Early-release programs aim at easing crowded prisons

Nearly 1,100 Georgia convicts recently regained their freedom all on the same day --without completing their prison terms. On March 16 each of these inmates, all of whom were within the final six months of their sentences, was handed a new suit of clothing, $25, and a bus ticket home.

A similar early release of prisoners who have not completed their terms is expected in Michigan over the next few weeks.

These Actions, involving only those convicted of nonviolent offenses, underscore what has become an increasingly critical problem in state and federal correctional institutions across the United States --overcrowding.

Between 1973 and 1980 the number of inmates in federal and state penitentiaries increased by more than 65 percent, from 189,833 to 314,083.

Now, at a time when crime rates are climbing rapidly and public pressures are mounting for longer prison sentence for serious offenders, the nation's prison population is nearing the 400,000 mark, not including those detained in local or country jails.

While the extent of overcrowding varies considerably from state to state and among facilities within the same state, prisons with few exceptions are bulging at the seams. And there is nothing to suggest the situation will improve within the next few years, causing increasing concern among those responsible for inmate care.

Overcrowding is known to be at least partially responsible for several prison uprisings in recent years, including the February 1980 riot at the New Mexico State Penitentiary in which 33 inmates were killed and the institution virtually destroyed.

Many states, including Georgia, the scene of last month's largest mass prisoner release, are under court orders to reduce the number of convicts housed at one or more of their correctional facilities, many of which long since have resorted to doubling up two inmates in each cell.

Within the next few weeks, however, states could find themselves forced to provide separate quarters for each inmate.

Much will depend on the outcome of a suit pending before the US Supreme Court involving Ohio's less-than-decade-old maximum security prison at Lucasville.

The case, argued before the justices on March 2, stems from a 1976 suit brought by two Lucasville inmates who charged that their constitutional rights were violated by crowded conditions. A federal district court agreed and ordered a reduction in the prison population. The state complied with the order while appealing the decision, first to a three-judge federal appeals court and then to the Supreme Court. The high court is expected to rule by late June or early July.

Thirty-six other states that could be affected by the impending decision have joined with Ohio in the case, and two of them -- Oregon and Texas -- have filed separate briefs.

The 13 states not currently involved in the litigation are Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, lowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Pennsylvania. At least several of these do at least some so-called double-bunking of prisoners.

At least 29 of the 43 federal correctional institutions also place prisoners two to a cell at night. In nine of the 29 facilities, the double up is for 24 hours a day.

"Our prisons may be crowded but they are now overcrowded," maintains Allen P. Alder, the Ohio assistant attorney general who argued the state's case before the Supreme Court. He adds that "services at Lucasville or anywhere else in our correctional system have not broken down" and despite a heavy inmate population "the health and safety of prisoners is not in jeopardy."

The court-mandated inmate reductions at Lucasville have resulted in sending some maximum-security prisoners who ordinarily would be held there to medium-security facilities, he explains. Ohio has some 12,000 convicts at various prisons around the state, including 1,645 at Lucasville, which had 2,300 inmates when the litigation began.

A five-volume study of the nation's correctional institutions by ABT inc. Associates of Cambridge, Mass., under a $1.5 million contract from the Department of Justice, found that 16 states held more than half of their prisoners in what are generally considered cramped cells -- less than 60 square feet.

Texas, for example, was found to have 90 percent of its prisoners so housed as of 1978. More than two-thirds of the inmates in Florida, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, and South Carolina were similarly quartered.

The study concludes that building sufficient new prisons to meet current needs would cost $8 billion. Expanding prison or jail capacity, it suggests, "may at best provide short-lived reduction in crowding, and, at worst, may result in increases in the number of prisoners held in substandard conditions. We seriously question the value of additional correctional capacity," the researchers concluded.

Instead, the ABT study recommends states adopt systematic policies for use of prison space and suggest overall inmate populations be trimmed through paroles, commutations, and time off for good behavior.

Similar views are held by the Washington D.C.-based National Moritorium on Prison Construction, a project of the Unitarian-Universalist Service Committee.

Some opponents of building programs favor alternative sentencing, such as time spent in public service and restitution, for those convicted of nonviolent crimes as a means of holding down inmate populations.

It is noted that construction of new prisons now costs between $50,000 and $ 60,000 a cell and expenses for maintaining an inmate average between $12,000 and

At least 42 percent of the 559 state and federal prisons and approximately 3, 500 local jails are more than 50 years old, and over one-third of the maximum-security institutions were built more than a century ago.

Last month's early prisoner release in Georgia was not the first of its kind. That state and at least three others -- Florida, Virginia, and Maryland -- have done this at least once in recent years. But the release of nearly 1,100 prisoners was the largest yet.

The upcoming Michigan prisoner releases, expected to involve between 850 and 1,000 inmates, are provided for under a new state Prison Overcrowding Emergency Powers Act signed into law in January by Gov. William Milliken.

It specifies that whenever correctional facilities reach or exceed capacity for 30 consecutive days, the governor is to be so advised. He then has 15 days to issue an order authorizing the parole board to turn loose as many inmates as necessary to get the total prison population down to 95 percent of capacity. Those released must be within the last 90 days of their minimum sentence and have been convicted of nonviolent crimes.

The new statute is viewed generally as a "short-term substitute to overcrowding," explains William Kime, deputy director of the Michigan corrections department. He says the prison population in his state has reached 13,054 while the capacity is 12,874.

Current state corrections department projections indicate the early release program may result in a 1 percent increase in crimes.

Backers of the measure contend there was no alternative since existing facilities cannot house more prisoners and Michigan voters last November rejected a proposed $225 million bonding program to finance four new prisons. A similar proposal was turned down at the same time in Oregon.

New Jersey citizens, however, said "yes" to a $60 million prison construction program.

Although there is no official head count of those now imprisoned throughout the country, statistics compiled by the National Moritorium on Prison Construciton show that as of late February the combined inmate population was 545,962.

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