HAGERSTOWN. — Hagerstown -- If a person refuses to learn from his mistakes, he is bound to repeat them; that's why there are so many recidivists in prisons. But what of the prison system itself? Is it successful?
Let's consider this runaway train and its engineer, Bishop Robinson, state secretary of public safety and correctional services, as they head for derailment.
Car One -- rehabilitation. Mr. Robinson has said that the public wants people locked up; it doesn't care about rehabilitation. Are Marylanders so gullible? Of course offenders should be imprisoned, but no rehabilitation? The very definition of corrections -- ''punishment intended to rehabilitate or improve'' -- mandates programs, education, vocational training.
Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the Division of Correction, reported in a recent radio talk show on a 5-year study of 200 inmates who earned A.A. degrees. Only 13 percent of them returned to prison, compared to a national recidivism rate of 70 percent. But Mr. Shipley says the balance has shifted to simply housing inmates. That's first-class conducting for you!
Car two -- overcrowding. The legislature approved $500 million over the next 10 years for what Mr. Robinson calls ''a massive, massive construction program'' to try to keep pace with a growing prison population, but he admits it's ''not going to be enough.'' It won't be enough, though, for the wrong reasons.
Prisoners are warehoused like racks of beef, sometimes three men in a 6-foot by 9-foot space built for one. ''We seem to have a rather callous attitude toward wrongdoers and feel they don't deserve any more than being confined in a warehouse,'' says A.K. Talbot, a sociology professor at Salisbury State University.
''Too bad many of our elected officials do not spend more time there [state prison]; then maybe we would see some changes,'' says a Hagerstown grand jury member.
Granted, new prisons are needed to alleviate overcrowding. Other measures also might help. Why is the Division of Corrections reluctant to release rehabilitated inmates -- those who have displayed responsibility, discipline, remorse for their offenses, and who are employable? These prisoners may wait years for their release, to no further advantage, as prison overcrowding intensifies.
Penal changes might include intense rehabilitation programs, and even early release utilizing a home-detention program. Compare the cost of $4,000 to confine an inmate for 90 days with $175 for an ankle bracelet and $500 to monitor an individual at home for for 90 days. Give 1,000 persons home detention and realize a $3.5 million savings. Nah! Too logical.
Car three -- riots. Recent outcries disparaging inmates for complaining about conditions of confinement included a letter from five wives of correctional officers who wrote: ''These inmates have more privileges than homeless people.''
True -- and while both are a helpless, hated burden, they live in a world of loneliness, poverty and pain that makes a mockery of human life.
The main thing prisoners don't have is freedom. Prisoners forfeit freedom for offending society's laws, and they accept confinement as retribution. But beware of rubbing salt in open wounds. The criminal law clearly states, ''people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment.''
When conditions of confinement traduce the evolving standards of decency of a maturing society the results may be catastrophic. In May 1990, convicts at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown rioted over monstrous conditions: beatings, slop for food, officers pulling knives on inmates, delays of weeks and months for medical care.
Since Mr. Robinson's system didn't learn from the riot, history was bound to repeat. One year later MCI-H was the scene of another massive (1000 inmates), violent (58 injuries) uprising ending in gun blasts and blood-spattered bowels. Shortly afterward, a riot erupted at the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore. Three riots in just over a year.
Not only inmates but prison staff suffer because of intolerable prison conditions. Correctional officers are like zookeepers with hungry tigers, but no chairs. As the five wives put it, ''there is drastic need to change our penal system.''
Professor Talbot says: ''You don't contribute to [inmates] well-being by having an austere penal program that's completely devoid of anything recreational . . . or rehabilitative in nature. You just let them rot in jail. I don't think that contributes to anything except more hatred to the system and to the people who run it.''
Caboose. Would you ride a train knowing the engineer had crashed his previous runs? You wouldn't have to; he'd be out of the driver's seat.
Bishop Robinson's record is just as deplorable. He neglects rehabilitation and criminals return to society worse then when they went to prison. He warehouses them and their hatred grows. He compromises the safety of his own employees by ignoring the trouble signs antecedent to riot. Before Mr. Robinson's train crashes through the walls erected to protect public safety, it's time to yank the emergency cord.
Randy Hively is an inmate in the Maryland House of Correction, Hagerstown.