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Life behind bars.

The public schools can go begging. So can the health-care system and providers of social services. But hard-pressed state governments everywhere keep managing to find the money to build prisons. Construction firms that used to build hospitals and college dorms and government office buildings--especially in the South--can't find work like that anymore. Instead, they build prisons. As former Governor Bob Martinez, a Florida Republican, said on the campaign trail in his 1990 re-election bid--a losing one--"We have to build prisons. . . . It's not just putting away prisoners. It creates employment."

At a recent Tampa gathering of criminal-justice professionals, Todd Clear of Rutgers University said, "Since 1971, we have embarked on the largest social experiment in punishment in the history of the world." The rate of imprisonment has more than quadrupled in that time, he continued, but no drop in the crime rate has accompanied it.

Florida has the highest incarceration rate--and one of the highest crime rates. It nearly doubled its prison population in the second half of the 1980s under Martinez's leadership. Its current capacity is more than 50,000, and prison officials want more than 100,000 beds by 1998. Governor Lawton Chiles, who campaigned against Martinez saying that he would promote alternatives to incarceration, skipped the Tampa meeting because he is holding an emergency legislative session to raise taxes to construct 21,000 new prison cells. The figures for other states, if not so extreme, are part of the same trend. The number of people locked up in state and Federal prisons has climbed from about 200,000 in 1970 to more than 800,000 today.

This is insane, and the rest of the world knows it. When a U.N. Congress on crime prevention and treatment of offenders passed a resolution a few years ago, recommending that member states reduce the size of their prison populations and intensify the search for noncustodial sanctions, the United States voted "No" and went blithely on its way, implementing new Federal sentencing guidelines that have had the opposite effect.

This is especially disgraceful in the day-in-day-out practice of imprisonment in this country. Let's take just one issue of Prison Legal News, a newsletter edited by inmates at Washington State Penitentiary to report the outcomes of various legislative and court actions that affect the conditions of confinement. Among the thirty-odd cases discussed in the current issue are these:

[unkeyable] Prison officials think they are above the law. A Missouri prisoner whose sentence was suspended and his release ordered by his trial judge was illegally held when officials informed the judge that they had decided not to release him. The court eventually secured his release, ruling that officials don't have the right to deny a man his freedom just because they disagree with a court order. But not before this man spent an extra eight months behind bars.

[unkeyable] A Federal court upheld a mandate at Washington state's control units that every prisoner entering and leaving would be subject to a rectal probe, supposedly to search for contraband--even though more than 2,000 such probes had been conducted without ever finding any contraband.

[unkeyable] Two Mississippi prisoners who tried and failed to escape and three of their cell-mates who refused to produce their escape tools won a suit against a guard who ordered the five men to strip naked from the waist down and whipped them for ten to fifteen minutes with a piece of coaxial cable. Officials did not deny or dispute the torturing, and their attitude says a lot about what officials think is proper behavior. The defense argued, unsuccessfully, that it's okay to torture prisoners if that's the only way to get information relevant to security.

[unkeyable] Prison food has been the subject of jokes for as long as there have been prisons, but the time-honored nickname for stewed meat as "road kill" turns out to be literally true in the state of Washington. Transportation department workers remove dead deer and elk from the roads and deliver them to the prisons, supposedly after the meat has been properly inspected. One state legislator wants to overhaul the system and let the wildlife department take over because of "lax standards." A prison food-service official complained about "one deer they brought in there with not a single bone unbroken. The truck driver who brought it in must've run over it with all eighteen wheels."

Every month, more such cases show up in Prison Legal News. They always remind us of Dostoevsky's observation that "the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons."
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Title Annotation:rising prison population
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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