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June 12, 2006 - USA Today (US)

Rising Prison Problems Begin To Trickle Into Society

95% Of Inmates Are Freed -- Trained In Violence, Short On Rehabilitation

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

It's difficult for most people to muster any sympathy for the 2.2 million people serving time in the nation's overcrowded prisons and jails, half of them for violent crimes.

Sexual assaults, gang violence, lack of rehabilitation and shoddy medical care are shrugged off as givens, or even deserved. Comedians joke about what'll happen to former Enron CEO Ken Lay once he's behind bars. Most people feel that what goes on in prisons doesn't affect them.

That attitude couldn't be more wrong.

What happens in prisons returns to the community with a vengeance. Over the course of a year, 13.5 million people spend time in jails or prisons, and 95% of them are eventually released back into society.

Many return as more hardened felons eager to commit new crimes and responsible for spreading infectious diseases -- such as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis -- that went untreated while they were incarcerated.

A report released Thursday by the independent blue ribbon Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, established by the non-profit Vera Institute of Justice in New York, is a scathing indictment of the nation's correctional system.

Congress and states passed get-tough-on-crime laws without providing funding and resources to allow prisons to cope with new inmates, the report says.

As a result, too many prisons and jails are unsafe, unhealthy or inhumane, and their failures spill over into the community.

Among the Commission's Findings:

Violence. Inmates and corrections officers alike tell of a near-constant fear of being assaulted, but many prisons don't even collect or report data about assaults. When they do, the data are unreliable. Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota each reported to the U.S. Justice Department zero assaults among prisoners statewide in 2000. No one believes that's true. Other states have also reported numbers so low as to be laughable.

Rehabilitation. While the prison population has doubled since 1990, funding for education and vocational training hasn't kept pace. Education programs reduce rule-breaking and could cut recidivism rates by nearly half, the report says.

Medical Care. More than 1.5 million inmates are released each year carrying life-threatening contagious diseases. Some prisons with as many as 5,000 inmates have only two or three doctors, the commission found. Prisons must do more to test and treat infectious diseases, and they should partner with medical personnel in the community to deliver care. They should be required to report health information to the federal government, the report says.

Accountability. What goes on within the insular culture of prisons too often escapes scrutiny by public officials. Greater external monitoring is needed. Every state should create an independent agency to monitor prisons and jails, the commission says.

None of this means coddling criminals. But failing to deal with prisoners effectively only ensures more problems for society when they are released.

(The full report, Confronting Confinement: A Report Of The Commission On Safety And Abuse In America's Prisons, is available at

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