Playing Prisoner for a Day in a State-of-the-Art Jail

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SUBURBANITES who spend their Sunday afternoon searching for an open house found an unusual destination recently - the new Norfolk County Sheriff's Office and Correctional Center in Dedham, Mass. On a chilly weekend, 6,500 people waited in long lines to see what officials claim is the only jail in the world to be built on the median strip of a highway.

Who can blame them for their curiosity? This $32-million facility, set on a rocky promontory overlooking Route 128, defies every stereotype of a penal institution. Skylights and off-white walls give an airy feeling. Cells are divided into four "pods" and open onto carpeted day rooms, each with a TV set and comfortable seats. Blond tables and mauve chairs fill the library. No wonder this new-style jail, which will soon receive inmates, has been dubbed a "glamour slammer."

For many visitors, the tour begins in a lighthearted mood, as if they are playing Prisoner for a Day. One man reclines on a bunk as a friend takes his picture. Two teenage boys pretend to be handcuffed. Children peer through cell bars. A little girl asks her father, "What do people in jail eat?"

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Yet no amount of curiosity and joviality can mask the undercurrent of tension that runs through our group as an officer shows us the dining area, gym, and medical center. We grow somber in the intake area, where new arrivals are strip-searched, deloused, and issued prison clothes. Almost no one dares speak in the maximum security area, where inmates spend 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, their meals passed through a slot, their only diversion a Bible.

To visit a jail is to confront a terrible deprivation of space and loss of freedom. How many more prisons, a visitor wonders, must the country build? Already the United States leads the world in incarceration rates. A report released yesterday by The Sentencing Project shows that American prisons now hold 1.1 million inmates - a 6.8 percent increase in one year - at an annual cost of $20.3 billion.

A typical "customer" at this facility, as Sheriff Clifford Marshall puts it, is between the ages of 17 and 23. He has an 8th-to-10th-grade education and a 4th-to-6th-grade reading level. He will spend up to 2 1/2 years behind bars for crimes ranging from larceny and motor vehicle homicide to forgery and assault and battery. He has, our guide explains, "messed up, big time."

"We're supposed to turn these guys around," Sheriff Marshall tells us. "This building, dealing with young people's problems, will help. What that means to you as taxpayers and citizens is that you'll get somebody who's better when they're going home than when they came in, whether that's in appearance, mind, or body."

To achieve this ideal, officials will use what our guide calls a "pro-active approach" to "eliminate negative behavior and promote positive behavior." Reforming rather than warehousing is their goal.

Massachusetts spends $24,000 a year to maintain each prisoner at the old Norfolk County jail. A study the sheriff's department conducted several years ago found a recidivism rate of 65 to 70 percent among early-release prisoners. Will a more humane approach in a more dignified setting help to cut that rate? Employees at this state-of-the-art jail hope so.

The sight of a prison makes a visitor think of prevention - through stronger families, Head Start programs, and education in every sense of the word.

A clean, well-appointed prison is better than a dungeon. But there is no such thing as a beautiful prison. Gold-plated handcuffs are still handcuffs. The most wretched state of freedom is still preferable to involuntary confinement, whatever the amenities. This is what a visitor knows firsthand, breathing deeply as the prison door closes behind - escaping into the wintry air, heading back to the warm, free choices of home.

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