Why prison riots? Daily intimidation, violence blamed

Inmates in most big prisons across the United States face a daily, seldom reported world of violence and intimidation, according to corrections officials, congressional and state investigators, and inmates themselves.

The latest evidence of this violence, although apparently on a much larger and more brutal scale than anyone can recall, is the now-quelled weekend riot at the New Mexico State Prison near Santa Fe. According to latest reports from there, at least 35 inmates died, apparently killed by other inmates. Another 15 inmates are known to be missing, according to Gov. Bruce King.The riot leaders are reported to have been angry at inmates cooperating with prison officials. They also were demanding improved conditions.

By contrast, only a few inmates were killed by their fellow prisoners in the 1971 riot at Attica, N.Y. The total killed there was 43 prisoners and hostages, but most died as a result of the massive assault on the prison by state police.

In between these two riots -- Attica and New Mexico -- there have been repeated smaller incidents of prison violence, almost on a daily scale. In the meantime, there has been an increase in the number of inmates in state and federal prisons from about 200,000 to 300,000 today, with a much smaller increase in the number of cells.

What can be done to reduce prison violence? Corrections officials and others offer several suggestions. In brief, these involve a reduction of overcrowding, either by construction of new prisons or by greater use of alternatives to prisons. Some experts urge both steps -- and, in fact, both are being taken -- although generally not under any kind of coordinated master plan.

For the more immediate issue of curbing violence among persons already in prison today, Charles E. Silberman, author of "Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice" urges an improvement in the attitudes of prison officials toward inmates. "You can be tough and respectful," he said in a telephone interview after the New Mexico riot.

Rhode Island's former prison chief, Anthony Travisono, now executive director of the American Correctional Association, offers this post-New Mexico assessment:

More, but smaller prisons are needed to relieve overcrowding -- but equally needed are alternatives such as halfway houses and open-door residential centers from which inmates can travel freely to and from jobs and classes. There are still too many prisoners locked up who are not dangerous and could benefit from such alternatives at a lower cost to taxpayers, he says.

The number of alternative programs in use is "climbing rather rapidly" but community opposition to them is stiff, Mr. Travisono says. Few people want them in their own neighborhoods. Goergia's corrections commissioner, David Evans, speaks of receiving "hate mail" and even "threats" from some influential businessmen for his support of community alternatives.

For the moment, the nation's prison system and the people caught up in it are in a bind. More judges are handing down longer sentences, further overcrowding existing prisons. At the same time, community resistance is slowing the move toward greater use of alternatives to prisons.

Some 216 new federal and state prisons are proposed or under construction, according to the National Moratorium on Prison Construction. But, correction experts point out, judges tend to hand out more prison sentences when more cells are available.

Simply building more prisons and ignoring alternatives is not the answer, says William Nagel, director of the Institute of Corrections in Philadelphia. States that have built the most cells in the past 20 years have had some of the greatest increases in the number of prisoners with no traceable decrease in the amount of violent crime, he says.

Mr. Nagel urges public groups to support prison alternative programs in their own neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, there is the challenge of improving conditions in the nation's existing prisons. Some are very old. Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn (D) recently called for shutting down Atlanta's federal penitentiary because it is too big, too old, and too dangerous.

New Mexico's now burned-out state prison was built only 24 years ago, but the American Civil Liberties Union has been suing the state to force improvements there. Ironically, some improvements were being made in the physical conditions as well as in food, recreation, and some other programs when the riot broke out before dawn Feb. 2, says Joanne Brown, the state's deputy director for prisons.

There had been overcrowding due to a "doubling up" in cells while renovations took place, she said.

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