Our Brother's Keeper?
Prison tragedies like the one at New Mexico State Penitentiary must never be seen in isolation from the broader society, according to Dr. Jerome Miller. This prison reformer is convinced that the extent to which a society now searches for more humane prison alternatives -- for all in trouble, but especially its young -- will indicate the humaneness of the society at large. Dr. Miller has spent a career searching for those alternatives. After serving as a professor at Ohio State University, he engineered a bold and controversial program to reform the youth corrections system of Massachusetts. The only state-wide reform of its kind, the program gained widespread international attention as a model for youth corrections. Conferences have been held all over Europe on the Massachusetts experiment, and it is now the subject of a course taught at some European colleges. Since leaving his Massachusetts post in 1972, Dr. Miller has worked on the staffs of the governors of Illinois and Pennsylvania and continued to stir up controversy. He now heads the National Center for Institutional Alternatives, a Washington-based consulting firm and lobbying group that devises alternative approaches for people about to be institutionalized. He shared with Richard Harley the reasons he believes greater reform will be one of the most important tasks before American society in years to come.mSkip to next paragraph
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The tragic riot at Attica 9 years ago sparked a flurry of prison reform efforts in this country. But the Fortune Society reporter recently that America now locks up more people and prison conditions are generally worse than before.
That is very true. In fact, we lock up more per hundred thousand than any country in the world.
Than any country in the world!
With two exceptions: South Africa and the Soviet Union. And the response in this country to growing crime rates is to lock up more. Few seem to realize that the incarceration rate is probably integrally related to the crime rate. North Carolina, for instance, locks up almost 1 percent of its population. That is the highest lock-up rate anywhere, and yet the result has not been less crime. In fact, states with high lock-ups now show a rise in the crime rate. Texas, for example, has about 25,000 people in state prisons, Pennsylvania 7,000 . Their populations are almost identical. Yet the crime rate in Texas is significantly higher than in Pennsylvania.
How do you explain this?
I think we have built into the culture an institutional component so deep that it affects almost everything, especially prisoner control. If you look closely at day-to-day living in an average state prison, there is no way that anyone can come out any better. Take, for example, men like Gary Gilmore or Charles Manson -- men who killed for the sake of killing due to frustration or anger. I believe these were crimes actually related to their long institutional experience. The killed impersonally, with a coldness that only comes when one cannot in any sense value human life. Sure, that coldness can emerge in a family context. But it's more commonly the result of institutional experience. Gilmore and Manson spent half their libes in brutal institutions. Ironically, both were committed for relatively minor things -- Manson for running away; Gilmore, as I recall, for breaking windows in high school.
What exactly happened to the good intentions about institutional reform sparked by Attica?
This needs to be understood at two levels. You have a level of liberal rhetoric that reform was needed. And then you had the level of prison reality. The reality is the institutional industry which operates independent of the debate -- for more punishment or more rehabilitation, short sentences or long. This industry is worth $35 billion a year. It represents a fantastic political lobby, and fantastic pressure to maintain that status quo. When you have a scandal like Attica or New Mexico, something that brings the institution to public awareness, there is a call for reform, an infusion of new funds and in the more liberal states maybe new buildings and a new administration. But then everyone walks away feeling the situation's been taken care of. Three years later nothing has changed.
So from the outset the idea of even exploring alternatives is almost inconceivable for those who run our correctional system?