The price of bad prisons

Once again it has taken tragic rioting and bloodshed to draw public attention to the deplorably slow progress in the US toward penal reform. News reports noted that the weekend riot at the New Mexic State Penitentiary, which took the lives of so many inmates and left the prison in ruins, was the most serious since the Attica uprising in upstate New York in 1971. In the years between the Attica and New Mexico outbreaks, there has been a steady stream of less spectacular inmate revolts at other institutions. There has also been some encouraging movement in a few states toward modernization of penal institutions with corrections officials, for instance, placing greater emphasis on alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders.

But the sad fact is that these remain the exceptions to the regrettably outdated and overcrowded bastille-like prisons that remain all-too-familiar blotches on the landscape and on the nation's conscience. Chief Justice Warren Burger's weekend plea for lawyers to focus greater efforts on prison reform is one all Americans ought to heed. "It is folly to establish a system of justice allowing each criminal defendant the most elaborate due process, free counsel, and the most expensive trials known anywhere," he asserted, "and then cast the guilty into 19th century penal institutions."

Corrections experts say the US prison population has grown from 200,000 to more than 300,000 over the past decade. In many states overcrowding is reaching crisis proportions. Simply putting emphasis on more and bigger prisons, however , is not the answer to overcrowding nor to the problem of crime. Corrections studies have shown imprisonment does not turn around a climbing crime rate.

A certain number of maximum security prisons must be maintained, of course, to handle the relatively small percentage of the prison population which comprises hardened criminals. In such institutions a recurring need is for more enlightened attitudes among prison employees toward inmates, greater sensitivity to the rights of convicts, and more displays of respect for them as fellow human beings.

The overriding need is for greater emphasis on rehabilitation of nonviolent offenders through more extensive use of alternatives to imprisonment, such as community centers, work release programs, and half-way houses. Much of the pressure of overcrowding could be relieved by dealing with first-time and other less dangerous offenders, for instance, in this manner. The recent trend toward laws that mandate and, in some cases, extend sentences has made overcrowding worse. The proposed US Criminal Code reforms currently before Congress will only add to the problem unless its complex sentencing procedures place more stress than they currently do on alternatives to imprisonment.

The whole question of prison reform calls for urgent attention. The public tendency unfortunately is to shove this disagreeable topic out of sight and out of mind, much as society tries unsuccessfully to do with its convicted lawbreakers. The tragedy in New Mexico discloses the fallacy and danger of continued neglect.

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