Master of the prison watch

KEN SCHOEN sidesteps brown water dripping from taped and rusted pipes in the food storage area of a New York City jail. ``Make sure the corn meal don't get wet,'' a guard mutters to inmates stacking boxes of foodstuffs. Mr. Schoen intends to do more than just keep the cornmeal dry. He isn't happy about the leaky pipes, nor the two clogged toilets just off the kitchen. He also notes that there's only a single cold-water faucet where the kitchen help wash up before preparing meals for the 1,170 inmates housed here at the renovated ``brig'' of the old Brooklyn Navy Yard.

After touring the facility, Schoen gives warden Marvin Fisher a report card: Overall, conditions have ``improved dramatically'' since his last visit three months ago; he's particularly pleased with the court-mandated law library available for inmates. But he's firm in pointing out the violations in the kitchen area. The session is cordial, businesslike, and decidedly nonadversarial.

Schoen is a ``special master,'' one of about 90 court-appointed administrators throughout the country who are charged with bringing a prison, a jail, or an entire state correction system into compliance with legal findings resulting from litigation or the threat of litigation.

Seventeen states plus Puerto Rico have entire corrections systems that have been declared unconstitutional. And in nearly every state there is either a prison or a whole system operating under court orders because of such conditions as overcrowding, lack of exercise areas, limited visiting rights, or unsanitary preparation of food. This is true of many big-city and county jails as well.

Courts often step in to mandate remedies when political gridlock prevents state legislatures from acting to improve prison conditions. Special masters are appointed by judges to see that the orders are carried out. (Various courts have different criteria for selecting masters.)

``I'm not here to run the jail,'' says Schoen, director of criminal-justice programs at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and former corrections commissioner in Minnesota. ``I'm definitely here to make sure certain conditions are met and maintained.''

In fact, the appointment of masters ``has proved to be the political solution to the problem of prison reform,'' says David Ward, chairman of the sociology department at the University of Minnesota. ``Support for prisoners does not win politicians much support. It has proved convenient to have federal courts intervene, or threaten to intervene, to have prison policies change.''

Progress made by court masters has been tangible, according to Anthony Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association (ACA). He says masters are in no small part responsible for the fact that there have been no major outbreaks of prison violence in recent years, even during these hot summer months. That relative calm has prevailed despite swelling prison populations because of a growing ``lock 'em up'' mentality in the country.

``The master can get through the power of the courts what the corrections commissioner can't get through the legislature due to lack of funds,'' says Alvin J. Bronstein, director of the National Prison Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. It is Mr. Bronstein's organization that began litigation in behalf of inmates rights in the mid-'70s; the court decisions that followed led to the appointment of many special masters.

But the appearance of a master on the prison scene comes with mixed blessings, says ACA's Travisono.

``As professionals, we feel very upset when someone comes in to tell us how to do our job, when we know how to do our job,'' says Mr. Travisono. ``Ninety-nine out of 100 times the professional has asked for funds or needed assistance but didn't get it. That's why the master works: When the judge takes over, it helps get the added funding.'' He would prefer that the master have a ``sunset'' clause: ``Two years would be fine.''

In Ohio and Georgia, masters systems were terminated in 1978 and 1983, respectively, after conditions set down by the courts were met. Vincent Nathan, who administered the two states' prisons, is now master of the Texas, Puerto Rico, and New Mexico corrections departments, as well as of a major jail in Detroit.

``The appointment of a master is not the norm, it is the exception,'' says Mr. Nathan, a lawyer. He explains that besides interpreting and executing complicated remedial procedures handed down by the court, the master reports back to the court on the facilities' compliance with those orders.

When Schoen took the New York City mastership in 1982, he planned to work himself out of a job by 1985. ``A key factor I look for,'' says the Minnesota transplant, ``is a sense of pride of ownership on the part of the warden and senior officers in a facility.'' The goal is easier said than done, he admits.

The warden at the Navy brig ``was the fourth one in three years. No way can you have a sense of responsibility for a facility with that kind of turnover. It's just common sense,'' he says.

Knowing that heavy-handed methods could generate resentment among prison administators, Schoen takes a friendly approach. ``With Ken Schoen, it is as much one colleague advising another,'' says Frank Wood, warden of the maximum-security prison at Oak Park, Minn., and a former subordinate of Schoen's.

The Navy Yard is the first of three inspections on Schoen's agenda this particular day. Next is Rikers Island, which houses 12,000 inmates and is the largest jail complex in the Western democracies.

The last stop of the day holds much irony for Schoen, a man who loves the sea. He visits a retired Staten Island ferry converted in 1986 by New York into a floating jail. It sits anchored on Long Island Sound, a favorite sailing spot of Schoen's.

No longer plying the waters between lower Manhattan and Staten Island, the ferry, which gave New Yorkers dramatic views of the downtown skyline and the Statue of Liberty, all for a nickel, is now ``home'' to 180 inmates. On board, the contrast between being in jail and being free is stark. To the south, inmates see and hear a constant stream of jets taking off and landing at LaGuardia Airport. Due east and north is a horizon studded with sailboats. And to the west, the midtown skyline beckons.

But the scene inside is one of rows of cots and young men standing, backs arched, hands overhead intertwined with the wire mesh covering the windows. It is clean, spacious, freshly painted; and there's ample natural light. If one has to house men in confinement, Schoen says, he's seen many worse places.

Prison ``is not for creating a circumstance that life will be so miserable that an inmate will never want to come back,'' says Mr. Wood the Minnesota warden. ``That hasn't worked, especially for career criminals.'' The master, he says, guarantees that society adheres to its conscience by providing decent conditions for prisoners.

Schoen harbors no romance about the ferry. What he doesn't forget is a hard fact of contemporary corrections. Though there are 180 men on board now, the legal capacity is 400.

In today's corrections climate, that means sooner, rather than later, 400 men will live aboard this floating brig - kept legal and humane by people like Schoen.

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