The Waste of a Human Warehouse

JASON BERRY

November 03, 1992|By JASON BERRY

NEW ORLEANS. — 'The people who hated me wanted to hurt me so bad, they forced me to grow, to strive harder and be productive. They made me reach into myself for strength and abilities I didn't know I possessed. It's so ironic it's bizarre.''

--Wilbert Rideau, Louisiana State Penitentiary inmate and co-author of ''Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars''

New Orleans -- With 1.2 million inmates, American prisons and jails cost more than $13 billion a year. In the 1980s New York and California spent record amounts constructing new prisons, yet they are among 42 states where overcrowding is so chronic that federal judges dictate cell ratios and set standards for inmate care.

This unique transfer of power from politicians to the courts is one sign of the strain in human warehousing. California slashes money to its schools but not its prison budget.

In a weak economy, prison costs are skyrocketing. Construction of new federal penitentiaries exceeds $100,000 per cell.

Drug crimes have fed the surge of arrests; but there's another problem politicians don't want to touch: restoring reasonable policies on pardons and paroles, by releasing low-risk inmates to make room for more dangerous criminals.

A generation ago, it was thought that prisons should rehabilitate all but the most incorrigible criminals. In the 1970s, however, as crime figures began rising, a new wave of penologists, led by James Q. Wilson, argued that prisons cannot rehabilitate most criminals, and that it was futile to try.

State legislatures, responding to public concerns, passed laws meting out harsher, longer prison terms. As a result, prisoners who in years past could, with good behavior, expect to be paroled, stayed put. In the 1990s, inmates of the ''graying'' population take up costly cell space, despite a 5 percent recidivism rate among parolees over 55, according to one study.

George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley argues that overcrowding is making the prison population more diversified: ''Eco-boomers, young offenders on drug charges, are receiving mandatory 10-year sentences on first-offense federal violations. That's dramatically changing the dynamics of the prison system. Eco-boomers quickly learn to become habitual offenders, or if incarcerated with a rehabilitation program of some kind, they can learn self-reform.''

This is the real legacy of the 1988 Willie Horton ad that damaged Michael Dukakis. Politicians are so petrified of being seen as ''soft on crime'' that they can't support release programs. In many states, some homicide convicts used to be paroled after eight years. By comparison, a mandatory 10-year term for selling cocaine makes neither financial nor judicial sense.

But Congress is following the tracks of state lawmakers. Says Professor Turley: ''We're seeing an explosion of new laws governing distribution, possession and transportation of drugs, with death penalties and longer sentences. The last Congress saw a feeding frenzy with over 20 new death penalties suggested in legislation. We are living a noble lie. Politicians talk tough even though they know prisons can't accommodate new prisoners.''

Psychotics cannot be released; but most inmates are not psychopaths. By century's end, a projected 125,000 inmates will be 55 or older. Without the possibility of release, good behavior is meaningless and an inmate's mental state deteriorates. Meanwhile, prisons cope with younger criminals, violent and not.

As the overcrowding crisis forces prison authorities to look anew at rehabilitation, a remarkable experiment has borne fruit in, of all places, Louisiana, a state with some of the most draconian sentencing laws on the books.

Louisiana has the largest state penitentiary in America, a placed called Angola tucked away in a remote curl of the Mississippi River. The 18,000-acre prison farm has 5,200 inmates, about 3,000 of whom are serving effective life sentences.

Angola has a gruesome history. One historian estimates that the prison, once a plantation, inflicted 10,000 floggings on inmates during the Depression. In 1951, 37 convicts made national news by cutting their heel tendons in protest.

Since the mid-'70s, inmates have published a bimonthly newsmagazine, The Angolite. Under editor Wilbert Rideau it won some of journalism's prestige awards -- the George Polk and Robert F. Kennedy prizes, and a National Magazine award. No other prison journal has done this.

Times Books recently published ''Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars,'' by Rideau and Ron Wikberg, another inmate convicted of murder. No other book has shown the inner dynamics of prison so graphically or with such passion. Rideau's report on homosexual rape and slavery is a masterpiece.

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