FINDING A HOME AGAIN

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. (The first half of this interview appeared yesterday on the Home Forum page.)m

Given the challenges you've outlined -- the social dimensions of offenders' problems, the potential lure of brainwashing techniques, the weakening of society's normal socialization processes -- what is the implication for our approach to corrections in the future?

First I think we've got to build programs that call for personal involvement and interchange in relationships, not unthinking obedience to an authority unrelated to human experience. And this means dealing at the outset with our basic definitions of criminals.

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What definitions?

A whole diagnostic jargon has built up that's very much tied to institutional procedures. Terms like "psychopath" and "sociopath" -- these are words that sanction brutalization. If you label a youth as a psychopath, this means to the qualified professional "untreatable," or it means "watch your step at all times." You go into the corrections process pretty well guaranteed of failure. "Psychopath" means institutionalization. It means I don't want responsibility for that fellow. Sometimes it leads to writing people off completely. This in practice leads to systems in which the least trained people deal with people in the most need. In its extreme it could mean -- as it frequently has in this country -- that we can with impunity incarcerate or maltreat whomever we wish.

You're saying that a label can virtually dictate a prisoner's whole future?

Labels tend to be social prescriptions that determine what happens to a person the rest of his life. Even though certain profoundly retarded children may not be expected to live beyond 8 or 14, you cannot write them off. You've got to give them the best care possible, give them as much conscientiousness and concern as they're capable of having during that time. If you write them off, then you're doing what the Nazis did. The retarded, criminals, mentally ill, homosexuals were first to be sent to concentration camps. The danger of labels lies in the irresponsibility they permit on the part of those who institute whatever treatment follows. That's why I feel the emphasis in corrections should be to penetrate as deeply as possible to the so-called unsalvagable. To the degree that one treats a Charles Manson decently and still guarantees public safety -- to that degree you've done something really human and decent.

Is that how you would set a general standard by which to judge care?

Yes. I think the standard should be how decently one can treat those at the extreme ends of the spectrum.

What are the implications for corrections if you follow that standard?

I think they're very dramatic. If, for example, I do something for a burglar and it works and he stops burglarizing and is decent and humane, that will automatically mean we're going to do well by the shoplifter, for if we're not going to mistreat burglars, we're not going to mistreat shoplifters. And so on down the line. I'm not suggesting that people who have hurt people be loose in the streets or even in a community program. All I'm suggesting is that we need to think through our basic assumptions. If you start with the premise that a delinquent child is vicious, a wild dog, chances are he'll come through to you that way. If we cage people off somewhere out of sight and talk about them as beasts, they'll come out fulfilling expectations.

What you're saying sounds a little like the Biblical demand to love one's enemies. But are you virtually saying that this rule could have an institutional pragmatism that hasn't yet been fathomed?

That's right. What we're now doing produces the opposite result. It gives the least corrective care to the most delinquent, but most needy, youths. In the past, most kids whose "crimes" were truancy, running away, disobedience to parents landed in jails or training schools. Recently at the federal level the emphasis has been to place these so-called status offenders in non-incarcerative settings. It's an effort to separate the "deserving delinquent" from the "undeserving delinquent." The result is to provide decent services for delinquent children who are largely from middle-class families; while kids involved in property crimes are given more incarceration and harsher sentences. Yet most of these kids, too, should be placed in alternative settings. One thing that we showed in Massachusetts is that 90% of incarcerated kids can be placed in alternative settings at no risk to public safety.

This brings us back to institutional reform. Let's suppose you had carte blanche to revamp a state system, budgetary power and no hindrance for political reasons. What would you do?

Usually about 90 percent of a state's budget for juvenile correction system is not really purchasing much in terms of correction. I would free up that money to buy care from the wide range of private non-profit groups. To ensure competitiveness in the system I would not contract large groups. In Massachusetts we showed that with many options available you can fit programs to the youngster, rather than the reverse, and also cut recidivism by about half. We found that 90 percent of the youngsters in institutions could be moved into alternatives.

What about those linked to more violent crimes?

There's certainly a need for more security. But the settings should be small -- maybe eight or ten beds. And I think you need to build into that program community advocacy so that kids could be moved into the community at the first possible opportunity consonant with public safety.

What do you mean by community advocacy?

A person whose full time job it is to keep these kids in touch with the community and prepare them for returning to it. That is, to do for them what an involved middle-class parent would do. We have a youngster working here now who was headed for an institution and we got him assigned here. He'll have an advocate whom he's meeting this afternoon who'll spend thirty hours a week with him, evenings and weekends, to be a friend, to help him negotiate the job situation, the school situation, whatever, and to give more care than a parent would be able to. There is also family therapy for his whole family. Until now he's been through a host of halfway houses, mental hospitals, institutions. But I think we now have a much better shot at strengthening his family situation.

You're saying that our approach to young delinquents must itself deal intelligently with today's weakened socialization systems.

I think we need to build alternative approaches that enhance, support, or provide substitute family situations. I don't know of any better model than the family for integrating the individual and society, because self-discipline comes from identification with someone you love. One doesn't love what H. G. Wells once called a "psycho-juster," a technician who's teaching you correct behavior. Wanting to be like someone you respect and love can only be realized in small settings which resemble the family. There are great possibilities for specialized foster care. You can promise people enough money to take care of delinquent kids, buy them services and make a long-term commitment so that relationships can develop. In that kind of a settling, a child can get angry, even yell, but real warm feelings can also develop.

What about the series of houses you created in Massachusetts in which young offenders lived together?

I think if I had that to do again I would not do it. Some worked beautifully but research shows that most were not much more effective than the institution. The kids often felt as manipulated as they did in the institution. They weren't run like the specialized foster homes.

How do these differ from the halfway house?

The specialized foster homes are modelled after the family. A halfway house generally brings the kid halfway out of the institution, has about six or eight kids living in a home together with a staff, very often two or three shifts of staff. Though the halfway house is modelled on the family-like group home model , you can see that's a very abnormal situation. It's a step up. It's better than the institution. It's smaller and closer. But it would be a very abnormal family where you had three shifts of parents. And it would be even wierder when you had only sixteen year old delinquent boys. I prefer the foster home concept with special care.

Realistically speaking, do you think you could get enough decent, loving, intelligent people willing to undertake this?

There's no question. People all over are willing to do this. They're chosen carefully and paid adequately. I don't have any doubt that, say with the 700 kids in state training schools in Maryland, we could find in one year 350 foster homes for them. There are fantastic possibilities. It also has an indirect healing function, for it makes visible to the community the so- called deviant population.One of the great disservices of the institution is that it makes kids invisible. I think one reason we succeeded in Massachusetts is that we made the children visible, took them around to meetings, and so forth. Also I think that if you look a state's institutionalized delinquent population, you'd find up to 50 percent could actually go back to their homes if you provided services, supervision in the evenings, and an advocate.

Given the incredible amount of money we're spending to hold people in institutions, I should think states would have powerful incentive to adopt alternatives like these. And yet since your Massachusetts experiment you've found the winds blowing in the opposite direction.

You're right. When I went to Illinois, politicians linked to the correctional institutions were lying in wait for me because they'd seen what we did in Massachusetts. When I went to Pennsylvania the governor received advanced telegrams from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees AMFSCME, threatening that if the governor took me on his staff he would lose the union's support, one of his main supporters.

Why can't the problem of jobs be resolved by moving institutional employees into the kinds of alternatives you're talking about?

I think it could to a large extent. And I believe if AMFSCME were to help employees retrain for community based programs there would then be great hope.

Have you ever tried to negotiate with them directly?

No, because they haven't cared to. The new federal justice act makes money available for retraining state and federal employees displaced by de-institutionalization. But I don't think any requests have come in for it though it's provided for under the law. And even a state like Florida, which in 1972 won the award for creating the most community-based programs, ended up with a double system. They got a big budget from the legislature to develop halfway houses and group homes so long as this didn't affect the institutional population. Now they have a system with twice as many kids in it. It costs twice as much. And everybody's happy but the kids.

Despite the problems, I sense that you feel excitement about the regeneration possible in prisoners' lives. Is there a spiritual matter that's ultimately at stake for you personally? A sense that we have to recognize what manhood can be in order to move in the right direction?

Yes, there's excitement in life-giving, growth- producing human things. And I don't have any doubt in my mind that hundreds of kids have never been subjected to all the craziness that kids in the 60's were subjected to. That makes it worthwhile. But I also have a certain pessimism about accomplishing what one might hope for in this field. However, even if the goal is unattainable, in attempting to attain it there's something redeeming. There's something self-fulfilling and noble about the trying. But I would be naive if I thought everything will work out.

Yet listening to you, I feel a certain underlying optimism. Is that true?

When there's more freedom of choice and more possibility for growth in the kind of system that we propose, then I'm optimistic. I'm very pessimistic as long as we have the nameless depersonalized institutions. Forced rehabilitation programs have not worked. They engender retaliation from the person they're forced upon. But give the individual some element of choice in his own destiny, some ability to affect the major decision makers, and it's a different story. The Center for Criminal Justice at Harvard has found that to the degree a youngster is involved in corrections planning, things work out better. I find that very encouraging.

You've seen enough people's lives change for the better?

Yes, I get a lot of letters and pictures from kids I worked with in the early seventies in Massachusetts wanting me to know they're OK. And if you undo the old definitions and open things up a bit in the systems we design, they can move ahead, too. Then the chances of human development are much greater. This is the future. We haven't any choice. Picture, 'Prodigal Son' Etching by Marvin Hayes, Reprinted from 'Gods' Images', Copyright 1977 by Oxmoor House, Inc. Birmingham, Alabama (c) 1980 The Christian Science Publishing Society, March 25, 1980

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