Why US Prisons Should Keep the Barbells and TV Get-Tough Penal Reform in Congress Is Dangerous -- Pushed by Lawmakers Who Know Little about Prison Staff and Prisoners

Article excerpt

THE No-Name-Nineties now give us Newt Gingrich and a cast of cohorts seeking to eliminate many program services to the nation's inmates. In a footnote in the Contract With America, everything from weight lifting and recreation to college education courses, drug counseling, cable TV -- even smoking and coffee -- are being eliminated as unnecessary for convicts and detainees in American jails and prisons.

This knee-jerk mentality assumes that hardening the environment will suffice to bring back punishment and penitence and to reform the repeat offender. Jimmy Cagney movies still live in the minds of those seeking change.

Yes, every state and county in the land now has fully equipped, air-conditioned, and awesomely modern correctional centers. These new architectural wonders, often juxtaposed against aging court houses and other public buildings, provide an incredible array of correctional services for inmates: law libraries, gymnasiums, counseling and education, and so on. The comparison of these modern penal facilities to the poor conditions of most public schools and public recreational facilities in these communities is stark.

That these correctional facilities and their quality-of-life programs result from 30 years of litigation and the establishment of civil rights for incarcerated persons merely whets the appetite for returning these "new generation correction centers" back to punitive environments.

The fact that the current United States correctional system has a surrogate national public health role is too abstract for a public frustrated with the tough problems of crime. Corrections are becoming viewed as an unwelcome extension of public welfare and other public dole programs.

The traditional non-uniformed correctional staff consisting of educators, chaplains, counselors, nurses, doctors, and psychologists is now joined by new staff members: law librarians, inmate grievance officers, lawyers, legal aides and paralegal clerks, substance abuse counselors, AIDS counselors, parenting counselors, recreation supervisors, nutritionists, environmental health monitors, OSHA supervisors, accreditation officers, public relations officers, lobbyists, construction and contracting officers, private sector prison liaison officers, and collective bargaining administrators.

The traditional prison is now a complex prison -- an interplay of exigencies and interests that leaves the simple relations of earlier days behind.

The intrusive surrogate and micro-operational authority within correctional agencies of federal special masters, compliance coordinators, and other oversight bodies have further cemented these changes in the correctional environment. …