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Americans in cages.

The United States now imprisons over a million Americans and keeps another four million under "correctional control" (in jails and on probation or parole). In the land of the free, this is an astonishing number of American citizens being kept in cages.

Yet we have spent more time studying the habits and needs of nonhuman animals and designing appropriate zoos to house them than we have on design, ing prisons that are fit for human habitation. Hurting people takes time and energy and money. Making them impotent, helpless, and unable to support themselves means someone must be paid to take care of them. This is very expensive "justice.

Prisoners are human beings; they have human and civil rights. But the existing system is rife with constitutional violations and human-rights atrocities.

Prison reform isn't a popular subject. Conservative Republicans advocate building more (and less humane) prisons and putting more Americans in them. But even liberals avoid thinking or talking about this monstrous problem. There are so many other "more important" human and civil,rights issues-why should we care about the rights of the imprisoned "enemies" of society?

Surely even Republicans can see that we are squandering money on high walls, barbed wire, motion detectors, and massive guard staffs, when the wealth of the nation is desperately needed for training, education, drug rehabilitation, environmental improvement, economic development, and jobs. Prison costs in the United States now range up to $30,000 per inmate per year. In 1992, state outlays for corrections soared by 16 percent-the most inflationary single element in state budgets.

Washington state spends a typical average of $4,000 per year per student in grades kindergarten through twelfth and an average of $26,000 per year for each inmate in the state's correction system. It's now official; it's cheaper to send a person to Harvard than it is to incarcerate him or her.

And what do we get for our investment? Assistant Minnesota Corrections Commissioner Daniel O'Brian told the New York Times: "There's no relationship between the incarceration rate and violent crime. We're in the business of tricking people into thinking that spending hundreds of millions on new prisons will make them safer." The higher the "security" of the installation, the more it costs-not just in money but in human misery.

In 1842, Charles Dickens visited the Eastern Penitentiary on the outskirts of Philadelphia. He wrote:

The system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. The prisoner is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years. I find this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the human brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body. Those who have undergone this punishment must pass into society again morally unhealthy and diseased.

We still have such prisons in America. Today, they are called control units, where human beings are deprived of all sensory stimulation, allowed to leave their small cells for one hour a day, and are never touched by another human being. Prison keepers no longer waste much time in attempts at rehabilitation. Their mission is punishment. When prisoners are violent or otherwise particularly disturbed, they are transferred to separate, even more rigid institutions. They are permitted no activity, no visitation, and no phone calls. There are no training programs, no correspondence courses, no vocational training. Is this preparation to face the world with a new attitude? Or is this the sort of thing that creates embittered, weak, uninterested zombies? Incredibly high recidivism rates supply the answer.

Of course, there are dangerous repeat offenders who must be kept in top-security facilities. But the vast majority are easily contained by 12-foot-high fences topped with rows of barbed wire. Work-release programs and monitored "honor houses" would be effective, cheaper, and far more productive for the majority of prisoners.

Overcrowding and "double ceiling" are epidemic in our existing system. In addition, says Princeton University's John Dilulio, "Hundreds of prisons are also filthy, abusive, vice-ridden places which do not offer inmates any meaningful opportunity to work, to achieve literacy, or to free themselves from substance abuse." Yet politicians keep threatening, "More prisons or more crime!"

Visitation policies are badly in need of reform. A review of visitation policies leads to the conclusion that they are designed to cut off and isolate inmates from family and friends. Visitors are subjected to numerous harassments and restrictions, including dress codes, repeated searches, and constant administrative delays. In the prisons which allow them, adequate facilities are not available for extended family visits (with spouses and immediate family on prison grounds). Few states-and no federal institutions-provide for this contact at all. In addition, visitation privileges are withheld and prisoners "locked down" or moved far from their families as punishment for alleged "troublemaking" (which often translates into organizing and seeking prison reforms). Is it any wonder that, when prisoners are released, their families have broken up and they've lost contact with friends?

Conditions for obtaining parole present insurmountable difficulties for many long-term prisoners. They must somehow locate a place to live and obtain a job before their release! Many find themselves with no marketable skills, no family help or friends, and no money-a perfect prescription for further illegal activities.

Nevertheless, 98 percent of all inmates will eventually be released. The more people we put into the bestial environment of prison, the more bestiality our society will suffer later. If instead we put all the petty drug offenders and other nonviolent criminals into alternative programs, we would have plenty of space for the truly dangerous prisoners. Then we could start closing prisons instead of building more.

In some states, parole boards have been replaced by others in the system who know the prisoner best-the judge who sat the case and the prison staff. Their decisions are better informed and wiser than those made by an over-worked, ill-informed, and sometimes vindictive parole board.

Short of legalizing drugs, we could at least confine drug arrests to "big-time dealers" and stop filling our prisons with possessors and handlers. Fifty-four percent of new federal inmates are in for drug-related offenses. Seventy percent of federal anti-drug funding is directed toward law enforcement, while drug-treatment programs have long waiting lists and, in some localities, have been closed down completely. A recent study in Delaware found that, for every drug offender sentenced to prison, three offenders could be treated by an inpatient program and 16 on an outpatient basis.

The number of prisoners tested for and diagnosed with ADS is mushrooming. And this, says Judy Greenspan of the American Civil Liberties Union Prison Project, is far from an accurate number because one-third of AIDS cases in New York are not diagnosed until autopsy. By choosing mass imprisonment as the response to drug use, federal and state governments have created a de facto policy of incarcerating more and more HIV-infected individuals.

Chronic overcrowding increases exposure to all infectious diseases. Proper nutrition is often unavailable and experimental treatments are unobtainable. HIV, positive prisoners are routinely deprived of work, recreation, training, socialization, furloughs, and parole solely on the basis of their medical condition. Consequently, prisoners avoid being tested. This is especially true for women inmates who are mothers, because a positive test usually means they can never regain custody of their children.

AIDS is now the leading cause of death in New York state prisons. In some prisons, AIDS victims are forced to wear red wristbands and their laundry is labeled "HIV." Due to the refusal of prison administrators to provide education, adequate treatment, and preventive measures, health officials are predicting a huge surge of AIDS deaths in prisons across the country.

The National Coalition for Jail Reform calls attention to jails (supposed, ly "short-term" holding facilities as opposed to long-term state prison facilities). Jails, even more expensive to build and operate, were originally designed to serve as city or county facilities for holding people awaiting trial or serving short sentences. In reality, jails are used as the dumping ground for people the community has found no other place for the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, and those habitually drunk in public.

There are over 4,000 jails in America, and all of them are filled to over-flowing 90 percent of the time. Approximately seven million commitments to jail are made each year in the United States. Of this number, 40 percent are awaiting trial (that is, they have not been convicted of any crime). Of these, 80 percent are there simply because they are too poor to post bail. Up to 40 percent are there for being drunk in public, and 70 percent have committed nonviolent crimes. Finally, close to 80 percent of American jails have no medical facilities, no rehabilitation programs, and no treatment facilities.

Some simple changes could do a lot to improve these conditions. Public inebriates do not belong in jail; neither do juveniles, the mentally ill, or the retarded. These people need care: more shelters where basic human needs are provided for, detoxification services, counseling, short-term living arrangements, out-patient treatment, job-training programs-all of which would be cheaper than incarceration.

Prison fortresses with heavily armed guards are the domestic equivalent of the nuclear buildup of the 1980s. Both are mindless and expensive; neither solves anything. Yet President Clinton's approach to crime is still draconian, and the Democrats recently voted for a "crime bill" as punitive and rigid as the tough-on-crooks formula of the Bush administration.

Nothing can change the indisputable fact that incarceration in our country is an abusive and violent act. The hypocrisy that masquerades as criminal justice has done nothing to make us safer, to compensate crime victims, or to prepare prisoners to reenter the community. Our prison system doesn't work; it also costs a fortune and violates the most basic human and civil rights of millions of Americans. Surely it is the height of folly and irrationality to continue it.

Barbara Dority is the president of Humanists of Washington, the executive director of the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, and cochair of the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Taskforce.
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Title Annotation:prison reform
Author:Dority, Barbara
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:Angels in America.
Next Article:Forward to the past.

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