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By Jerome Milleradvocate for the young in trouble / March 25, 1980

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

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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.

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.