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May 22, 2006 - Seattle Times (WA)

Column: America Behind Bars

Has America Become a "Prison Nation"?

By Neal Peirce, Syndicated columnist

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Check our culture.

We wink an eye as our youth are exposed to such films or television offerings as "Slam," "Prison Break," HBO's "Oz" and "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." Or such highly violent video games as "Grand Theft Auto." The constant message: If you're angry, strike out violently; if you're crossed, seek revenge.

Prison images are spreading across society. Example: baggy trousers. The "fashion" started in prisons, where belts are forbidden because they can be used as weapons. Result? Trousers fall. Now the dropping-pants, underwear-exposing trend can be seen on almost any street, in almost any mall.

Go to schools and ask youngsters for a show of hands whether they have a father, mother, brother, uncle or anyone close to them in prison. In many cities and suburbs, most kids' hands go up. And small wonder: More than 2 million Americans are behind bars, the most -- in absolute numbers, and share of the population -- of any nation on Earth.

Or ask school kids: "What's a sentence?" Ideally, they'd reply it's a group of words with a subject and predicate. But no, in many schools the reply is quite different: "Five to 10 years."

Our dilemma: America seems to have concluded that the way to deal with misconduct and violent expression of anger is imprisonment. Our drive to be "tough on crime" is exposing vast numbers of people to prison life, triggering more crime in the process. Psychologists understand the dynamics of aggression and which behaviors will lower it. But we focus on the tail end -- incarceration -- rather than the logical front end -- prevention.

So, who's saying all this? It's not who you'd expect. It's a corrections professional, Devon Brown, who has been warden of several maximum-security prisons, served as New Jersey's corrections commissioner and now holds the same post in Washington, D.C.

The single experience that most shocked him, says Brown, was directing Maryland's prisoner intake facility in Baltimore. "I noticed many of the men were reacting with laughter and joy. They were being reunited with fathers, uncles, friends. They considered it a great homecoming. I found that despicable."

So Brown, a lawyer with master's degrees in psychology and public administration, has chosen to speak out on -- and implement -- critical reforms. He'd like to staunch the flow of youth into prisons by having every school start a curriculum based on building positive pro-social behavior, especially for low-income young black males whose "cool" attitudes and frequent disdain for learning have become major problems for themselves, and society.

But even in prison, Brown believes inmates' native intelligence can be tapped for much better results. In New Jersey, he got high numbers of prisoners into GED courses and saw 81 percent -- compared with 63 percent of the general public -- passing on the first test.

Disgusted with the TV fare inmates normally watch, Brown turned off the soaps and commercial drivel and substituted educationally enriching videos at all hours.

But he first wrote all the inmates, explaining that the switch was for their growth, so that they'd be able to carry on intelligent discussions on release, and more likely be able, if asked, to help their children on their homework.

Then, beginning with the maximum-security New Jersey State Prison at Trenton, Brown started chess clubs. Why? Inmates tend to be impulsive, neither looking backward nor to the future before they act. "But chess teaches them -- look backward, and forward, with care. If you make a move that loses a bishop, don't repeat it!"

Also, because inmates often devalue women, Brown had them instructed to note all your game pieces represent males -- save one, the queen, and she's the most powerful on the board. "Moral: Respect your lady."

Brown's chess team ended up winning a competition (captured by Sports Illustrated and ESPN) against a team of nationally ranked chess masters from Princeton University.

In another initiative, he introduced the popular Stock Market Game at the legendarily tough Rahway State Prison. The Rahway team ended up defeating a team of Paine Webber interns -- "and we beat 'em bad," boasts Brown.

Are we witnessing America's first crime-prevention program originating inside the prison world? It seems so. But it's not likely to replicate, or achieve lasting results, unless Brown's central theme prevails: think culture first.

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