Desisning Prisons with an eye toward rehabilitation

In the United States, a maximum-security prison is a place of banishment. Short of capital punishment, it represents the ultimate control the state can exercise over a citizen.

But an inmate is not just sent to prison. He or she must be kept within one. And this is a fact that many state legislatures, especially those with new, mandatory sentencing laws, seem to have forgotten, say correctional officials nationwide.

Minnesota is one state that hasn't.

Despite the third lowest per capita incarceration rate in the nation (after North Dakota and New Hampshire), Minnesota has opened a new maximum-security prison. Unlike California, New York, and Florida, the top three states in total number of inmates, Minnesota is not playing catch-up with its prisons. It has surplus space.

The result of more than two years of planning and four years of construction, the new prison that gives Minnesota extra space is a trapezoidal, electrically operated, computer-monitored complex containing 330,000 square feet of concrete, steel, and flame-resistant, bulletproof glass. It covers 8.17 acres, including a central prison yard larger than a football field.

Oak Park Heights counters the stereotype of a prison. A single, core building that contains the administrative offices, visitor areas, and the central kitchen is the only portion of the prison that rises above ground level when viewed from the roadway entrance. The entire structure is set into a hillside where a swamp was drained, rendering most of it invisible to the public. The rear of the prison looks out over an open vista of the St. Croix Valley.

This first impression is not lost on inmates either. They know they are coming to a different kind of prison.

Until Oak Park was built, only the federal government had constructed a similar maximum-security prison in the last 15 years. Professional and lay correctional observers in and out of Minnesota say they believe the facility is the best prison ever built. It represents state-of-the-art prison technology and theory and is considered a prototype for the future. These same experts point to Minnesota as a model for other states caught in the rush to build prisons to meet the influx of new inmates.

''Society does not have enough places to keep all the people it finds are a threat to itself at present,'' says prison designer Randy Atlas of HDR, an architectural firm in Dallas, specializing in prison construction. ''Nationwide we see hundreds of millions of dollars for new prison construction being allocated as a catch-up game. All the beds are filled up now.''

But state prison systems are autonomous, and often quite distinct in purpose and philosophy.

''What Minnesota has done contrasts sharply with the recent decision in Florida to do what I consider the worst case of planning a prison.'' says Dr. Atlas. ''Two thousand five hundred additional inmates are going to be housed in what are essentially plywood shacks in the recreation yard of the Florida State Prison. What is inconceivable to the public is that often a prison is built without anyone consulting the people who are going to have to run it.''

This was not the case at Oak Park.

''All parties were included from the outset,'' says Al Maresh, director of educational programs for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. The ''all'' included kitchen contractors, guards, inmates, as well as correctional professionals from around the world. Two separate governors with two different political philosophies occupied the statehouse while the prison was being built. Two full years of planning were devoted to Oak Park before ground was broken.

''People 50 years from now will inherit this building,'' says James Zelmer, prison planning director for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. ''You try to be as flexible as possible but you have to seek some common denominators that will stand the test of time and the continuing change in the political philosophies involved in corrections.''

The cost of the new 406-bed facility is $31.8 million, or $78,325 per bed. (This is higher than the current average of $40,000 to $60,000 for a new, secure , county jail facility.) Built with a 75- to 100-year life expectancy, Oak Park's construction cost is estimated to be but 10 percent of the total operation cost for its lifespan. Almost 70 percent of the costs of the prison will be devoted to staff payroll, Minnesota correction officials say, a figure in line with those of other states.

''It is a functional, rational facility,'' says Frank W. Wood, the warden. ''It makes sense for the inmates and staff. It will house those inmates who are the highest escape risks and those who continue to have behavior problems and perform poorly in the general prison populations, those who rape and assault others, those I call 'predators.' '' (Predator is a term widely used among correctional officials; the word that most often accompanies it is ''victim.'')

Mr. Wood says, ''The prison was designed to separate the inmates into small, more manageable groups to improve security, safety, and control and provide an environment for interaction between staff members and inmates.''

The facility is divided into eight attached trilevel complexes. Each complex could be considered another layer in the security perimeter. Seven have 52-bed housing units on the lower levels and industry and educational-program work space above; the eighth contains a 42-bed medical and mental-health unit.

The housing units are divided into eight groups of six or seven rooms that Wood calls ''defensible living spaces.'' Each group is coded by door color, and the inmates are assigned on the basis of compatibility.

Classification and grouping of inmates - for example, by age or by type of offense - in compatible units is considered by many corrections professionals as the single most critical element in the efficient operation of a prison. They can't stress enough that overcrowded conditions start the breakdown of this important component.

Each of the 52-man living units is connected by internal corridors and each can be isolated by large electrically (or manually) operated solid steel doors, if necessary. A riot is considered nearly impossible because of this sectioning. There will never be more than 52 men in any one area at any time in the entire operation of the prison. Another plus of Oak Park's unit housing is that the flow of drugs and contraband can be tightly controlled, unlike in many prisons.

''Management has time to make reasonable and creative decisions in the new prison because you have control,'' says assistant warden Frederick Halbeck. ''How can a guard say 'I am in control' when there are 420 inmates and seven guards on the floor?''

''At Oak Park we don't have to face that question because there never will be more than 52 inmates together at any one time. I can say I am in control and I am able to be proactive rather than just responsive, sitting around waiting for something to blow up. And since the inmates know we are always in control, they feel safer,'' Mr. Halbeck adds.

''The predators will lose their anonymity,'' says Wood. Those people who do want to change can change without fear for their lives. At Oak Park a prisoner cannot go anywhere, except in his room, without being observed by a staff member.

One of the first inmates placed there says, ''If you're used to blending into the background in a more crowded facility, you'll have a tougher time here.'' The convict editor of the in-house newspaper at Stillwater, a medium-security prison in Minnesota adjacent to Oak Park, says when asked if he would go there, ''Most of the guys here don't think it's a good place to do time. Not enough chance for movement around and you'll go nuts being observed so much.''

That society's new ''get tough'' attitudes will have dramatic effects on prisons is borne out in figures released by the US Justice Department. The total number of inmates with sentences ranging from one year to life in state and federal prisons is 385,000 - an increase of 13.7 percent in 1981 over 1980. (The figures don't cover county jails.)

But despite get-tough attitudes, an increased emphasis on alternative sentencing and community release programs exists in many states. Such programs further worsen the image of maximum-security prisons, leaving them with the uninviting label of ''dump'' or ''hole'' by correction departments - end-of-the-line holding tanks where placement in one predefines prisoners, and often guards, as resistant, hostile, tough. The effect: The average citizen views maximum-security prisons as human jungles with the warden a gamekeeper of incarcerated men whose lives are wasting away.

And ironically, the courts who sent the individual to prison in the first place are making confinement, if not more difficult, certainly more expensive. The courts have told society its responsibility does not end when the barred door bangs shut. That the responsibility of protection must extend not only to the community at large but also to the guards who do the confining and the inmate who is confined for the duration of any sentence.

In the late 1960s, inmates - Black Muslims in particular - went to court to establish the fundamental human and constitutional rights of a prisoner. In the '70s, the courts were more active in establishing these rights. Implementing these rights in the '80s has been left to corrections officials who will be watched to see what they do to guarantee them. The unanswered question is will society foot the bill?

At present 39 states and the District of Columbia have existing court decrees , or pending litigation, involving an entire state prison system or one or more major institutions. The lawsuits deal with overcrowding, inmate safety, sanitation, vocational and educational opportunities, guard working conditions - the total condition of confinement.

Bruce McManus, a former warden in Minnesota and now the assistant commissioner for community services in the Department of Corrections was involved from the outset with the new prison.

He says, ''Oak Park Heights is a reaction of this state to the perceived need to be able to control certain elements of our population. We needed high-security more than medium-security facilities and we figured we could always make existing high-security (facilities) work as medium-security but not the other way around. So Oak Park met our needs. Other states will have to decide this for themselves.

Mr. McManus adds, ''There are only so many resources to go around. If you build one huge ship, you won't have as many other ships as you might want. By deciding to build one totally secure facility you are defining the mission of corrections in a certain way and are limiting the amount of funds you have for other correctional treatment.''

David Ward, co-author of ''Confinement in Maximum Custody,'' and a professor in the sociology department at the University of Minnesota, views the facility as ''an experiment to see if physical design can alter the behavior of predators and troublemakers. This is a time of great pessimism in the field of corrections ,'' he says.

''Prison is a negative experience and we need to look for ways to reduce the damaging effects of long-term confinement. As a society we have tried every kind of deprivation and punitive sanction in prison systems. They haven't worked very well. Minnesota is trying to do something in a humane and different manner,'' says Mr. Ward.

In the living units at Oak Park, the two levels of cells open onto wide day spaces and common areas where meals can be served. Other rooms provide areas for watching television and listening to music, as well as for indoor exercise and recreation. Oak Park's private rooms have replaced the old, stacked cell blocks. Iron bars have been replaced by verticle steel tubes filled with steel reinforced concrete.

Each cell, actually a private room with a solid steel door, contains a small stainless-steel toilet, a stainless-steel mirror and stainless-steel sink, a concrete desk, concrete shelves and a concrete bed with a thick mattress. Each room has a narrow window that looks out onto the center courtyard and can be partially opened. Minnesota is committed to single bunking of inmates.

Commenting on single bunking rather than double bunking or dormitory-style sleeping arrangements, Walter Keehn, a guard in the Florida state prison system says, ''Guards do not want dormitories. They may cost less to run, but they are more dangerous for inmates and for us. Overcrowding just adds to the problem.''

Mr. Keehn has spent 18 years in corrections. The first nine were as an inmate due to his having gone to jail at age 14. He has been a guard for the last nine.

''Our prisons need to start instilling more responsibility in an inmate. You can force anybody to do anything for a certain period of time, but will he want to do it after release?'' he asks.

''Prison is not a crime-free environment,'' says Orville Pung, deputy commissioner of institutional services in Minnesota. ''The right to be left alone should be the least common denominator the state can guarantee an inmate, it's just basic fairness, basic humaneness.''

Oak Park also has a large gymnasium, a chapel, an educational complex, and a computerized security control center. Routine events, such as the opening and closing of doors show up on a computer print-out in the prison ''control bubble, '' as would the attempt to climb one of the five strands of Israel taut wire atop the roof of the facility.

For any state faced with building a new prison, or bringing an existing one up to court-mandated standards, there are at least three major factors that must be considered, say officials in Minnesota:

* A secure prison is very, very expensive to build and to run. Says Ken Schoen, director of the justice program of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York, ''They should be used prudently, and only as a last resort, not as some catch-all for society's ills.''

* Though in great demand by politicians, and good copy for the media, nobody wants a prison built near where they live. It's always easier to build one on an existing site.

* More than 85 percent of the inmates locked up will return to the society that banished them. Reformers never tire of pointing out that the skills learned to survive in any secure prison should be compatible with the skills needed to be law abiding and self-sufficient on the outside.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.