Will new prison plans get reform on line?

The get-tough-on-crime and lock-up-more-offenders philosophy that is pervading much of the criminal-justice philosophy in the United States today is running smack up against these facts: The nation's prisons are already overcrowded -- and outdated and dilapidated corrections facilities are making the situation worse.

The majority of those being incarcerated are untrained for jobs, undereducated, often illiterate, and generally ill-prepared to deal with society.

Rehabilitation programs on the ``inside'' are rare. And meaningful work for prisoners is hampered by state laws that severely restrict selling goods produced by inmate laborers on the open market.

How do you deal with such prison problems? Simple, some say: Build more prisons and create more work programs for prisoners.

Unfortunately it's not so simple! It is expensive to build prisons. Lawmakers who decry overcrowding also tend to drag their feet in making appropriations for this purpose. And the public is also reluctant to ante up the money through tax increases or bond issues. Who wants more convicts in the neighborhood -- and also to have to pay the freight?

Enter private prison operators who are not only willing to build new prisons under public contracts but are also eager to run them. Private prisons may ease an overpopulation problem that has grown immense. The Bureau of Justice Statistics points out state and federal inmate population has gone up a whopping 40.6 percent since 1980.

Municipalities are already contracting with private companies to build correctional facilities and lease them back to the government. And the American Correctional Association reports that about two dozen prison facilities now are owned by private groups. The association predicts that this number will double in the next year or so.

Privately owned prisons are promoted by their backers as cost effective, efficiently run, and more flexible in operation than their public counterparts. But they also have their detractors, who question the whole idea of whether for-profit incarceration is compatible with the impartial administration of justice. Among critics, some civil rights groups see prisoners' constitutional rights to the due process of law -- already under fire in the courts -- as more difficult to protect in a private facility.

Kenneth F. Schoen, a former commissioner of corrections in Minnesota, challenges the whole concept of private prisons. He explains that it is in the interests of the business sector to create the need for more jail space -- but maybe not in the public interest. Mr. Schoen recently wrote that ``private operators whose growth depends upon an expanding prison population may push for even harsher sentences.'' To many, this may seem too strong an indictment.

Regardless, the whole idea of rehabilitation seems to be lost in this who-should-build and who-should-run-the-prisons controversy. Prison reform and prisoner reform, however, seem a little more evident in the growing debate over inmate work -- the concept of ``factories with fences.''

In recent years, Warren E. Burger, chief justice of the United States, has been a prime promoter of behind-the-walls programs that train inmates for useful work and then place them in paying jobs while serving out their sentences. Mr. Burger insists that developing a ``work ethic'' among those who have committed crimes against society could well help them later in adjusting to the pressures of outside life and provide a skill that could be a deterrent to illegal pursuits.

Several states are experimenting with it. For example, in Minnesota, Stillwater Data Processing Inc., a private, nonprofit group, operates within a prison and employs 16 inmates as computer programmers. The prisoners get vocational training at Stillwater and, when hired, receive the minimum wage.

But the chief justice allows that, for a prison work program to be effective, the goods must compete on the open market. Many states restrict selling of inmate products to their own public agencies. Prison-industry advocates say these ``state use'' statutes must be repealed and discrimination against prisoner-made goods eliminated.

Many union groups staunchly oppose changes in the law -- saying it would be unfair for ``honest'' workers.

A new study by the New York City Bar Association's Committee on Corrections indicates that developing a work ethic among prisoners is a worthy pursuit -- whether or not it is financially profitable.

But it also states that there is still little evidence that ``factories with fences'' programs rehabilitate inmates and reduce crime. And ``decent wages, transferable skills, and real employment opportunities'' are needed to make prison industries really meaningful for prisoners, this legal study group adds.

A Thursday column

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Will new prison plans get reform on line?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today