MIRRORING a hardening attitude toward criminals nationwide, California is considering a repeal of an ``inmate bill of rights'' that was a hallmark of the prison reform movement of the 1960s and '70s.
Legislation doing away with the law that has enabled prisoners to do such things as grow long hair and have overnight visits with spouses has already been passed by California's General Assembly. Repeal of the measure, the most expansive prisoner protection statute of its kind in the nation, would give corrections officials far greater control over everything from grooming habits to inmate marriages.
Though backed by victims' rights groups and prison authorities, the repeal effort is opposed by civil libertarians and inmate advocates, who worry it will lead to more violence behind bars.
``The folks who want a return to the days when prisoners wore striped shirts are wholly unrealistic about how prisons work,'' says Steven Fama, a staffer with the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit group that provides legal services for California inmates.
The din in California symbolizes a growing debate nationwide over what rights and privileges prisoners should have. In an era of pervasive concern about crime, the answer increasingly is: far fewer.
No weight rooms
Take barbells. Many politicians and members of the public resent prisoners ``pumping iron'' behind bars. The way they see it, taxpayers are subsidizing the creation of muscular criminals, some of whom will use their new-found bulk to commit violence either inside the prison or when they get out.
Last month, the US House of Representatives passed an amendment that would prevent federal inmates from engaging in activities that build up strength or fighting ability - including weight lifting or boxing.
In March, the county Board of Supervisors in Milwaukee, Wis., banned weight lifting from a local prison. The move was later vetoed. But now Wisconsin is considering eliminating body building in all its prisons. Ohio is, too.
Critics of such moves - including some corrections officers - believe weight lifting is a cheap and effective form of diversion for men behind bars. Some believe it builds self-esteem. Others say there is no evidence beefed-up cons commit more crimes after release.
These arguments echo some of those that have surfaced in California, even though the dispute has nothing directly to do with bench presses and Nautilus machines.
The Inmate Bill of Rights is rooted in two state laws, one enacted in 1968 when Ronald Reagan was governor and the other in 1975 under Jerry Brown. It guarantees that California prisoners will retain many of the privileges of free citizens, unless the activities jeopardize prison security or protection of the public.
Without the bill of rights, prison officials would no longer have to prove, if challenged in court, that each restriction on inmates' freedoms was done for safety or security reasons. The state would be bound only by the federal constitutional standard - having to show a ``penalogical interest'' - a far less restrictive test.
The effect would be to allow the State Department of Corrections to prohibit such things as beards and long hair, and enforce ``cleanliness'' codes. It could ban erotic magazines and other pornographic literature not already barred by federal postal standards - a chief target of bill proponents.
It could also restrict one other coveted right of prisoners: ``conjugal'' visits. These allow inmates to share an apartment or trailer on prison grounds with a spouse, child, or other family member for a brief period. California is one of seven states that allows such contacts.
``We're not trying to go back to the Dark Ages,'' says state Assemblyman Dean Andal (R), sponsor of the bill recently passed by the lower house. ``We're simply saying there are rational reasons to restrict privileges and rights of violent criminals.''
Other supporters, including Gov. Pete Wilson (R) argue that the repeal legislation, which is likely to pass in the Senate as well, would cut down on ``frivolous'' prisoner lawsuits and readjust a balance that has tipped too far toward criminals. Survivors of murder victims agree.
``I don't think as a taxpayer I should be responsible for making their life more convenient,'' says Dennis Brown of Woodland Hills, Calif., whose son was shot and killed by a 14-year-old outside a convenience store. ``To me, the primary purpose of somebody going to prison is punishment, not rehabilitation.''
Critics say repeal of the law would lead to more lawsuits. They are concerned about abuse by guards and administrators such as the use of ``anti-psychotic'' drugs on prisoners.
``The law has helped inmate security and morale,'' says Francisco Lobaco of the American Civil Liberties Union in Sacramento. ``Repealing it raises the possibility of trouble down the line if the lives of people incarcerated are made that much more difficult.''
Others say visitation - particularly the family visits - is essential to the social adjustment of prisoners, especially when they get out. ``If they are able to keep the public out, no one is going to know what is going on inside,'' says Emma Childers of the Friends Committee on Legislation, a Quaker-backed lobbying group.