Correcting prison management

Governing Prisons: A Comparative Study of Correctional Management, by John J. DiIulio Jr. New York: The Free Press. 349 pages. $24.95. Next time you face hard time in prison, get yourself locked up in Texas. At least that's the advice John DiIulio offers.

Criminal justice equals courts, cops, and corrections.

American sociologists have studied the courts extensively. They have given adequate notice to cops. They have paid ``negligible'' attention to corrections. ``Governing Prisons'' is a major step in redressing that inattention.

Mr. DiIulio makes a simple assertion with profound implications both for the public management of prisons and the political philosophy behind them: Look at the way the ``Big House'' is run by looking at the people who are supposed to run it. Then, and only then, can there be better prisons - and better corrections agencies.

DiIulio starts with a fundamental question about a fundamental problem in prison research. ``Why have sociologists paid so much attention to inmates and so little to prison workers? Why have they been more interested in inmate society than in prison administration?'' He laments this as the intellectual equivalent of letting the inmates run the prison. ``Observing the informal order of the inmates has superceded the formal order of the warden and his staff.''

The evidence he marshals from a close examination of three state prison systems - Texas, California, and Michigan - points to one inescapable conclusion: ``...the quality of prison life depends far more on management practices than on any other single variable.'' And Texas, by far, pays the greatest attention to management issues.

``Governing Prisons'' is cogent, dense, yet delightfully readable if one can use such terminology when considering these ``sad places of human confinement.'' It affords one a look at the nature of the keepers' tasks and how they are actually performed.

Besides offering ample, original information, DiIulio writes well. He juxtaposes the plain, matter-of-fact statements made by men who run prisons with the philosophic and political aphorisms of some of civilization's greatest thinkers. Two examples:

On the question of why is something done the way it is done? A paraphrase of Lord Keynes: ``Many of those now responsible for shaping prison policy are the slaves of some defunct sociologist.'' And a Texas Department of Corrections training official, ``There's no nice way to put handcuffs on somebody, but we try.''

DiIulio cites the conventional wisdom held by all prison workers as to why inmates wind up in prison: ``These men aren't in here for singing too loud in the church choir on Sunday.'' Later he adds his own Tocquevillean twist, ``Given appropriate checks on the authority of the keepers, those prison managers may govern best who govern most.''

The world corrections officers work in can be fatal, should they forget that normal, everyday objects must be viewed as potentially lethal weapons, i.e., an inmate might let his hair grow longer so he can hide a comb for a murderous intent.

Keepers must doubt inmates' motives on a host of levels, i.e., a new religious sect that exploits constitutional protections may simply want to secure gang status for purposes of extortion and mayhem.

``Governing Prisons'' establishes vividly that the daily routine of numbering, counting, checking, searching, locking, monitoring inmate movement, controlling contraband, and enforcing these rules 24 hours a day, day in and day out ``is the heart of formal administration in higher-custody prisons.''

For DiIulio, well-run prisons result when the following goals for inmates are attained: ``Dressing neatly, washing regularly, being punctual, working hard, speaking respectfully to peers and authorities, delaying gratifications for the sake of future rewards.'' Such standards are inherently good for inmates and they almost always mean ``serious disorders are less frequent, meaningful treatment programs more plentiful, and recidivism rates less startling.''

Currently, it costs $41.70 a day per inmate for the 570,500 inmates housed in state and federal facilities. According to DiIulio, taxpayers must provide, and corrections officials must maintain, the following conditions for an inmate society to be just: order, amenity, and service - as much of each as possible, given the limits of human and financial resources.

By order he means ``the absence of individual or group misconduct that threatens the safety of others,'' no assaults, rapes, or riots.

By amenity he means ``anything that enhances the comfort of the inmates: good food, clean cells, ample recreation,'' even color television, depending on inmate behavior. Spartan pleasures to be sure, but they can mean the difference between a mentally humane institution and the breeding grounds for violence far too many prisons have become.

By service he means ``anything that is intended to improve the life prospects of the inmates: programs in remedial reading, vocational training, work opportunities.'' How else can society come to terms with the fact that the overwhelming majority of inmates will at some point be back on the streets?

There is one fundamental omission (not necessarily error) this reviewer finds in ``Governing Prisons.'' Nowhere does DiIulio temper his can-do optimism that prisons can be well run if management is improved. Limited resources and crowded conditions aside, there is faint discussion about the underlying premises for locking up various classes of inmates and no suggestion that these premises may be fundamentally wrong in a significant number, if not a majority, of cases.

Readers should put this book down enlightened that a thankless and often chaotic task has been and can continue to be carried out competently and humanely. What readers should not even faintly entertain is the idea that the correctional crisis will go away in the near future.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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