cannot hope to keep up with the rate of incarceration.
* And more of the "delicate moral balancing act" maintained by American penal institutions, according to which "revenge must be restrained by forgiveness and justice tempered by mercy. It is ethic of punishment that forces St. Francis and Draco into a mutual, never-quite-steady embrace."
Many serious people will remain unconvinced that prisons can be relatively safe, relatively humane. But the burden is upon them to say what they will do with the citizen who proves dangerous to others. What else can we do with serious offenders but take them off the street, at least for a time?
Freedom, to put it bluntly, entails crime -- witness the soaring crime rates in the Eastern European countries newly restored to civil liberty. To turn the problem inside out, a crime-free society under modern conditions will look very much like a police state. If we want freedom and order, we will have to make some use of prisons, whose underlying assumption, as DiIulio puts it, is that "those who abuse liberty shall live without it."
Hal Riedl works at the Maryland Reception Diagnostic and Classification Center, which is the first stop in Baltimore for men newly sentenced to state prison.