What can be done now?

`COME to San Quentin to learn how not to build a prison,'' says Daniel Vasquez, the latest of the ``blood-and-guts'' wardens at the notorious prison ``on the bay.'' ``They spilled our guts and we spilled theirs,'' he says, in referring to the bloody history of San Quentin, where he has charge of 1,750 inmates - more on death row (224) than any other prison in the United States. In his 20 years in the line of duty, he has seen six inmates shot and killed by guards from the towers that sit atop the prison walls.

After 135 years, this maximum-security prison is scheduled for downgrading to a medium-security facility. The more incorrigible inmates will be farmed out to other lockups around the state, principally a massive new complex, a prison city called Del Norte, soon to open in northern California.

``I'm the first to cheer San Quentin's downgrading,'' says Mr. Vasquez. ``When I took over, I couldn't feed, shower, or exercise the number of inmates I had in a normal [work] shift.'' He just barely can today.

In about 38 states around the country, courts have had to step in to demand better conditions for inmates. But can anything corrections officials do really improve conditions and help reduce a 60-percent recidivism rate? Or will the extra beds resulting from the most explosive growth in prison construction in US history continue to be outdistanced by an even more rapid rate of incarceration?

Conventional wisdom has it that ``no one ever got elected by calling for better-run prisons.'' And yet in some of the more-populous states, such as California, the high numbers of inmates and the high costs of locking them up will force just such a campaign, says the California state superintendent of public instruction, Bill Honig. He has already seen his plans for building more elementary schools, ``just to stay even with our rising younger population,'' collide, then lose, to funding commitments for more prisons.

``You want to know where prison reform starts?'' asks Mr. Honig. ``I'll tell you. It's the third grade. We know the high risk groups who will drop out of school. We know individuals from these groups make up a disproportionate share of prison inmates. Give me part of the $20,000 a year we now spend [in California] on these kids as adults, give it to me now, and we can make sure they won't wind up in prison, costing the state money not only to lock them up, but for the crimes they've committed, and for the welfare payments if they have a family.''

For this spending shift to happen, it would take a major sea change in the way we sentence people, says Ken Schoen, director of the criminal-justice program at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. Mr. Schoen was a co-author of a Minnesota sentencing bill in the 1970s that has given that state one of the lowest per-capita incarceration rates in the country.

MINNESOTA'S plan is not on many states' agenda, though, says Anthony Travisono, executive director of the American Correctional Association. The big industrial states have so far been able to absorb the increased costs of expansion and provide more beds. He does not expect a fiscal crunch to hit hard enough to make changes in the status quo for at least five years. If and when it does, it will still take eight to 10 more years to straighten things out, he says.

What can be done in the interim? Three steps could be taken by state corrections departments to help create better prisons in both the short and long term, says John DiIulio, an authority on prison management at the Woodrow Wilson School of Government at Princeton University:

1.Provide continuity in the commissioner's office. For the last 15 years, less than one-third of all state adult corrections departments have had a commissioner with a tenure of more than five years. In more than one-third of the states, the commissioner has held office for less than three years. This high turnover fosters a lack of continuity and a power vacuum at many levels of management. Each state must find a way for its commissioner to be independent of the four-year political cycle of the governor, yet still be accountable to elected officials.

2.Adopt the practice of unit management. The concept has been employed since 1970 by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Under this system, senior corrections officers are given broad authority to run a cellblock or dormitory as a separate unit. In this way early signs of trouble are more easily read (troublemakers, such as drug dealers and rapists, can be identified, separated, or sent to different quarters), and potential suicides are more easily spotted.

Unit management also results in fewer staff rotations, allowing management to measure performance better. Officers, given more responsibility, act more as professionals. Morale is boosted both for staff and inmates.

Under unit management, more opportunities are provided for visits from family and friends. Prison officials concede that the risk of contraband entering a prison grows as more visits are allowed. But a staff familiar with the conduct and habits of its inmates is also able to deal better with the potential increase in contraband. Meanwhile, one study indicates that inmates who receive six or more visits while in prison have less than half the recidivism rate of inmates who have no visits.

3.Allow products manufactured by inmates in state prisons to be sold to the federal government, subject to minimum wage laws and regular competitive bidding regulations.

Currently, prison industries in the federal system have a large ready market, the federal bureaucracy. State prison industries, where they exist, are severely limited in what they can produce and to whom they can sell. The result is endless hours of unproductive idleness for inmates. Even when there is a prison industries program in place, too often it is nothing more than a make-work project, with equipment used and job skills learned having little bearing to a real-world labor market.

MEANWHILE, says Mr. Travisono, a new-old way to ease overcrowding is being looked at nationwide: ``shock incarceration.'' First used in the 1930s, it is a kind of ``boot camp'' targeted at young felons doing their first hard time. It is an effort to impose an intense dose of order on young, often chaotic and directionless, lives.

In return for serving fewer years, young inmates agree to a six-month regimen of military drills, drug treatment, physical exercise, back-breaking work, and academic study. A 16-hour day includes such activities as a two-mile run, calisthenics, chopping trees, and carrying logs.

``I have been very surprised to see how fast this idea has taken off with politicians,'' says Travisono. Its main appeal is that it has a quid pro quo, enough punishment (which the public demands), before a sentence is reduced, he says. Five states now run variations of shock incarceration. ``There will be 30 states with similar programs by 1990,'' he says.

The only pitfall, says Mr. Schoen, is the danger that judges who normally wouldn't sentence a young offender to two or three years of hard time will now see shock incarceration as a workable option. ``Teaching him a lesson for six months'' might be the thinking, says Schoen, in effect widening the net of individuals who come under the control of a state's criminal-justice system. Schoen favors New York's plan whereby an individual must first be sentenced before he can apply for shock incarceration.

Privatization of prisons is another development that has the potential to provide better, more humane, and more economically run prisons, say corrections officials. In privatization, for-profit companies take over from the state some, or all, of the functions of running a prison.

But the verdict is out as to the effects privatization of prisons may have, says Allen F. Breed of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. Only a few states are experimenting with the concept. Nevertheless, ``It will provide a fresh stimulus to make the government sector, as a result of competition, work more efficiently,'' he says.

A study by Joan Petersilia, published by the RAND Corporation, cites counties in more than 40 states as adopting ``intensive supervision'' probation programs, most of which include paying into a victims' fund or providing mandated community service. These programs, between probation and imprisonment, provide for daily, if not hourly, checks on the status of the offender. They have received widespread attention in many states as the costs of incarceration have climbed.

A novel idea recommended by former Chief Justice of the United States Warren Burger - one that he says would increase public awareness about what goes on behind prison walls - would be to return to the practice of assigning ``official visitors'' to each prison. This was a common practice before World War II, he says.

These visitors would report to the governor (and the news media) on conditions. Mr. Burger recommends that leading community figures, such as corporation heads, educators, or church officials, be appointed to these positions.

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