Note: Written on 6/8/06 and published
by The Los Angeles Times
- Americans spend $60 billion a year to
imprison 2.2 million people - exceeding
any other nation - but receive a dismal
return on the investment, according to
a report to be released today by a commission
urging greater public scrutiny of what
goes on behind bars.
The report, "Confronting Confinement,"
by the National Prison Commission, says
legislators have passed get-tough laws
that have packed the nation's jails and
prisons to overflowing with convicts,
most of them poor and uneducated. However,
politicians have done little to help inmates
emerge as better citizens upon release.
The consequences of that failure include
financial strain on states, public health
threats from parolees with communicable
diseases, and a cycle of crime and victimization
driven by a recidivism rate of more than
60%, the report says.
"If these were public schools or
publicly traded corporations, we'd shut
them down," said Alexander Busansky,
executive director of the Commission on
Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons,
established by a private think tank in
New York. Rather, the commission said,
Americans view prisons with detachment
or futility, growing interested when a
riot makes the news and then looking away,
"hoping the troubles inside the walls
will not affect us."
With 20 members representing diverse perspectives,
the bipartisan panel urges Americans to
ignore the costs of incarceration no longer.
Launched in early 2005 amid what panelists
called "accumulating doubts about
the effectiveness and morality of our
country's approach to confinement,"
the commission will deliver its findings
to a Senate subcommittee in Washington
Among the highlights in the 126-page report:
The report can
be found at http://www.prisoncommission.org
remains a serious problem in prisons
and jails, with gang assaults, rapes,
riots and, in Florida, beatings by "goon
squads" of officers.
Crowding is one cause, with most lockups
so packed that they feature a "degree
of disorder and tension almost certain
to erupt in violence."
Idleness also compromises safety. "But
because lawmakers have reduced funding
for programming, prisoners today are
largely inactive and unproductive."
Family ties - another proven factor
in promoting safety and successful paroles
- are strained by prisons' location
in remote areas and by a culture that
does not welcome visitors. There are
even barriers to receiving phone calls,
with the cost of a collect call from
prison far higher than what is charged
in the free world, amounting to "a
tax on poor families."
- High rates
of disease in prison, coupled with inadequate
funding for healthcare, endanger inmates,
staff and the public, with staph infections,
tuberculosis, hepatitis C and AIDS among
the biggest threats.
In California, healthcare has been deemed
so bad - claiming one inmate life in
an average week through incompetence
or neglect - that a federal judge seized
control of prison medical care from
the state and recently handed it to
- The rising
use of high-security segregation units
is counterproductive, often causing
violence inside prisons and contributing
Although designed to isolate the most
dangerous inmates, segregation units
increasingly house those who may appear
unmanageable but who pose no danger
to others or are mentally ill. Prisoners
are often released from solitary confinement
- where they experience extreme isolation
from human contact for long periods
- directly to the streets, despite the
proven risk of doing so.
The commission recommends more rigorous
screening, an end to conditions of severe
isolation and proper treatment for the
culture - the "us-versus-them"
mentality - endangers inmates and staff
and harms the families and communities
to which convicts return. Many states
are pursuing a new approach, which the
commission called more than a "feel-good
"Security and control - necessities
in the prison environment - only become
a reality when dignity and respect are
inherent in the process," said
former Minnesota Warden James H. Bruton,
one of scores who provided testimony.
Change will require recruitment and
retention of high-quality officers and
leaders, so the field - which employs
750,000 people - is not viewed as one
of "knuckle-draggers in dungeons."
increased professionalism in corrections,
resistance to outside scrutiny and oversight
In California, the Office of the Inspector
General acts as a watchdog, investigating
reports of abuse, assaults and fatalities.
But the media are limited in their access
to the state's 33 prisons, and legislative
efforts to overturn such restrictions
have been vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger
and his predecessor, Gray Davis.
The commission includes members who
run correctional systems and attorneys
for inmates, as well as lawmakers and
others from the criminal justice field.
The panel spent a year exploring problems
- the first comprehensive, national
effort of its kind in three decades.
Its co-chairmen are former U.S. 3rd
Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge
John J. Gibbons and former U.S. Atty.
Gen. Nicholas deB. Katzenbach.
State Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles)
also served on the panel, which was
staffed and funded through the Vera
Institute of Justice.
All 20 members supported the report's
findings, concluding that "we should
be astonished by the size of the prisoner
population, troubled by the disproportionate
incarceration of African Americans and
Latinos, and saddened by the waste of
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