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June 25, 2006 - Houston Chronicle (TX)

Column: In Sore Need Of An Outbreak Of Sanity On Corrections

By Neal R. Peirce

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

"WHAT happens inside jails and prisons does not stay inside jails and prisons."

That's the disturbing lead sentence of "Confronting Confinement," the newly released report of the Vera Institute of Justice's Commission on Safety and Abuse in American Prisons.

Many of us are sure to despise the finding. Isn't the overriding reason for jails and prisons to lock up the bad guys and protect the rest of us? Aren't we the country that decided, beginning 30 years ago, to substitute punishment for rehabilitation?

Haven't we demonstrated our toughness by imprisoning 2.2 million people -- the most of any nation on Earth? And pumping up our prison and jail system expenditures to a stunning $60 billion a year?

So now you're telling us that bad stuff is seeping out of jails and prisons and back into our neighborhoods, cities, towns?

Well, yes.

Overcrowding is so rampant in the burgeoning California prison system that a high-ranking corrections official is warning: "We believe that an imminent and substantial threat to the public safety exists, requiring immediate action."

The New York City-based Vera Institute's panel, headed by former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, with former judges, corrections officials and prisoner rights advocates, cites many more perils.

First and foremost, there's violence -- widespread patterns of individual assaults, including gang violence, rape and beatings by guards. Can we expect inmates subjected to that culture to abstain from it when they're released?

Indeed, if prison guards spend their days in that kind of culture, the potential for acting the same to their families, or in other outside-the-bars incidents, is real.

"When people live and work in facilities that are unsafe, unhealthy, unproductive, or inhumane, they carry the effects home with them," warns the commission.

The perils are compounded by the decision of prison officials to segregate difficult or mentally ill prisoners -- a practice growing fast in the past decade. Segregation is usually counterproductive, the Vera commission reports -- it triggers violence inside prison walls and recidivism among segregated convicts when they're freed.

Then there's medical care. High rates of disease and illness among prisoners, coupled with inadequate funding for correctional health care, endanger all parties -- prisoners, staff and the public.

Every year, about 1.5 million people are released from jail or prison carrying such life-threatening diseases as tuberculosis, hepatitis C and AIDS. Correctional systems, obliged to operate on shoestring budgets for medical care, "are set up to fail" -- in some instances there are just two or three doctors for 4,000 to 5,000 inmates.

The "cures" for all these conditions are clear. Reduced crowding -- indeed, limits on prisoner numbers in any institution -- leads the list. Second, a return to rehabilitation -- basic literacy and skills training -- in the sure knowledge that high numbers of prisoners (currently about 60 percent) will commit offenses and be reincarcerated if they're not prepared for civilian life.

Third, use force and nonlethal weaponry far more sparingly -- constant and excessive force only begets violence. And fourth, upgrade medical care radically, including much better screening for infectious diseases, partnering with community health care providers, providing treatment for mentally ill prisoners, and persuading Congress to extend Medicaid and Medicare benefits to prisoners.

Why would federal and state legislators approve such changes? The answer: Unless they do, violence to family members and others, plus illness and desperation, will keep rippling out each time an inmate heads home, as 95 percent do.

Even in the absence of the sweeping reforms the criminal justice system cries out for -- especially terminating our horrendously failed and harmful "war on drugs," plus scrapping mandatory minimum sentences in favor of radically expanded sentencing discretion by judges -- the ideas of the Vera Institute's panel represent a worthwhile start.

And since prisoner contact with families is known to ease their return to society, the prison world (and responsible legislators) could make a significant first step by terminating agreements with telephone companies that charge exorbitant collect-call fees when prisoners seek to "call out." If states can't at least relieve the excess pain and discrimination they impose on prisoners, they'll deserve the mounting despair and future crime their policies will inflict.

Congress is at least considering a "Second Chance Act" for easing prisoner re-entry into society, including modest proposals to encourage job openings, housing, substance abuse and mental health treatment. Though very limited in scope -- the measure depends mostly on selective demonstration grants to private social service providers -- it enjoys sponsors ranging from strongly conservative to liberal lawmakers and backers from the National Council of La Raza to the Christian Coalition.

Could we be ready for an outbreak of corrections sanity? With our 2.2 million men and women behind bars and the explosive conditions in many of our prisons, the old "pay me now or pay me later" adage has never been more compelling.

Peirce is a syndicated columnist who specializes in city and state affairs.

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