Our Brother's Keeper?

By , advocate for the young in trouble

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.m

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.

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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?

It's easier to devise alternatives than it is to closer the existing system or get resources for alternatives. Basic change is politically upalatable because it involves dealing with state employees' unions, with issues of staff employment, with undoing contracts with vendors of services that the tied into the legislatures. Often when a group presents an alternative, it will only be allowed to fly if it doesn't affect the institution's budget. And if the group aims to lower the imprisoned population they also pose a threat. So the authorities often have to take people off probation, people you normally would leave at home, and put them in a halfway house. Thus, rather than being an alternative, the new plan becomes an addition, involving more people, more money , without touching the basic problem.

What about state legislators? I've heard that money budgeted for prisons is usually at the bottom of their priority list. Is that true?

I don't feel there is a problem of lack of funding. It's a problem of poor allocation of resources. To keep a kid for a year in a state training school (that probably isn't going to do anyone any good) cost between $20,000 -- $35, 000. By Pennsylvania's own figures it's $34,000 a year. This is much more than an upper middle class family generally spends on a child of its own. What's amazing is that despite the unconscionable costs, you'll find very few legislators willing to consider the possibility that most people in these facilities could be in alternative settings. If you channeled differently the money which Pennsylvania spends to keep kids in institutions, you could hire three staff persons to supervise every case. Or you could pay someone a full salary and say, "Take this kid into your home and we'll give you an additional $ 20,000 to provide services and keep him out of trouble." So you have the ridiculous situation of an individual being removed from home and placed in an institution at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars a year. Yet their families are often living on welfare, probably less than $8,000.

Can you be specific?

When I was on the Governor's staff in Pennsylvania, I worked on a project with Farview State Hospital, a large institution for the criminally insane. It was notorious for its maltreatment. The cost per patient was $120,000 per year but we couldn't get a decision to close it or find an alternative because it was the major employer in a remote county of the state. On the other hand, in Massachusetts we were able to close training schools by moving kids into other options. But in order to do it, we had to make a political decision not to lay off a single state employee. We emptied the institutions of clients, but left them with a full complement of employees. There was not a word from the legislature. It could have gone on indefinitely. The institution ran very nicely. The staff came every day. There were no kids there. That tells you what it's all about. Institutionalization creates jobs. As long as you don't touch that no one will say a word.

You actually had to agree to this concession to start your alternative in Massachusetts?

Yes. We never made the concession publicly. Of course, the longer the kids were out, the more untenable the employees' position became. Then we were able to talk with them about transfering to other jobs in the community. We didn't fire anyone but we froze slots.When people left or retired we didn't rehire. In this way saved money to buy better care for thd kids. Two years after I left, my successor decided there were 300 too many employees. He told this to the administration and finance department, and pandemonium broke loose. The legislature began investigating our de-institutionalization. Criticisms of our program focused on law and order arguments, accusations of letting kids run wild in the streets. Not a word was said about employment. We had touched the sacred cow which sustains the institution. Unless this issue is dealt with head on in the next decade we've going to compound our troubles.

What do trends in penal legislation portend for actual treatment of your delinquents?

Legislation has become increasingly punitive. Thus the number of people in institutions will probably not be reduced. If anything, those populations will increase in the face of punitive trends. Again, that's the issue. You dare not touch the institutions.

But is there any justification for public fears that youth crime is on the rise, and that more lock-ups are the necessity of the day?

We often hear in sensational articles that half of all crimes of violence are committed by youths under 21. This conclusion is drawn from FBI statistics. But those are arrest statistics. They have nothing to do with conviction in court. In fact there has been no dramatic increase in such crimes. Murders committed by juveniles from 1971 to 1977 rose for the whole nation by a grand total of 80. That didn't even keep up with the population increase. Actually what is heightening public fears is the fact that crimes are taking place in much greater numbers against middle class people, so that youth crime is drawing much broader attention. New Jersey's Attorney General has even called for the death penalty for juveniles. That has never been a solution to anything. Since they executed John Spenkelink in Florida, the murder rate has gone up dramatically.

What specifically do you find wrong with the increasing lock-up approach?

First of all, it is an institutional form of control that does not touch an understanding of why crimes occur and how they relate to the broader context of society. I'm not suggesting that kids are not responsible for their actions or that we should heap the blame on society. But society has a responsibility to understand the part it plays in all this. People aren't raised in vacuums. And by using the most restrictive corrections approach rather than the least restrictive alternative, consonant with public safety, we can close out the possibility of this understanding.

For example?

We had a kid in Massachusetts who had attacked a sailor. He had also beaten others badly. The chief of police called me saying, "Look, this kid is in your detention center. He's on $30,000 bail. It's important that he be held. Would you ensure that he not get away?" I called the detention center and urged priority on the case. Well, he was gone within three hours. I was very perturbed. Driving home I decided to try to find him myself. I went to his neighborhood and found where he lived. There was no answer at the door. I gave out my business cards to kids in the neighborhood and said," If you see Eddie, tell him to call me." This was on a Friday. On Sunday morning I got a call. It was Eddie. "Look Eddie," I said, "you've got to come back. It's a real embarrassment to us, and a danger to yourself." He said okay. What I found out in the process of talking to him was that his father is an alcoholic, his mother paralyzed, and they've been living on almost nothing. When elements like these are so important in a kid's life, they need to be known and related to corrections programs. And this is why I say that emphasis on increasing institutional control for its own sake may obscure the kind of broader social understanding we should be striving for.

It reminds me of a statement you once made that controlling your people is society's way of looking at itself.

I believe this now more than ever, especially when I think of how it may relate to the future. We are rapidly approaching a point at which efforts will be made to brainwash social deviants to conform. This we must watch carefully because what we do to the social deviant we will eventually do to our friends and relatives.

You are convinced that we're that close to institutionalizing such procedures -- and in the name of civilization?

Oh sure. The technology is coming. There is now brain research and research into psychotropic drugs for behaviour modification and control. That's why this field of corrections is so crucial. In Massachusetts I was very much in favor of youngsters getting involved with self-help drug programs, because they seemed reasonable, humane alternatives to state institutions. But now I feel they have a brainwashing effect. They demand total conformity of the patient. They have totalitarian qualities that are frightening.

Is the impulse to resort to such techniques much greater now than a decade ago?

I think it is characteristic of our times because of the weakening of the connection between youth and normal social means of integrating them into society. People don't relate to the traditional schools and churches as much as they did fifty years ago.

Does this result from the scaled of modern society, its materialism and consumerism? Do kids simply find our society overwhelming?

I think so. And I've observed that the self-help drug programs for kids have become something like religions. These are not programs where one goes to meditate, think or read. These are groups where one is watched all the time, where one's behavior is constantly held accountable and one relates to the world only in terms of the standards of that particular group. It's a very shallow and paranoid sort of thing. The understanding of issues of human living and philosophy is woefully shallow. It's like no one has ever cracked a book or had an original thought, or read the Bible. the program is presented as though all that needs to be considered is its own technology for control.

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