The devil's workshop

August 13, 2006

Last week, Mary Ann Saar was on the hot seat in the wake of the fatal stabbing last month of a correctional officer while on duty - the second such murder of a prison guard this year. As disturbing as those deaths were, also disturbing was the approach taken by some of those criticizing Ms. Saar, chief of the state's public safety and correctional services.

There is certainly reason for alarm. Attacks on correctional officers have increased in the last year, and it makes perfect sense to try to find out why that is and what can be done to reverse the trend, if it is one.

We know one of the answers to the first question: large numbers of staff vacancies, particularly in Baltimore and at the House of Corrections in Jessup.

Those gaps, no doubt, are among the factors having an impact on inmate violence levels. But another factor is also critical to how inmates behave and what can be done to stem future violence: programs and activities designed to educate inmates, teach them vocational skills, modify their behavior patterns, and just plain keep them busy.

A host of studies has shown that prisoners who participate in educational or counseling programs before their release fare better once they rejoin society than those who do not. More to the point, a growing body of data suggest that offering inmates meaningful pursuits can reduce the incidence of violence in prisons.

And isn't that simple common sense? A just-released report from a national commission formed to study safety in the country's prisons put it most succinctly: "Few conditions compromise the safety and security of a correctional institution more than idle prisoners." In fact, of the commission's six recommendations for preventing prison violence, the second one (after "reduce crowding ") is "promote productivity and rehabilition." To do that, states should "invest in programs that are proven to reduce violence and to change behavior over the long term."

They're talking about educational, vocational and behavioral programs - just what Ms. Saar has advocated. And, indeed, the state's prisons do offer opportunities for inmates to keep themselves busy, but far more are needed. An estimated 1,500 prisoners are on waiting lists for academic and vocational training courses alone. And RESTART, a program championed by Ms. Saar that focuses on services aimed at helping inmates eventually re-enter society, has not gotten the support - or, more critically, the funding - it needs and deserves.

Yet last week, Ms. Saar was assailed for putting "programs" ahead of "safety," as if there were no connection between the two - and as if she had made a trade-off between them. Wrong on both counts.

Of course prisons must be fully staffed with well-trained, fairly paid correctional officers. That's a critical component of prison - and public - safety. But so is an adequately funded system of programs and activities that offer prisoners at every facility an alternative to trouble. RESTART is in fact just a start - or at least it should be.

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