Families play a major role; Mexico's model island prison

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When US prison officials look at long-term incarceration, two chill winds slap them in the face. The number of individuals receiving stiffer, mandatory jail sentences is increasing. The money to pay for the get-tough policies is not.

The ominous implications of this trend (as evidenced by the Attica, N.Y., and Santa Fe, N.M., prison riots) have prompted a small but growing number of American correctional professionals to turn their attention south to Mexico, where a much warmer wind blows over long-term confinement.

In one instance -- the Islas Marias Penal Colony -- the contrast with US penitentiaries is stark. Compared with traditional US maximum-security prisons, it is a tropical paradise. It already has, say a group of reputable US penal reform advocates, some answers on how to improve long-term confinement in US prisons.

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Located on an island off Mexico's Pacific coast, it is a highly innovative correctional environment with relatively few restrictions placed on the movement and behavior of the inmates.

At Islas Marias married prisioners may serve out their sentences in the company of their wives and children. (Fewer than eight states in the United States allow for conjugal visits.) There are no prison cells or walls and the prisoners are called colonists. Each man lives with his family in a single-family dwelling clustered in camps or small villages scattered around the island.

''Our prison role for an inmate is too often gorilla cages stacked four high, all choices stripped away, and where the stink, noise, and heat results in sensual emasculation,'' says Ken Schoen, former commissioner of corrections for Minnesota and director of criminal justice programs for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which sponsored the visit of a nine-member study team to the Mexican penal colony at Islas Marias.

''What I saw on Islas Marias is that, unlike in American prisons, men can have the role of worker, husband, and father to support their being,'' says Mr. Schoen.

''It's a mill town concept with a fence of water around it,'' says Anthony P. Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association and a member of the study team that visited the island. ''I would say they are 80 percent self-sufficient in paying for the operation, and if you don't count the marines and engineers on the island (who are there on other government business and would be called in only in a crisis) the penal colony could be self-supporting.''

Mr. Travisono, a former warden, adds, ''Prisons are so expensive in today's culture they should not be used frivolously ($37.88 per day per inmate for the 28,100 residents at federal maximum-security facilities). I would come back into the active business to operate an Islas Marias. The family is the control mechanism there. With family members there it takes the onus off the men to be macho in an all-male environment. The use of discipline is not as necessary.''

The population of Islas Marias is approximately 3,500 persons, of whom about 1,500 are prisoners and 2,000 are family members, staff, and marines. Both married and single offenders are sent to the island in about equal numbers.

No violent sex offenders or drug addicts are permitted on Islas Marias and most inmates are sentenced to terms of from one to 10 years. Forty percent are convicted of willful homicide, 10 percent for robbery or theft, and 50 percent for crimes against ''the health of the state,'' mostly assault and drug-dealing offenses.

A married inmate, once he has established himself in a job and has a record of cooperation with the island administration, can apply to the director to have his wife and children brought to the island.

Salaries for inmate work range from 3 pesos (7 cents) to 150 pesos ($3.60) per day. The scale is flexible and depends on what kind of work is involved.

Prisoner work is in four areas: clerical and administrative skills; laboratory work in the island hospital; care and cultivation of the botanical gardens; agricultural and field work on the farms. In addition to pay, an inmate earns one day of sentence remission for every two days of satisfactory conduct and work.

All children are fed at the school three times a day. Wives, however, must be supported by their husbands. Housing, water, and electricity are at no cost. Thirty percent of an inmate's earnings are earmarked for compulsory savings that are turned over to him as gate money when he finishes his sentence and leaves the island.

Dr. Mary Lozano, a cultural anthropologist from the State University of New York at Buffalo and now working for the US Navy in Washington, lived on Islas Marias for seven months studying under a Ford Foundation fellowship.

''My overwhelming conviction,'' she says, ''is that Islas Marias proves there is another method that can be applied, that an alternative method to incarceration exists. You have people living there as if they were not living a life of poverty, of crime, and imprisonment. They don't leave the prison with a sense of bitterness or being debased, but leave with a taste of the good life and will hopefully continue living this way.''

Mexican penal officials told the American Correctional Association the prison's recidivism rate is very low and keeps falling annually. But no hard statistical data exist. ''Mexico is a different culture that just doesn't keep numbers on people the way we do in the US,'' says Dr. Lozano.

''The inmate is a family member,'' she continues, ''providing for a family which he never would have been able to do on the mainland as an impoverished individual. The key difference between there and here is that the Mexican government accepts the responsibility of poverty. They see it as the main situation that causes criminal action, and so they run their prisons to correct this without blame of the individual.''

In reflecting on her seven months at Islas Marias, she says, ''I felt very safe while there. On many occasions I sat and conversed with men and did not know if they were prisoners or officials. It is so important that they can socialize with each other, and, therefore, they accomplish what the prison wants and society needs.''

Anthony Casas of the California Department of Corrections has been to Islas Marias twice. ''Most Mexican-Americans have heard about Islas Marias because it was originally founded for exiling political prisoners under the dictator Diaz at the turn of the century,'' he says.

According to Mr. Casas, the real changes at Islas Marias began in 1972 when a rancher from Veracruz took over administration of the colony after the previous warden had been assassinated. The new warden ran it like a ranch.

''In US prisons, the emotional and adjustment problems faced by long-term inmates are extreme,'' says Casas.

''But you can't just transfer an Islas Marias up here,'' Casas says. ''There are a lot of things we can learn from them. Mexico is gleaning the best they find in the world about prisons; they're very professional and practical. They establish tranquility. They're a poor country and they have to make do and so do their prisons.''

Viewing the current economic situation in general and for prisons in particular, Casas predicts, ''A private organization will come in and run a prison. I see it sooner than later unless we interest the right legislators in running an experimental (government run) prison.''

He says he feels a small model prison patterned on Islas Marias could work in California. When you figure the cost of 100 maximum-security cells and 100 families on welfare, and then figure the cost of a small experimental program that pays for a good part of itself, you are going to try it, Casas says.

''But let's not kid ourselves,'' Mr. Schoen adds. ''Realistically, at present , the only thing that will change the quality of life in prisons will be the continued intervention of the courts and the shortage of money.''

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