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If the U.S. public knew about its prisons ....

Of all the developments in 12 years of Reagan and Bush, one of the least known is the astonishing increase of people in prison. The number of federal prisoners more than tripled, from 24,500 to 80,259. The total number of prisoners grew from 329,821 in 1980 to 883,593 in 1992 - an increase of 167.9 percent.

The upward trend has not leveled off despite mounting criticism. In 1992, federal prisoners increased by 8,651, while there were 50,809 additional state prisoners. This translates into a need for 1,143 new prison beds each week. In 1990, more people were admitted to prisons for drug offenses than for property crimes.

All these factors make melancholy reading in a recent study by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

Among the reasons for this increase is the abolition of parole by the federal government and several states, and the enactment of more laws requiring a mandatory sentence. There are now almost 100 federal laws whose violation requires a mandatory jail sentence.

Another reason is the increase in the number of federal prosecutors in the Reagan years.

Federal officials, moreover, in the 1980s concentrated on catching street criminals and putting drug users in prison. Although the framers of the Constitution and the conservative tradition in America never contemplated the federal government getting into local and neighborhood crime, the White House in the 1980s introduced that new and dangerous direction in law enforcement.

The United States with a ratio of 455 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants and almost 1 million persons behind bars, can claim the distinction of being the world leader in both categories. In 40 states and the District of Columbia, courts have ruled that jail conditions violate federal or state constitutions.

Women have a particularly difficult time in prison. The numbers, now 6 percent of the total, have since 1980 been growing at a greater rate than men. New York is the only state that allows women to keep their babies with them in jail.

A 303-page book, Global Report on Prisons, recently published by the Human Rights Watch, reveals the grim conditions in prisons around the world. Prisoners are often treated in inhuman and degrading ways. Prisons usually fall below the level of decency required. by the U.N. standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners. The report also finds that "pretrial inmates are generally confined in far worse conditions than those endured by prisoners convicted of the most heinous crimes."

It is obvious that appropriate treatment for serious crime has never been an easy question. But the simplistic solutions of the past decade have not brought about a decrease in crime nor have they diminished the drug problem on which the federal government alone spends $11 billion each year.

Attorney General Janet Reno is beginning to urge a substantial change in the nation's programs and priorities on law enforcement. Although she was a prosecutor in Florida for 15 years, she sees the counterproductive effects of the draconian measures adopted in the past dozen years.

The most effective way to punish and deter crime is to educate and motivate those persons convicted of crime so they will abandon their evil ways. A big problem is the number of recidivists. The traditional objectives of imprisonment are deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation. There is little evidence that rehabilitation is being substantially achieved in today's prisons.

It is lamentable that religious groups are seldom involved in helping prisoners. Most jails have a chaplain, but support groups from local communities are discouraged. Indeed, prisons are kept largely invisible. Human Rights Watch makes one of its top recommendations a "general call to open the prisons to the public in every way possible."

If the public knew of the vast billions being spent on prisons and saw the meager results, they would demand a thorough reexamination of imprisonment.

Dostoyevsky once wrote that the morality of a civilization can be judged by the way it treats its prisoners. On that basis the United States has a long way to go.
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Author:Drinan, Robert F.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Aug 13, 1993
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