What you don't know about prisons

By , William D. Leeke is commissioner of the South Carolina Department of Corrections.

Corrections work is possibly the least understood and most frustrating function of state government in our country, and the continued increase in the number of inmates is making the job of prison administrators more difficult each day.

Prison walls keep inmates in but also keep the public out. Citizens simply do not understand what we do and why. The public, therefore, gives us little sympathy, understanding, or support.

For example, telephone calls to any correctional administrator during a typical morning may include:

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''Bill, this is Representative Midlands. This Smith fella is doing 25 years for armed robbery, but he comes from a good family and I'd like to see him get a break - maybe work release.'' (Last year Representative Midlands voted for mandatory sentencing of armed robbers.)

''Mr. Leeke, this is Al Deadline with radio news. What explanation do you have for that escape from the new prison?'' (Mr. Deadline wasn't interested in doing a story earlier on construction problems at the prison, or the shortage of correctional officers or overcrowding.)

''Mr. Leeke, this is Mr. Taxpayer. I'm sick and tired of those prisoners being coddled. I think you should lock them up for good.'' (Mr. Taxpayer thinks humane conditions, required by federal courts, is coddling, and he led the protests last year when we tried to build a prison in his county.)

The public sympathizes with law-enforcement officers but not with the correctional people, who are hidden from view. This is partly because of the stereotyped image the public has of prisons:

* Citizens want inmates to work, but are shocked to learn that each inmate is not locked in a cell by himself 24 hours a day as in the television portrayal.

* Taxpayers expect inmates to work, but cannot understand how an inmate can obtain a sliver of steel from a prison industrial plant to fashion a homemade knife.

* The public wants long sentences, but does not want to hear about spending more tax dollars to build more prisons.

* The public cannot understand why escapes occur even though there are too few security personnel.

* Most taxpayers do not understand that a national ranking at the top for the highest per capita incarceration rate is not necessarily a good thing when there is little deterrent to crime. The federal courts can rule our prison systems unconstitutional at any time because of overcrowding.

* Most citizens do not want to hear about safe alternatives to locking up nonviolent offenders, such as properly supervised parole.

Prisons are country clubs unless it's your kid who is being locked up. Then they become dungeons. Fortunately, neither assumption is accurate, but prison still is not pleasant.

The risk of an inmate being overpowered and sexually or physically assaulted by a large group of predators is low, but it does happen. Then there is the dehumanizing daily experience for everyone of being forced to live in a 9-by-7 room with two total strangers, one of whom refuses to bathe and the other so emotionally disturbed that he cries most of the night.

For the corrections personnel assigned to a major institution, the underlying risk of violence is always present and certainly in the back of everyone's mind. The contingency training you receive in preparation for hostage situations you hope will never occur is a grim reminder that you work in a potentially explosive world - one in which you're outnumbered 10 to 1 by a group of people who are awfully unhappy about their circumstances.

That kind of anxiety must, however, be pushed aside if a prison employee expects to perform effectively. It is outrageous, however, to expect the correctional officer with sole responsibility for control of 190 men in a dormitory, a classification specialist with a 300-man caseload, or, perhaps worst of all, one chaplain responsible for the spiritual needs of 1,100 inmates to have more than a superficial ''band-aid'' involvement. A genuine concern for individual needs is quickly swallowed by the overwhelming expectations.

Stress has developed into something of a buzz word in recent years. The few symptoms of overcrowded conditions I have described all translate into stress on individuals - both inmates and staff - as well as the organization.

We have seen abnormal increases in physical assaults, racially motivated confrontations, and requests for protective custody as a result of either real or imagined threats. Requirements for both psychological and medical care have also skyrocketed.

Being a corrections professional also affects the way people view you. You can't go anywhere without someone coming up and telling you how to run the prison system. You are never the most popular guy in a room.

But I would like to think that there are enough enlightened and concerned citizens in this country who insist on solving the dilemma of corrections - before another prison skirmish becomes a full-fledged holocaust.

I would also hope that we are not naive enough to assume that the nation's inmates - many already debilitated by otherwise needless incarceration - will continue indefinitely to act responsibly in a situation that has them stacked three deep in cells designed for one.

The prisons of the United States belong to its citizens, not to correctional administrators. Our agencies cannot operate them properly unless citizens understand the complex problems and issues involving corrections.

There are safe, economical ways to solve the overcrowding problem. One example is expanded use of parole and probation with good supervision and reasonable caseloads. Headlines always go to the relative few who violate parole or probation, but the general track record has been good.

The public has the mistaken impression that probation means being soft on people. But the requirements are hard on a free citizen. One option would be ''weekend jail'' allowing people to stay at home, hold jobs, and not be a burden on society for the rest of the week. Another would be letting well-off, nondangerous white-collar offenders stay out of prison, thus relieving overcrowding, while paying very high fines that could defray costs of holding dangerous offenders.

As for the proposed laws to eliminate parole, I don't know whom I could hire who would be willing to oversee and try to control inmates who did not have at least the shred of hope provided by parole.

Another way to reduce overcrowding would be laws similar to one that Michigan has. These would speed release of nonviolent offenders through rolling back their sentences by 90 days when the prison population reaches capacity or some specified percentage above capacity.

The trouble is that improvements will probably have to be carried out over the loud objections of those politicians who are interested only in votes as they play on the emotions of voters instead of supporting what is best in terms of public safety and state budgets.

The answers may not be simple, but the choices are clear-cut. Either build and staff more prisons or stop sending so many of our citizens to prison. We cannot have it both ways!

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