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Humane prisons: a call for decency in conservative times.

Americans sink a lot of money into prisons these days, and they want a return on their investment. National opinion surveys routinely show that most Americans want prisons to punish and reform criminals, thereby doing justice and reducing crime. The popular view that criminals should take their medicine (punishment), get well (with the help of correctional programs) and then move on to law-abiding lives shows a wisdom that belies the angry conservative sentiments we hear about in the media.

Prisons are, first and foremost, settings of punishment where criminals are sent to serve hard time for the harms they've done. The lives of inmates are mostly lives of deprivation and pain. Though some offenders are embittered and made more dangerous by imprisonment, confinement need not be a destructive experience. The mainstream of public opinion is correct in supposing that hard time can be constructive time - that decent prisons provide a rehearsal for responsible living in the free world (Johnson 1996).

It is a measure of our conservative times that the very notion of a decent prison seems naive. Today, among a vocal and influential minority, the term "hard time" has become a euphemism for harsh - even brutal - prisons and a clarion call for gratuitous suffering through the restriction of recreation, the imposition of more cell time and even the escalation of the pace of executions and reinvention of such degrading practices as the chain gang. In many ways, we are attempting to roll back prison history - a history that is in no small measure one of modest but important efforts to develop humane prisons.

Attempts to make hard time harder amount to political rhetoric. Few restrictive proposals have been implemented, though no doubt more will be put in place over the coming years. These proposals are troubling because they are mean-spirited and wrong-headed. Inmates are not asked to trade off creature comforts for correctional programs - television time for program time; barbells and basketballs for computers and books. Instead, programs are to be thrown out with such luxuries as regular exercise and daily showers.

If brutal prisons deterred, one might well support them. But the futility of inhumane punishments is a matter of long historical record. The experience of abuse, on the streets and in prisons, renders people less, not more, capable of managing their lives. To deter criminals, we must discourage crime and encourage conventional living. We must inspire fear of punishment while providing options for noncriminal living. Fear alone never is enough to deter crime; the likely result is a cornered and desperate criminal who is a profound danger to society. Sending offenders to decent prisons is not only the humane thing to do, it is the effective thing to do because it can promote rehabilitation.

Much of today's get-tough mania is the product of misguided nostalgia. Politicians in Mississippi recently bemoaned the passing of the days when convicts "smelled like convicts" because they didn't have the privilege of regular showers (Nossiter 1994). These sentiments appear to be shared by politicians in states as disparate as North Carolina, Virginia and California (Baker 1995).

Some politicians favor the return of chain gangs, and indeed chain gangs have emerged in Alabama, Florida and Arizona in a limited form. Once again, our political leaders appear to have forgotten the real nature of the chain gangs that have traversed many of our southern and western states over the years. The smell of slavery always was a feature of these grotesque operations. So, too, was the smell of death; death rates on chain gangs were incredibly high (Sellin 1976). No one mentions dead black men and women convicts today when they applaud the rebirth of chain gangs, hailing them as perhaps the ultimate antidote to today's alleged country club prisons.

It is against the backdrop of country club prisons and soft time that some citizens and politicians raise their voices in favor of hard time and a dramatic end to the supposed coddling of inmates. The comments of Charles Smith, a Mississippi state representative, are typical: "It used to be you'd pick cotton, and people weren't too crazy about going to prison. Nowadays, if you want to lead a life of luxury, sit around and watch TV, you can go to prison" (Nossiter 1994).

Although such comments are sincere, the claim that our prisons are country clubs is ludicrous. The so-called country club prison has been likened to "the Loch Ness monster - many people believe in it but nobody has ever seen one" (Levinson 1988a). Although it is true that some prisons offer comforts, these generally are modest. The real problem often is warehousing - the storage of inmates in penal environments that offer them little or nothing constructive to do.

Ironically, warehouse prisons viewed from the outside may look inviting. Idle time prevails in a warehouse prison, and idle time can look like easy time. Outsiders are taken in by appearances, and citizens begin to imagine convicts lolling about in orgies of leisure, assuming this to be the norm. In the absence of tangible evidence of punishment - such as the work, pain and visible suffering obvious with chain gangs - the public infers contentment and even a country club lifestyle.

But appearances to the contrary, our prisons are not country clubs: the guests are involuntary, the conditions spartan and the routine deadly dull. Little can be found that can pass for luxury; even less occurs to lift the human spirit or mend broken lives. Most inmates spin out empty days and kill time by napping in their cells, walking the yard with their buddies, exercising, or slouching semi-comatose before incessantly blaring televisions.

Corrections professionals know better than to think of prisons as country clubs, but sometimes we have trouble spelling out exactly what we think prisons are or should be. My vision of prisons is premised on the notion of decency. Decent prisons should be suitable for human habitation and responsive to basic human needs.

Decent prisons are "good enough" institutions - prisons good enough for the job of housing offenders under humane conditions. However, they do not offer inmates the right to an easy or comfortable time behind bars. Inmates must serve hard time, but hard time also can be constructive time. Inmates can learn something worthwhile during their confinement.

The most valuable lessons inmates can learn are those that enable them to cope maturely with the pains of imprisonment. Mature coping, as I have defined the term, has three elements: (1) dealing directly with one's problems, using resources legitimately at one's disposal; (2) refusing to employ deceit or violence other than in self-defense; and (3) building mutual and supportive relationships with others. Mature coping means dealing with life's problems responsibly. Inmates who cope maturely are the solid citizens of the prison community.

Lessons in mature living learned in prison are valuable because, though it may not be obvious, there are parallels between the pains of prison and the pains of life in general. Imprisonment is painful because it deprives a person of liberty, goods and services, heterosexual contact, autonomy and security (Sykes 1966). It puts an enormous strain on relationships with loved ones outside and suspends or even ruins the possibility of a conventional occupational career (Toch 1992). Yet, all of us suffer these pains to some degree. Most of us are not as free as we would like, do not have all the goods and services we'd like, don't feel completely satisfied by our sexual outlets, or don't feel as autonomous or secure as we'd like. We all must live with restrictions and deprivations of one kind or another.

The correspondence between general life problems and prison problems is especially salient for the lower-class men and women who make up the vast bulk of our prison populations. Indeed, we know that many of these offenders come from urban slums that arguably are as harsh and depriving as prisons themselves. "Doing time" in a ghetto is a familiar if uncongenial experience in the lives of these men and women. The inmate who learns to cope maturely with the stresses posed by confinement is learning to cope maturely with the stresses of life (Toch 1988).

All inmates retain a right to conditions of confinement that show consideration and respect for their humanity, but they still are responsible for their crimes and deserve punishment. Offenders must be treated as persons who deserve to suffer the deprivation of freedom inherent in imprisonment, as well as the loss or attenuation of many of the comforts and privileges that attach to freedom in our society. Our modern understanding of this arrangement is that offenders are sent to prison as punishment - loss of freedom and associated privileges - not for punishment that might be metered out behind bars. Earlier prisons were settings of corporal punishment, but modern prisons are settings of deprivation.

A decent prison, then, should have a bare-bones, spartan quality to it. The regime is one that is short on amenities but long on autonomy, for a spartan regime need not entail the elimination of choice. The hallmark of personhood is self-determination, which brings with it the potential for personal growth and self-actualization (Maslow 1966). Self-determination requires that a person deal directly with problems, which is the first element of mature coping. No just punishment - and hence no decent prison - can take away the inmate's capacity for self-determination. Persons have the moral right to make choices that influence their lives and the moral obligation to bear responsibility for the consequences of these choices. One can argue that inmates have chosen the punishment of prison as a consequence of their crimes, but prison need not be a human wasteland. Prisons must promote autonomy, even as they limit freedom. Inmates should be free to make choices within the prison world that have meaningful implications for the quality and character of the lives they will lead behind bars and upon release.


Baker, P. Virginia prisons prohibit personal items. The Washington Post, 30 Dec. 1995.

Fabiano, E., A. Robinson, and F. Porporino. 1991. A preliminary assessment of the cognitive skills training program: A component of living skills programming. Correctional Service of Canada.

Johnson, R. 1996. Hard time: Understanding and reforming the prison (second edition). Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Levinson, R. B. 1988a. Try softer. In The pains of imprisonment, ed. R. Johnson and H. Toch. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Levinson, R. B. 1988b. Developments in the classification process: Quay's aims approach. Criminal Justice and Behavior (March).

Levinson, R. B. 1991. The future of unit management. Corrections Today (April).

Maslow, A. 1966. Eupsychian Management. Homewood, Ill.: Irwin.

Nossiter, A. Making hard time harder: States cut jail TV and sports. The New York Times, 17 Sept. 1994.

Pearce, J., regional director of the Scottish Prison Service. 1994. Untitled speech to Middle Atlantic States Correctional Association. Killington, Vt. (May).

Sykes, G. 1966. The society of captives. New York: Atheneum.

Toch, H. 1988. Studying and reducing stress. In The pains of imprisonment, ed. R. Johnson and H. Toch. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Toch, H. 1992. Mosaic of despair: Human breakdowns in prison. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Toch, H. 1993. Living in prison: The ecology of survival. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Wideman, J. E. 1984. Brothers and keepers. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

RELATED ARTICLE: The Building Blocks of Decent Prisons

The building blocks of decent prisons are partly or completely in place in the corrections field and will be discussed in turn:

We know how to run stable social environments that permit and promote mature coping. Our knowledge is perhaps best exemplified in functional units, which have been carefully studied in state and federal prisons and in a host of prisons around the world (Levinson 1991). Functional units divide prisons into small environments that allow for stable staff assignments, constructive personal relations and tailored programming.

We know how to classify inmates to promote community or at least reduce conflict. A case in point is the Quay or AIMS classification system, which reliably groups inmates as predators, prey and neutrals and allows for the separation of victimizers and their potential victims (Levinson 1988b).

We know how to classify and use prison environments, our most available reform resource, in the service of mature adjustment to the stresses of life in prison. (Here, I am referring to work on the ecology of prison survival, most notably, associated with Hans Toch [1993]).

We know about the dynamics of constructive collaboration in the governance of prisons. Specific plans may vary, but the general aim is shared problem-solving that involves inmates as consumers of correctional services and officials as agents of human service and planned change.

An example of collaborative corrections is offered by Scottish prisons, where inmates are accorded considerable autonomy as a matter of policy. The logic, as explained by John Pearce, regional director of the Scottish Prison Service, is that "if he [the inmate] is not treated as a Responsible Person whilst in custody, and if he is not given opportunity whilst in prison to exercise some choice over his daily life, then it would be difficult to see how he was being assisted to exercise responsible choice on discharge (Pearce 1994)."

The Scottish penal system regularly surveys the quality of life and work in its institutions, and uses this ecological information to inform a management system whose guiding premise is that the "actual delivery of service [is] the most important part of the organisation" (Pearce 1994; emphasis in original).

We know about programs that promote clear thinking and constructive problem-solving. The best example would be Canada's Living Skills program. At the core of the Living Skills program is a module labeled "cognitive skills training." Subsequent programs tackle "living without violence," "family life/parenting skills," "anger/emotional management," "leisure education" and "community integration skills," which include skills relevant to finding and keeping a job and a place to live. It is considered axiomatic in this program that "cognitive inadequacies" are the main sources of poor coping and criminal deviance (Fabiano, Robinson and Porporino 1991). The good news is that the Canadian program establishes that many if not most offenders can be taught to think clearly and cope competently across the range of life situations they will encounter in prison and in the free world (Fabiano, Robinson and Porporino 1991).

The obstacles to promoting decent prisons are not primarily matters of knowledge or motivation; we know what to do to make prisons decent, and most of us are motivated to achieve this goal. The obstacles are, on one hand, political, seen most clearly in the growing cry to make hard time harder, and on the other, economic, seen in the shrinking operational budgets with which we must contend relative to the relentless growth in the population of offenders sent to our institutions.

I can offer no panaceas. Our best course is to use our human, environmental and program resources wisely with the explicit goal of promoting decency where and when possible. If I could offer one caution it would be this: Don't confuse comfort with correction. A modern, air-conditioned prison does not a correctional institution make. When in doubt, use limited funds to (1) promote autonomy rather than comfort or convenience; (2) make people feel secure because they know they're the beneficiaries of controlled penal environments instead of insecure because they know or suspect that they're the targets of security or control measures; and, (3) foster relatedness to others in the form of voluntary, collaborative governance efforts in which we work with inmates as agents of change rather than on them as targets of change.

Inmates must learn to choose responsibly. Ultimately, we hope they will choose to live civilly in a world shaped in part by their own autonomous choices and by the interpersonal relations these choices create. Prisons may not be the best places to embark on this learning enterprise, but for many offenders, prisons are their last hope for a decent life.

Robert Johnson is professor and chair of the Department of Justice, Law and Society at American University.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:Annual Security Issue and Buyer's Guide July 1996; includes related article on the fundamental components of establishing decent prisons
Author:Johnson, Robert (English judge)
Publication:Corrections Today
Date:Jul 1, 1996
Previous Article:ACA state chapter defines mission.
Next Article:Is a career in corrections for you?

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