America's angry penal policy

July 29, 1996|By Neal R. Peirce

CHAIN GANGS and mean-spirited inventions like tasteless ''diet loaf'' for troublesome inmates are ''in.'' Exercise rooms, television-watching rights and reduced time for good behavior are ''out.''

America's angry penal policy of the '90s apparently boils down to meanness and retribution.

Example: Virginia, the state that originated the ''diet loaf'' for prisoners, has also canceled recreation programs, eliminated therapy for sex offenders, begun monitoring telephone calls, imposed fees for medical care and started patrolling with guns inside prison fences.

In Florida, where underpaid, understaffed prison staffs are outnumbered by increasingly violent prisoners, assaults on corrections officers soared from 397 in 1987 to 1,327 in 1995.

Geriatric prisoners

There has to be a smarter way. Ninety percent of prisoners will someday be back on our streets. Nationwide, our convict total is more than 1.1 million and headed, without a reversal of trends, to 2 million by 2003. Last year the country was building new prison beds at the rate of 1,725 a week. Now there's concern that mandatory sentences will lead to escalating numbers of geriatric prisoners, costing the public billions for medical care.

How could the treatment of these staggering numbers of prisoners be reinvented to reduce crime in the long run?

A few penologists belong to the tougher-than-nails school. But talk to cool-headed professionals, and you quickly pick up a smart list of ''do's'' and ''don'ts.''

Don't buy the idea that roughing up prisoners will scare them out of future crimes.

Brutality and scare techniques may create cowed men. They may satisfy public cries for revenge against criminals. But they can create crazed inmates. And there's not a scintilla of evidence that they reduce future crimes.

And don't believe ugly, inhumane living conditions -- foul cells, bad food, no exercise opportunities -- will make prisoners compliant and controllable. To the contrary, they breed desperation. And a desperate man is a dangerous man.

Do create prison environments with clear rules and discipline, enforced fairly. Prison life, by definition, offers inmates little scope to make decisions on their own -- as they'll have to do when they are released.

Sense of accountability

So give prisoners a sense of clear accountability for their own actions behind bars. Good behavior should earn rights to watch television, use exercise rooms and equipment, work on computers. If prisoners must strive to earn the right to such facilities, they aren't being coddled -- they're being rewarded for decent behavior, much as smart families handle their teen-agers.

Don't, say the experts, allow television sets in cells. But, for inmates behaving decently, do provide rationed watching opportunities -- popular sports events, for example, and news broadcasts so those incarcerated won't walk out into a time warp when their sentences are up.

For obvious reasons, no TV shows depicting raw violence, or inciting sexual interest, should be permitted.

Do deny television, weights and other privileges to inmates guilty of surly attitudes or violent or disruptive behavior.

Resort to solitary confinement for the most extreme cases, but don't leave inmates without some way, through improved behavior over time, to escape the harshest living conditions.

Behavior incentive

Give parole boards the right to shave some time off sentences for good behavior -- it's a powerful tool to improve the climate and reduce attacks in prisons.

And don't suggest -- as some state legislators do -- that prison is a ''resort,'' a pleasant place. Just being in there is dangerous. Consider the prison dormitories -- increasingly prevalent in these budget-short times. When the lights go out, in rooms with rapists and murderers, rapes and assaults are a palpable threat.

Stress education. In Florida, for example, three-fourths of inmates are functionally illiterate. Providing programs for GED, even college credits, provides real prospects for post-prison employment. Deny education and you're asking to see the inmate back again -- soon.

Smart penologists advise that drug treatment be available in prison. Many prisoners were either selling drugs or under the influence of drugs. Overwhelming evidence shows that drug treatment has a direct, positive effect on recidivism rates.

The experts say that inmates should be exposed to work opportunities and required to participate.

That doesn't mean digging a ditch and then refilling it. It does mean constructive work -- whether on highways, prison industries or prison maintenance. Many prisoners have never held a normal job. This ought to be their opportunity to learn. Plus, their work can save taxpayers a lot of money.

Common-sense solutions to the incarceration dilemma can hardly be debated: concerned officials, anxious to reinvent corrections policy for a less ominous future, fear the attacks of ''law-'n'-order'' extremists calling out for vengeance against wrongdoers. Many thoughtful wardens know their institutions may be headed for outbreaks, with physical danger to guards and prisoners alike. But often they fear that to speak up will cost them their jobs.

Until the impasse is broken, we can only expect prisons increasingly afflicted by hopelessness, desperation and violence.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

Pub Date: 7/29/96

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