Our prisons: What is their mission? Outgoing Michigan corrections director sees public protection as the goal, fairness as the means

When Perry M. Johnson bowed out this summer, after 12 years as Michigan's corrections director, he left more than 3,000 cases pending in state and federal court - each of which names him as defendant.

''I'm the most sued man in Michigan,'' is the characteristically rueful jest of the man who has decided, after nine years of grappling with prison overcrowding, that ''it's time to step aside and pass the torch to someone with a fresh suit of armor, because mine is getting pretty battered.''

But if Mr. Johnson has been battered and blistered during his years in the Michigan hot seat, he has also emerged as one of America's most thoroughly trusted justice officials, consistently winning plaudits from peers, prisoners, and the press.

In a recent editorial, the Detroit Free Press paid tribute to Mr. Johnson as a man of ''patience, intelligence, and inner toughness,'' who ''took time to listen and knew how to act.'' H. G. Collins, editor of one of Michigan's inmate newspapers, calls Mr. Johnson ''always as fair and honest as a situation would allow him to be,'' in an article that credits the former director with having brought the nation's first full-scale college program into a prison setting.

Mr. Johnson started out in the Michigan corrections system 29 years ago as a counselor, and he rose to oversee a $266 million budget and the state's 52,000 inmates, probationers, and parolees. At the moment, he is still in his old seat, as acting director, and he will remain with the department even after a successor is appointed. In his new job - which, ironically, pays more than the top slot - Mr. Johnson will be deputy director of field services, directing the 1,040 staffers who supervise Michigan's 35,000 parolees.

In person, Johnson is a quietly professional man whose pragmatism stymies efforts to tag him as liberal or conservative. He has incisive ideas about two key issues that polarize his field: the number of prisoners and the purpose of corrections.

When asked whether the United States incarcerates too many people - a question that usually provokes emotional replies - Mr. Johnson's response is analytical and solution-oriented: ''I think we've tended to put people in prison who could be managed in other ways, (but) we've (also) tended to let out very dangerous people quicker than we should have.''

It's hard to judge, he claims, whether the nation needs as many prison beds as it now has, or more. ''I believe we probably ought to have more, but it would be a matter of a smaller number of individuals being kept for a longer period of time, and a large flow of others coming in, staying a year or two, and right back out. Or not coming into the conventional prison at all.''

Mr. Johnson is one of the nation's strongest advocates of halfway houses, but he cautions that they must be used with care. He insists that some offenders should never be placed in community programs, because the danger to the public is simply too great.

He has pioneered in developing classification systems that group inmates by their potential for violence, a controversial move that is now being emulated by a few other states. The system, which has weathered repeated court battles, has enabled Johnson to win the political support needed to place up to 2,300 prisoners in community programs.

A recent study on the public safety implications of Michigan's community programs found that program participants committed significantly less crime, both during and after their stays in the halfway houses, than did inmates released directly to parole. While they were actually in the program, almost no inmates (0.6 percent) committed violent felonies.

Public safety is Mr. Johnson's chief concern. Fairness, he says, is a much misunderstood criterion for judging corrections. Five years ago, in Philadelphia , Mr. Johnson debated the mission of corrections with the flamboyant Prof. David Fogel, University of Illinois, a proponent of an approach to corrections known as the justice model. Johnson drew an analogy between prisons and the schools - both of which have been criticized for abuses of fairness and equality.

''No one suggests,'' Johnson pointed out, ''that the mission of the school system is fairness. Fairness is only a very important condition for meeting the primary goal, which is education. The mission of corrections,'' he concluded, ''is public protection. A condition and restraint on that mission is fairness and justice. We must observe both. We cannot neglect either.''

In his interview with the Monitor Mr. Johnson outlined his views on three other areas:

* The model prison. Perry Johnson's ''ideal prison'' would be a Spartan place. He shares Chief Justice Warren Burger's concerns about prison unemployment and would like to see prisoners work for the private sector, within the prison, at regular wages. He would also like to see prisons charge inmates for programs and recreation, and even for schooling beyond the basic literacy level. Currently Michigan offers courses through the community college level, at no cost to inmates, and he claims that many prisoners sign up only because they lack work.

The model prison ''would provide a basic, sufficient, nutritional diet, an hour's exercise a day, some basic state clothing, a clean, sanitary place to live, and basic health care.

''If they're able-bodied and they want anything more than that, they get to work,'' he says, adding, ''we'd be hopeful the kind of conditioning they go through would carry over when they left prison.''

* Leadership and planning. Studies show that the average state corrections chief serves for two years or less, a factor Johnson says has resulted in a near-total lack of planning and direction.

Unless this situation is dealt with, he says, there is little hope of real progress in corrections. ''In terms of leadership, you have professional career people who are very competent, who would not consider becoming directors because of the volatility of the job and because they serve at the pleasure of the governor.''

To say this, he emphasizes, is not to fault the governors. ''Corrections is like a lightning rod. You have an agency that is causing consternation - and every corrections agency is going to cause consternation from time to time; it's just the very nature of the business. The governor has enormous political pressure, and it's very difficult for him to support the director. It's much easier to bring another person in, and kind of calm down the waters.'' The result of this constant turnover, he says, is disastrous.

One solution, he believes, is to adopt a system like Michigan's, where directors are appointed by a bipartisan commission. A few other states, like South Carolina and Texas, have similar mechanisms. Other options, he says, would be to offer directors a contract or to mandate specific appointments of five or six years, as is often done in other countries.

* Standards and accreditation. In the long term, Johnson sees staff development as the best way to improve the prison system. In the short term, however, he places much of his hope in an evolution of the institutional standards developed by the American Correctional Association, and administered by the Commission on Accreditaton for Corrections in Maryland.

Agencies are not required by law to pursue accreditation, but the standards carry great weight within the field, and most administrators are eager to win accreditation.

''I see this as an evolutionary process,'' Johnson says, ''because if you came in with very specific, comprehensive standards that represent where corrections really wants to be in the 20th century, so many agencies would be so far (from that standard) that they just would not pursue them. You need standards that represent attainable goals, and improvement. And then you need to rework and revise and test the standards over time.

''I would hope,'' he says, ''that 10 years from now, the standards would be considerably more comprehensive than they are today.''

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