Good Reason to Coddle Criminals

May 08, 1994|By DANNIE MARTIN

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. -- Why should criminals in our federal prisons have access to weight rooms and weight-lifting equipment? Aren't we just coddling prisoners or, worse, aren't taxpayers giving prisoners the chance to get stronger -- and more dangerous when they are released from prison?

At a time when many Americans are fed up with crime and criminals, politicians are introducing legislation like the three-strikes law in California. Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio, exemplifies the trend with her proposed ban on federal weight-lifting equipment in prisons. Ms. Pryce introduced her legislation as an amendment to the crime bill, and it carried in the House by a big margin. A crime bill has already been passed in the Senate and now the two houses are in conference.

To people on the outside of prison walls, the weight-lifting proposal may make some sense. To anyone who has served time, however, it's clear that this is precisely the kind of legislation that would backfire. What outsiders need to know about prison life is the difference between convicts and inmates.

Inmates are very upset at losing their weight pile. Inmates are also very apprehensive about what they might lose next. Inmates love physical fitness, soap operas and long, soulful chats with their honey and the kids. They don't want anything rocking the boat.

Convicts, on the other hand, want the boat to sink.

As a group, convicts are dedicated to outlaw conspiracies. When they are free, they exist in a shadowy fringe of society, what used to be known as ''the underworld.'' They live by their own rules; crime to them is a way of life.

In prison there is something called ''the convict code.'' Convicts see all prison officials as the enemy, and they view with deep suspicion anything given to them by the enemy. They scorn the word ''inmate.''

You only have to recall any of the old James Cagney prison films -- stark places with no frills. Prisoners whisper out of the sides of their mouths about rioting, burning down the joint and escaping over the walls. These movies were about convicts.

Those known within the walls as inmates, on the other hand, live within the bounds of society but have failed for one reason or another. Greed, drugs and passion are their main downfalls.

Because of drug laws and new get-tough policies, there are more inmate types in prison now than there are convicts. Inmates are called UFO's because mainline convicts don't know where they're coming from, and they distrust them intensely.

Many inmates can be rehabilitated. They work in prison factories, attend educational and drug programs and plan to live as good citizens when they are released. They enjoy their exercise and TV shows and work like any blue-collar people. They are the ones who will be hurt by the new punitive bills the politicians are dreaming up.

Prison officials also realize, of course, that a lot of tension and aggressive tendencies are dissipated through exercise. But the real reason that prisoners now have weights and other forms of recreation is as a means of control. Officials allow such privileges they can threaten to take them away for disobedience, agitation and disruptive conduct. Without these luxuries, officials lose a large measure of control.

Convicts understand this better than anyone else. They also know that when these things are lost, angry inmates may turn to them for advice and support. One convict said to me just before I left federal prison recently:

''Man, I hope they take those weights and everything else. Then maybe we can get people in here to talk about some work strike and burning this . . . place down.''

Without their weights and other pleasures, inmates will begin to understand how convicts think. They will become more open and tolerant of mayhem and anarchy. For society, that aggression is better dissipated on the weight piles. Anywhere else is going to cost too much money and misery.

Dannie M. Martin, recently released from federal prison where he was doing time for a parole violation, is co-author with Peter Y. Sussman of ''Committing Journalism: The Prison Writings of Red Hog'' (W.W. Norton). He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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