False Toughness

GETTING tough on crime seems to be a litmus test for politicians in this election year.

One manifestation is the growing effort at the state and local levels to crack down on privileges granted to prisoners. From California to Wisconsin and the Carolinas, lawmakers are introducing and enacting measures that range from eliminating weight-training programs to banning personal tape players inside cell blocks and forcing prisoners to wear black-and-white striped outfits. In Mississippi, whose legislators recently enacted a measure that included the striped uniforms, inmates now are prohibited from having individual air conditioners - although state correctional officials say no inmate had one.

While some new restrictions, such as banning pornography inside prison walls, have merit, the majority of the new proposals are at best misguided and at worst dangerous.

Removing even low-cost activities and privileges from prison schedules increases the number of idle inmates, a condition that one former warden in Mississippi calls ``a warden's worst nightmare.''

One recurring comment among those trying to turn back the clock on prison reform is that prisons should be places of punishment, not of enjoyment. Yet the United States has an incarceration rate second only to Russia's. Inmates, tagged with a criminal record that will follow them out the gate, are stripped of freedoms that others take for granted - freedom of choice or movement, for example. Overcrowding remains a serious problem. Hardly vacation spots. And the notion that making prisons even tougher places than they now are also implies a deterrent effect that is just as chimerical as the effect imputed to capital punishment.

Some abuses of prison privileges undoubtedly occur. Cited most often are frivolous appeals by prisoners, which cost states time and money to defend against. Yet the appeals process also has uncovered and led to corrections of heinous abuses.

Prisons should not be country clubs. But neither should they merely be human warehouses where the law of the jungle prevails.

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