US Prisons - under Pressure - Show Increase in Violence New Study Reports Extent of Prison Population Growth, along with Increase in Attacks from Both Inmates and Guards. Series: Attica Prison in New York Has Had Its Share of Trouble. Last Weekend, Prisoners Were Confined to Their Cells after Several Guards Were Attacked. in 1971, It Was the Site of One of the Worst Riots in US History. BY MARJORIE COEYMAN

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With inmates like Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan, California's Corcoran State Prison was destined for notoriety when it opened for business 10 years ago.

But when seven inmates were shot dead by guards in the early 1990s, it earned a reputation no one wanted or expected: the nation's deadliest prison. Federal indictments, a pair of state investigations, and legislative hearings currently under way about an alleged coverup have rocked the state prison system and sent political reverberations through the offices of the state's current governor and the man who wants to succeed him, Attorney General Dan Lungren.

While things at Corcoran may change, a number of prison experts say apparent excesses at the facility southwest of Fresno, Calif., are the logical outcome of a prison system - both state and federal - growing ever- more violent and inhumane.

"It's a look at the future," says Jerome Miller, president of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives in Alexandria, Va. "As sentencing laws get tougher and punishment proposals get more vicious, there's a tendency toward a great wave of dehumanization of inmates."

It's that dehumanization, says Mr. Miller, that lies behind the incidents at Corcoran, where guards are alleged to have staged fights between prisoners and then resorted to extreme violence to stop fights when they got out of hand.

Critics of the nation's exploding prison population, and the policies behind it, point to everything from chain gangs in Alabama and Wisconsin to the comment by Georgia corrections chief Wayne Garner that many of that state's prisoners weren't "fit to kill," as signs of a society increasingly out for vengeance rather than justice.

A report this week from the Department of Justice shows the United States could populate a new small town of over 60,000 each year with the number of people sent to state and federal prisons. With over 1.7 million people behind bars, the United States has the second-highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world, after Russia.

And the growth in the 1990s is coming primarily from violent offenders, who last year made up more than half the growth in the prison population. That's contrary to the trend of the 1980s, when an explosion of drug arrests and prosecutions played a larger role in the swelling prison population.

That's not necessarily because the country is becoming more violent. Indeed, crime rates have been dropping. Rather, the growth of drug arrests and imprisonment has slowed, says Allen Beck, author of the latest Justice Department report, while incarceration rates for violent offenders have remained strong.

Challenging crowd

But the growth of violent offenders does mean the prisons are coping with an increasingly volatile prison population.

Assaults in prisons, both against fellow inmates and against staff, have more than doubled in the past decade, according to statistics gathered by the Criminal Justice Institute in Middletown, Conn. Last weekend, more than 2,000 inmates at New York's Attica prison were confined to their cells because of several attacks on guards.

While some experts regard the growing number of assaults as a logical outcome of prisons that are, on average, filled 20 percent over capacity, others point out that the actual assault rate, measured against the size of the prison population, is falling. …