INSIDE LOOKING OUT. American prisons tend to dehumanize most prisoners. Rehabilitation, as a systemwide policy, is hit-or-miss. The latest crisis facing our prisons is an explosive growth in the number of prisoners, which is overwhelming an unprecedented boom in prison construction. The result, more often than not, is a prison experience that may mollify society, but damages people. Below, the first of a three-part series looks at troubled prisons and their effects on several inmates.

``I love you.'' The words are at the same time defiant and sustaining, even a little courageous. In the din of the early morning hour, Leamond Pierce Jr. rises from a narrow bed in a cell smaller than a pickup truck. He looks into the stainless-steel mirror screwed to the wall of his cell and tells his out-of-focus face, ``I love you.''

He steadies himself, trying to balance the terrible odds against himself by reaffirming what he knows he must know. First things first. Survival next. He is in the Delaware State Penitentiary for life, convicted of murder.

After putting on his clothes, he lifts a pair of cherry-red, wraparound sunglasses to his eyes as if the glasses are a piece of armor or a veil. Coolly he moves out of the cell, a lanky, muscular man in his late 20s, heading for the prison mess hall, trying hard for a cherry-red day.

``I struggle daily not to be bitter,'' he says.

After 7 years, the daily routine is ingrained, but not the fact that he is here for life. Despite the wary hope he has for a cherry-red day, he never forgets he is here for life.

The public rationale is that justice has been done in the case of Mr. Pierce. He committed murder and his penalty is life imprisonment. The man is out of sight behind bars and doing hard time. Justice operating to a tee.

But the difficult question, one that still befuddles the experts and pokes a stick in the ribs of justice, is what on earth should be done with Pierce and tens of thousands of other felons while they are in prison.

For almost 200 years penologists and policymakers in the United States have never really found anything but the most inconsistent answers in deciding what our prisons should do and be, and at what cost.

Because of a lack of policy consensus, US prisons are historically prone to stagger from one palliative to another, from one crisis to another. The latest crisis, the most formidable ever, is the explosive growth in prison populations that is even overwhelming an unprecedented boom in prison construction.

Currently, there are 582,000 inmates in state and federal prisons, an increase of more than 120,000 in the last five years, the highest level in the nation's history. At the same time, during the last eight years, a whopping $15 billion has been spent on new prisons around the country.

A chain reaction has set in: While national crime rates have risen slightly, recidivism is up, hovering at an alarming rate of about 60 percent. Thus more often than not, prisons are like crude, bubbling pots, seldom able to cook the crime out of criminals or alter behavior. Most inmates are released after a median incarceration of nearly 17 months. Many hit the streets, unable to cope with conventional life.

Yet a fearful and sometimes vindictive public wants tougher mandatory-sentencing laws and more and more prisons. Educational or rehabilitation programs get short shift, because over-crowding busts state budgets.

``How can the public know they are getting value for their money?'' asks Jim Austin, one of the nation's premier corrections researchers at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in San Francisco. ``They can't,'' he answers. ``The public looks at prisons as solving crime problems. They aren't.''

What the public gets for its money is a mean, ugly place that controls, limits, and dehumanizes.

``There are so many men who hurt and hate in here,'' says Pierce. ``It's tough to deal with. You have to fight daily not to let it get your spirit.'' By 7:30 in the morning he is in the prison print shop working on the same old machine, an A.B. Dick duplicator. For three years, up to seven hours a day, he has fed paper in and watched paper spit out. It fills his time. It creates purpose, even a little control over his life.

``I make 38 cents an hour,'' he says. ``That's up from 16 cents. I won't ask my mother for money. She works two jobs to make ends meet.'' She has also seen two of her other sons do time in this same prison.

``People in here get crazy over a couple of bags of potato chips, a bar of soap,'' says Pierce. By earning money, he never has to borrow, thus avoiding a dangerous position in prison. ``No one can come up to me and say, you owe. Once a week I'm allowed to make purchases at the commissary. Candy, ice cream. Sardines, if I feel real hungry.''

Control. Limit. Dehumanize.

Several years ago a federal court, in deciding an overcrowding suit, declared that ``prisoners cannot be free of discomfort.'' The ruling agreed with the assertion that it was permissible to place two prisoners in a cell designed for one.

``We're stuck with the wrong visions,'' says Anthony Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association.

``The public has no idea what it means to work and live in one of these facilities for any length of time. People just don't visualize what it means to operate a prison with 800 to 1,000 men in it when it was built to accommodate 500. In the desire to put somebody someplace, they just don't visualize what that is on a daily basis.''

Nor is there much public awareness of the costs involved. To incarcerate Pierce for a year, the State of Delaware spends $15,890, about the same as a year at an Ivy League college.

In California and some Northern urban states, the figure is nearly $30,000 a year to house, feed, and guard an inmate. Between now and 1990, California alone will spend a minimum of $2 billion on new prison construction. The cost per cell can go as high as $75,000. Over the 30-year life of the prison, this will be but 1/16th of the cost of keeping a man locked in it.

But despite new prison construction, the somber, monolithic state prisons found in each of the 50 states, many over 100 years old, are coming under attack by the courts. Currently, 38 state corrections departments, either entirely or at least at one major facility, are under court order for unconstitutional living conditions: overcrowding, lack of exercise areas, limited visiting rights, or unsanitary food preparation.

``After work,'' says Pierce, ``I need a letter waiting for me, especially on Friday.''

It is the proverbial letter from home, carrying with it a double impact in the cage that is a prison. Not only the contents of the letter are important, but the fact that it is there, in his hands, as evidence of Pierce's link to the outside.

On Sundays he sings in the prison choir. ``It's like flying,'' he says. ``A chance to stand up and give.'' He pauses. ``The absolute best is a visit,'' he says. ``Fifteen minutes with somebody is a vacation, an absolute vacation for me. I can do another month after a visit.'' He is allowed visitors for 90 minutes a week.

The penitentiary here in Smyrna is banal. Manila brick bunkers squat in an open field, the entire compound intricately laced with steel fences and miles of razor-sharp wire. Relatively new (built in 1971), it is clean, efficient, not overly crowded, housing about 50 inmates more than its 1,266-bed capacity. It is miles from any town or city of size.

A new segregation unit looms a stone's throw away. It has beds for 64 inmates. Such units are safety valves. They allow prison officials to isolate inmates who break prison rules. For Pierce, the ``seg unit'' means that predators, gangs, and rapists will not roam at will; that criminals will not run the joint. It means his hard time will be less hard.

Food is ample but bland. ``Like spaghetti, only they always forget the sauce,'' Pierce says with a sad laugh. He must contend with the pervasive smell of industrial cleansers and disinfectants. Smyrna's one redeeming architectural feature is the recreation yard. It creates a campus effect and affords a horizon inmates in more notorious lockups only dream about.

Less than 5 percent of the cost of Pierce's incarceration goes for work or education programs. Two counselors are here, should he want to arrange for education or religious instruction. Such individuals' worth is immeasurable to Pierce. He cannot petition the state pardon board for clemency until he completes his 10th year. He's doing ``natural life.''

``You ain't right.''

The statement pops up often in prison, says Pierce. It is a charge intentionally cruel and part of the prison lingo that digs into you and transforms you until you start to believe, ``You ain't right.'' You are dead ``wrong,'' because you're here, looking at yourself in the mirror, doing hard time, wearing cherry-red glasses. ``You ain't right'' because you were convicted of what you know is a stupid, violent act.

The snap of the handcuffs told you this when you were caught; you suffocated on it in court when the sentence was read. When you saw ``You ain't right'' in the eyes of a family member. ``You ain't right'' because, once, you tried to take your life here. ``You ain't right,'' chants the daily prison count, six counts a day to make sure you're still here. ``You ain't right,'' says Pierce of himself when he thinks of the young girl whose father he murdered.

``You ain't right.''

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