Tensions rise in crowded prison system

Despite increases in video surveillance, claims of guard misconduct areproliferating.

Federal prosecutors in New York are considering filing murder charges against two guards from the Nassau County Jail for allegedly beating to death an inmate last month. The man was serving 90-days for traffic violations.

In California, the attorney general's office is setting up a special unit to investigate brutality and the use of lethal force in state prisons.

In Georgia, state officials recently agreed to pay 14 prisoners $300,000 to settle charges of officially sanctioned beatings by guards at the Hays State Prison in Trion.

Across the country, charges that prison officials are abusing inmates are surfacing in disturbing numbers. Experts attribute the rise to burgeoning prison populations, which have led to increased tensions behind bars and the hiring of thousands of new guards with varying degrees of experience.

"Even those of us who've been doing this for a long time are encountering things that we find shocking," says Craig Haney, a national expert who's been studying prison conditions for 25 years. "Things are going on in different prisons now that we'd come to assume were no longer taking place."

Groups representing correctional officers agree the rapid expansion of the prison system has created crowding and tension in many facilities across the country.

They also acknowledge there are a "few bad apples" in corrections, as in every profession. But they say increased training and use of monitoring technology have reduced incidents of abuse.

"We're in a day and age when abuse and that type of behavior are minimal. But what does happen gets exaggerated - that's not to dismiss it, not to say that it doesn't occasionally happen," says Mel Grieshaber of the International Association of Correctional Officers in Lincoln, Neb.

More electronic eyes

Mr. Grieshaber insists that when abuse occurs, it's much more likely to be discovered than in the past. That's in part because of increased training, but also because of electronic monitoring - the "thousands and thousands of cameras throughout the prisons and jails in the United States observing what's going on."

Prisoner advocates agree the introduction of cameras has deterred guard misconduct in many prisons and jails. It has also helped many victims of abuse prove their cases in court.

In Arizona, cameras caught officers dragging a dazed and confused prisoner who later died as they held him in a restraint chair. The videotape was considered central in the county's decision to settle a civil suit with the prisoner's family for $8.25 million - a record amount in Arizona.

In New York, it was only after Thomas Pizzuto was allegedly beaten to death in early January at the Nassau County Jail that the local district attorney called for the installation of video cameras.

He noted cameras are "rapidly becoming a standard law-enforcement technique." But the district attorney has also come under fire for ignoring other cases of alleged abuse at the jail.

"District attorneys have no interest in getting involved in prosecuting prison guards," says David Leven of the Prisoners' Legal Services of New York. "They're often members of the community, with a strong union."

Many guards are also reluctant to substantiate prisoners' allegations of abuse. But as a result of the Pizzuto case and other charges, federal authorities are now investigating whether a pattern of abuse existed at the jail.

While prisoners' advocates applaud the increase in electronic monitoring, they say the benefits are counterbalanced by a reduction in judicial oversight of prisons. For many years, prisoners went to the federal courts to lodge complaints about abuse, overcrowding, and other problems.

Often, cases were settled by consent decrees - court-ordered agreements that required prison administrators to undertake various remedies, without having to admit liability. In cases that did go to trial, judges sometimes issued court orders requiring improvements.

For instance, in 1995 a federal court ordered California to clean up the Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City. It came after a group of inmates brought a class-action suit and a federal civil-rights probe found evidence of guard misconduct. A federal judge ruled in the case that prisoners were subjected to excessive force and gratuitous violence.

But inmate advocates say Congress, in an era of tough treatment of criminals, has made it more difficult for victimized prisoners to file the kinds of lawsuits that brought the federal intervention at Pelican Bay, and for the courts to ensure that changes are made.

Changes in federal law

In 1996, Congress passed the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). It was designed to reduce the number of frivolous lawsuits filed by prisoners and to end what supporters called the federal courts' micromanagement of state prisons. The PLRA limits the power of courts to impose consent decrees to improve prison conditions. It also puts an automatic time limit of two years on court orders and decrees.

Inmate advocates argue that abuses will now go unchecked.

"That's made it much easier for an institution that does abuse prisoners to get away with it," says Elizabeth Alexander of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Correctional officials counter that prisoners still have plenty of avenues to make complaints, from civil-rights groups to the media to religious organizations. They also say that 99 percent of all correctional officers are hardworking professionals coping in extremely difficult circumstances.

"I'm pretty sure they're not going in with the intent just to do bodily harm," says Jeffrey Washington of the American Correctional Association, an organization of guards and wardens.

Mr. Washington says it's crucial for prisons to have a properly trained staff and clear policies on how to respond if force is needed.

California under microscope

Indeed, a persistent criticism of the California prison system, one of the most troubled in the country, is a lack of consistent, coherent standards to govern the use of force. It's the only state that allows the use of lethal force to end fights among inmates. That policy is now under review, as is the state's entire correctional system.

Last summer, the state legislature held hearings on the Corcoran State Prison, where state officials and the FBI are investigating allegations that guards set up gladiator-type fights between prisoners and, in some cases, used lethal force to end them.

"That was only one example of what we know to be many in this state, where guards are out of control and their power is being unchecked," says Gwynnae Byrd, a staff member on a joint legislative committee on prison construction and operations.

"They're not only getting away with it administratively, but there aren't any criminal prosecutions when guards are found to be abusive, either," she adds.

That's in part what prompted the new attorney general to set up a special unit to deal exclusively with allegations of abuse in the state prisons.

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