Use Rehabbed Bases to Rehab Convicts

THE closing of some two dozen military bases, as recommended by a federal commission, will trigger hardship and anguish in communities that will lose thousands of jobs and millions in income. Understandably, lobbying against many of the base closings by politicians from affected areas is under way.At the same time, a serious shortage of prison facilities constitutes a threat to the entire criminal-justice system and to American society. Common sense dictates that some way be found to solve the two problems at once, by converting the excess bases into detention centers for nonviolent prisoners. In my own state of Wisconsin, a Correction Systems Review Panel recently projected a statewide prison population of 20,000 by the end of the decade. Gov. Tommy G. Thompson responded with a proposal to expand the prison system by 4,464 beds. Construction of new facilities would incur a capital debt of $670 million. Annual operating expenditures for the added space would be $90 million, assuming high-security buildings requiring maximum maintenance and staffing costs. The conversion of military bases into low-security facilities for those convicted of less serious crimes could be accomplished quickly and at minimum cost. Military bases already have barracks, kitchens, mess halls, recreation and athletic facilities, maintenance and repair shops - all the essentials required to house significant numbers of prisoners. It would create new employment opportunities, replacing many of the jobs lost through the military closings. Equally important, military bases could provid e a different kind of prison environment - one more conducive to rehabilitation and retraining than the traditional prisons based on the principle of warehousing inmates. The present prison system is no longer acceptable for low-risk prisoners. Those convicted of nonviolent crimes should be offered training programs that will make them job-ready when they are released. Without effective job training, many convicts will ride a recidivist turntable that brings them right back to prison. Some training is already offered in some prisons, but most such programs are so outdated as to be of little value. Some years ago, I was asked by then-Gov. Patrick Lucey to examine the training facilities in three of our state prisons. I found them to be virtually useless. Prisoners were being given courses that did not prepare them for jobs or the future. Many inmates convince themselves that they have been victims of society and its judicial system. It is not surprising that they feel further victimized when they discover, after release, that the job training they received in prison did not prepare them for real employment. Ensuing resentment and frustration are often a principal factor in redirecting them to criminal activity. In my report to Governor Lucey, I suggested a number of changes to help prisoners find jobs upon release. One recommendation was that prisons use vocational testing and personnel consultants to evaluate each inmate's aptitude and job potential at the time of incarceration. This would provide a means of determining what kind of training the new inmate should receive. Also, training should be geared to fields where shortages exist, such as health care, word processing, computers, and other office skills, o ffice-equipment repair, and automotive repair. Vocational schools could be asked to develop outreach services to assist in these programs. Industry representatives can be enlisted to conduct sample job interviews and assist in teaching courses on "How to Succeed on Your Job." Such a program would build self-confidence, so that prisoners would begin to believe they can make it in the real world of work. State, county, and city government agencies can help provide realistic job training by setting up repair centers on the former military bases that would offer hands-on experience to prisoners while performing needed services for the sponsoring agency at little or no cost. At the same time, a portion of the closed bases could be set aside to rehabilitate drug addicts among the prison population. Warehousing prisoners who may be candidates for rehabilitation is a form of social and economic waste because it dissipates human potential and contributes to recidivism and a further breakdown of social order. We now have a rare opportunity to save large sums of public money, bring needed jobs to local communities, and reclaim the lives of many prison inmates considered unsalvageable. That is a no-lose bargain no society can afford to turn down.

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