Stagnation in the prisons -- lesson of hostage saga

Thousand of commuters take the train from Peekskill, N.Y., south to midtown Manhattan each day. The rail route affords spectacular views of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains - except for a quarter-mile section of track that slices through the Ossining Correctional Facility - formerly called Sing Sing prison.

For the last few days commuters have roared past the most serious problem corrections officials can face - an inmate rebellion with guards taken hostage. As of this writing, inmates still held 17 guards hostage in the facility's Cellblock B.

Sparked by overcrowding, it's a situation that penal reformists say can and unfortunately may occur in any one of more than 30 states.

Mandatory sentencing bills adopted by 37 states, along with 123 new anticrime bills across the United States, are enlarging inmate populations so much and so fast that bottlenecks develop in the placement of recently sentenced prisoners. The prison pipeline plugs up.

In this case, Cellblock B is a five-story holding center for newly sentenced inmates. Here prisoners are classified according to type of offense and type of rehabilitation services needed prior to long-term placement. Prison reformers like Ken Schoen of the Clark Foundation (a nonprofit correctional reform foundation) says such efforts are one of the major signs of progress in corrections to come out of the early '70s. Placement in Cellblock B is supposed to last from only two to four weeks. ''But we have men who have been in there far longer, from three to six months,'' says Lou Ganin, spokesman for the New York State Department of Corrections.

''The days become weeks, the weeks become months,'' says Walter Brooks, a liaison between the Ossining chapter of the NAACP and prisons.

Since the facilities are used for short-term transits they have few if any recreational facilities, no educational or work programs.

During the present crisis officials are reacting calmly, observers say, putting into practice many of the hard-learned lessons from the tragic experience at Attica State Prison more than 10 years ago, during which 43 people were killed.

Three responses by inmates and prison officials standout: No deadline is being set for the release of hostages so long as their safety is evident; a media representative is present at the negotiations and partially accessible to the inmates; and the captured guards are being held in a separate and secure area apart from the main prison population. This latter point eases official fear of random reprisal against individual guards by inmates.

An examination of the whole issue of adequate training for prison guards is likely to surface after the crisis subsides. Up until a few years ago in many states it was not uncommon for new guards to be handed a set of keys and sent off to a cellblock on their first day of work.

Such lack of training has been a constant theme of US Chief Justice Warren E. Burger who has said: ''One of the grave weaknesses of our prisons has been the lack of training for our guards and attendants who have hourly eye-to-eye contact with prisoners. If they are not able to cope with inmates, prison disturbances, costly riots, and often the loss of life will result.''

Today, thanks in part to the urgings of the chief justice, the American Correctional Association, prison inmate reform groups, and unions representing the guards themselves, almost all state prison systems and many larger jails require new personel to meet uniform, minimum training standards before going on the job.

''But just because more correctional training is being done, it does not mean there is better training,'' said Jess Magahan, president of the American Association of Correctional Training, which represents more than 1,000 prison guards. Guard training occurs at three levels: the recruit, the supervisory level, and SWAT-like emergency rescue teams called on when a crisis occurs.

It is at the supervisory level where prison experts see the greatest shortcoming in personnel training. Low pay scale and rapid turnover of younger guards places many in supervisory positions often within 120 days of assuming duty.

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