`Go to your room' -- new prison substitute

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

David Wayte slumps down in a padded lawn chair and looks out over the backyard swimming pool. ``Yeah, this is not bad for prison,'' he says.

Prison?

This is it: pool, television, telephone -- all the comforts of home, at least as far as convict David Wayte is concerned. Mr. Wayte, a draft protester, was sentenced to six months ``house arrest'' in September by a federal district judge in Los Angeles.

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He is one of a growing number of convicts across the country now serving time at home instead of behind bars. Restrictions on people under house arrest vary. Mr. Wayte, for instance, is allowed visitors but can only leave his home for medical emergencies. He is not allowed to work. But in most other cases, convicts may enter job-training programs or work. Part of their earnings are used to defray the state's cost of monitoring them.

Faced with burgeoning prison populations and rising costs of internment, more and more states are trying home detention as a less expensive alternative to locking up ``low risk'' inmates. Some states and communities have been experimenting with it on a limited scale for several years. Now, however, the size and number of programs is rapidly expanding:

In recent months, federal judges in New York and Los Angeles have handed down house-arrest sentences -- the first by federal courts. One was the internment given to Wayte for his refusal five years ago to register for the draft.

The other was recently meted out to Maureen Murphy, a Queens, N.Y., legal secretary convicted on racketeering and conspiracy charges. She is to be incarcerated at her home for two years as part of a five-year probation sentence.

Florida, which has the most ambitious house-arrest program in the country, now has more than 4,750 inmates locked up in residences -- but not all are ``nonviolent'' offenders.

Oklahoma recently expanded its program to the point where it now has some 700 inmates under house arrest.

Several other states -- including Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, and South Carolina -- currently operate state-run home-detention programs. Similar programs exist at the county level in several states.

``There is a fairly strong trend toward it now,'' says Paul Keve, a corrections expert at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. The trend toward house arrest is part of a broader shift within the criminal-justice community to try certain types of community-based correction, either as an alternative to prison or as a way to ease inmates back into society. At least 25 states now operate ``intensive supervision'' programs, of which house arrest is generally considered the most stringent type. Cost, crowding prompt new approach

Underlying all this is the continuing problem of overcrowded prisons. There are 47,000 more prisoners than there are beds to put them in in federal and state penitentiaries. Some 25,000 inmates are being held in local jails because of overcrowded conditions in these facilities.

Another factor spurring on house-arrest sentencing is cost. On average, the tab for keeping an inmate locked up in a state prison is $17,000 a year. No definitive studies have been done on the cost of house arrest, but indications are that it is less expensive than maintaining a person in prison, but more expensive than traditional probation. Last year Florida took in $9.2 million in fees from house-bound convicts, although this was not enough to cover the cost of supervising them.

House arrest is no cure-all for these ills. But advocates see it as a way to punish certain offenders without aggravating existing prison problems.

``The idea is to give sanction that has more meaning than probation,'' says Anthony Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association in College Park, Md. Oklahoma and Florida lead the way

Existing house-arrest programs have similar approaches but vary somewhat in intent.

Oklahoma, one of the first states to use house arrest, launched its program in 1980, mainly to ease soon-to-be-released prisoners back into the community.

Initially, it dealt with a handful of prisoners at a time. But last year, after watching the state's prison population nearly double since 1979, the governor and state legislature expanded the program. Today as much as 15 percent of the total prison population (1,300 inmates) is eligible for early release under house arrest.

``All prisoners could go out on house arrest unless they are sex offenders or have unusual escape or violence records,'' says Anne Thompson, assistant administrator of the home detention program for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections. So far, about 64 percent of those released under the program have completed at-home incarceration without being re-arrested.

The figure is somewhat higher (86 percent) for Florida's program, which is more punishment-oriented. It doesn't deal with prisoners facing release, but uses house arrest as an alternative to prison.

Most of those locked up in their homes in Florida are nonviolent offenders, such as minor drug dealers or thieves. But any case other than a capital offense can be considered for house arrest.

As in Oklahoma, ``house convicts'' in Florida can leave their residences during the day to work or attend ``self-improvement'' programs, such as job training or public-service work. They usually may also leave for personal trips, such as grocery shopping or religious services. Otherwise, they have to stay put, and are subject to frequent visits from probation officers. They also have to pay monthly fees ($30 to $50) to help defray the costs incurred by the state in monitoring them.

``Everybody considers it a success so far,'' says Leonard Flynn, director of probation and parole for the Florida Department of Corrections. Safety is a concern

Yet, there are concerns about this trend. Foremost is the issue of public safety -- whether some offender may leave home and commit a crime.

Earlier this year, one of the prisoners under house arrest in Oklahoma committed a rape. That prompted state legislators to tighten the guidelines of the program so that no sex offenders could be put on house-arrest programs.

``I would not want a bank robber in that kind of program,'' says Allen McLean, deputy chief of the federal probation office in Los Angeles that is monitoring David Wayte's case, who otherwise is supportive of the idea.

In addition, some lawyers worry about judges imposing house-arrest sanctions on offenders who otherwise might have received simple probation or community service sentences. Moreover, many probation departments around the country are already overloaded with cases, and may have trouble monitoring large-scale house-arrest programs.

One alternative may be to use electronic surveillance equipment, which a number of local jurisdictions around the country are testing. These are usually anklets or bracelets with tiny radio transmitters that help police monitor a convict's whereabouts. But they raise some Big Brother questions of their own.

For Wayte, meanwhile, there are no electronic handcuffs that might allow him to stray beyond the yellow stucco house in this bedroom community east of L.A., where he lives with his wife and grandmother.

San Quentin this isn't. But Wayte knows it isn't a pool party either. ``The punishment is mostly psychological,'' he says. ``I'm not under any threat of injury or physical duress. But it is not easy to have to remain in this house for such a long period of time.''

Yet, he is trying to use the time for self-improvement. He meditates, writes in a journal each day, and reads.

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