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

By Jim BencivengaStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 1982

New York

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.

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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.

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.