CHICAGO -- The day Theodore Russell got out of jail after a long stay, a group of neighborhood boys, including his little brother, surrounded him as though he were a rap star passing out concert tickets.
They followed him down the street of his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, admiring his crudely drawn cellblock tattoos and marveling at the new muscles he had developed from hours of lifting weights in the yard.
Then they sat on the steps of his mother's porch, looking up at the man they call "Dirty Red," and fired questions at him about life in the world behind the bars, the same questions he asked when he was their age.
"Some young brothers seem like they don't care if they go to prison," said Russell, who is 25 and facing three years in prison for a new drug-possession charge. "They think it's macho, that it gives them more rank out on the street."
It had been the same for him, he recalled. "I wasn't too worried about going because my uncle came back all built up," Russell said. "I kind of wanted the experience. He told me it was smooth in there, that doing time was a piece of cake."
Time in prison isn't smooth, as Russell would now be the first to agree. But he, other inmates, and many experts on poverty in America say that everyday life in the nation's inner cities has grown so desperate and dreary that the threat of incarceration, by comparison, has lost much of its power to scare.
They say those who contemplate committing crimes are unlikely to be deterred by the prospect of prison. In fact, to many impressionable young people, a certain glamour seems to surround the penitentiary.
"The mean-spirited system of justice we have in this country has perpetuated the problem," said Nicholas Pastore, the police chief in New Haven, Conn. "We warehouse people, but we don't make persons of the people. We don't really care. Much more has to be done to deal with the hazards of people's lives that cause them to be in prison."
HTC As the nation's prison population swelled by nearly 130 percent during the tough-on-crime 1980s, more and more families watched as a father, a son, an uncle -- maybe all three -- were carted off to an institution.
In the inner cities, bereft of jobs, good schools and hope, the idea of prison doesn't carry the shame it did years ago. To some, in fact, it seems almost inevitable.
"Years ago, the story that someone had gone to prison was almost big news," said Barry Krisberg, executive director of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in San Francisco. "Now it's ordinary. Some young men have said to me, going to prison in their community is like going to the Army was for my generation. You spend a couple of years in the Army; we spend a couple of years in prison."
On the nation's roughest streets, a person can even help protect himself from harm by letting it be known he has relatives or friends in jail.
The United States has more than 1 million people under lock and key, either in prison or in jail awaiting trial or serving short sentences. It has the highest rate of incarceration of any industrialized nation. In second place is South Africa.
Although most poor people are law-abiding, most prison inmates are poor in pocket and education, whether they are black, white or Hispanic.
The unemployment rate for blacks was 14.3 percent in August compared with an overall rate of 7.6 percent. The rate for whites was 6.6 percent. For young people, the picture is bleaker still. The rate for black teen-agers in August was 36.9 percent, compared with 16.9 percent for white teen-agers.
"This community -- it grooms you to prepare yourself to go to jail or the penitentiary," said Hahmed Staford, a 24-year-old resident of the Robert Taylor public housing development in Chicago who has been in jail several times.
"A lot of people lose hope," he said. "Every day is a struggle. It seems like going to prison is destiny for a lot of young brothers. But we know what time it is. White folks (are) committing crimes, too. But they get probation -- we go to jail. They get in drug rehab -- we go to the cemetery."
A 1990 study by the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that promotes sentencing reforms and alternatives, found that nationwide on any given day, almost one in four black men between ages 20 and 29 is under the control of the criminal justice system -- that is, in prison or jail or on parole or probation.
The figure for white non-Hispanic men of the same age was one in 16, or 6.2 percent. The rate for Hispanic men was 10.4 percent, or one in 10.
"By all indications, the figures would be higher today were we to do the study again," said Marc Mauer, assistant director of the group.
This month, a study by the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives said that on any given day in Baltimore, 56 percent of the city's black men between ages 18 and 35 are either under the control of the criminal justice system or being sought on warrants.
In 1981, 15 white juveniles were arrested on charges of selling drugs in Baltimore, compared with 86 black juveniles, the report said. In 1991, 13 white juveniles were arrested in Baltimore on such charges, compared with 1,304 black juveniles.
"The so-called 'war on drugs' has exposed the racism that has always driven the criminal justice system in this country," said Jerome C. Miller, president of the center. "This is the situation in virtually every urban center. We've so overused incarceration, that we've succeeded in socializing a whole generation to going to jail."