I’m not a corrections professional. I’ve never served as a federal, state or county correctional officer. But, in my position as a police officer and later a private trainer/consultant, I’ve found myself in more than a few correctional institutions as a visitor.
As this on-line piece is going out, the national media has been reporting that the State of California has been ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce their inmate population by several thousand bodies. At the time of this writing, it remains unclear exactly how the powers-that-be are going to do that and several options have been discussed: From transfer to other out-of-state facilities, to deporting those who’re in the country illegally before their sentences are completed, to even outright early release of some non-violent inmates. No solution has yet been reached.
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The decision by the nine Supremes and my recent return from another trip abroad has prompted me to author this piece on the state of our correctional practices. I’ve had the opportunity to tour several state prisons and several jails, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the U.S. penal system is pretty much doing it right in both settings.
My wife and I recently returned from Ireland and while we were there, we had the chance to tour the infamous Kilmainham Jail (Kilmainham Gaol) just outside of Dublin. This facility was open from 1796 to the early 1920s. During its heyday, it housed thousands of prisoners, some as young as 7-years-old, who were caught committing heinous crimes such as stealing food during the 1847 Irish potato famine. Thousands died while serving their time, others were executed by firing squad or hanged. Originally designed as a “reform” prison with one person to a cell, it eventually housed four to five inmates in one cell with many bunking on cold concrete floors with nothing more than a blanket for a bed. One candle used for light had to last two weeks. Inmates spent their time unwinding rope, walking in circles or breaking rocks.
While there, I found myself reflecting back to a private tour my wife and I took of the Tent City Jail two summers ago arranged by Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio is often criticized for his housing practices, two or three inmates stacked on military bunks in GI tents and pink underwear. Inmates doing time at the Maricopa County Jail have to work too—making meals, doing laundry or going to class to earn their GEDs.
While a uniformed Watch Commander, I also participated in Attica State Prison’s “Project Conway.” “Project Conway” (for the con’s way) was Attica’s version of Rahway (N.J.) State Prison’s “Scared Straight” program that gained media fame about 20 years ago where at risk juveniles were lectured to by inmates doing hard time. While supervising a group of 15-year-old males, I vividly recall one inmate telling one young lad why the head of his bunk was right next to the toilet rather than at the opposite end. The toilets at Attica all flush at specific times of the day, not on whether they’ve been used. “It’s to prevent a trustee-inmate from reaching through the cell bars and slashing my throat” he explained. “Even though it smells better nearer the door, it’s safer at the commode end.”
Contrast Attica with Alcatraz. Admittedly, Attica is a state-run institution and “The Rock” was a federal prison, but they have their similarities. Shut down for cost reasons in 1963 by then Attorney General Robert Kennedy (it costs $10 per day, per prisoner compared to only $3 per day, per inmate in Atlanta) and fear that sewage from the 250 confined prisoners was polluting San Francisco Bay.
Alcatraz housed some of our most hardened criminals. I recall a park ranger giving my partner and me the tour stating that inmates housed there actually enjoyed fairly generous meals while doing their federal time. “They could get all the food they wanted, but they had to eat all they took.” In fact, the four basic needs (food, clothing, shelter and medical care) were given to every inmate, regardless of his crime or street status. Al Capone got the same grub and medical care as the other inmates, most of whom weren’t well-known gangsters.
So, where’s the “so what” in all of this? In my humble opinion, it’s this: I think “Sheriff Joe” and his staff there at Tent City have got it right. Prisoners there get the four basic needs; it’s just that Monday’s lunch may be a cold baloney sandwich. They get clothing, too. It just happens to be pink. Shelter may be a GI tent. Hey, I’ve spent time under more than a few of those. And medical care at the Maricopa County Jail is top notch, I’m told.
Jail or prison isn’t supposed to be easy or fun. You’re there to do your time. While wasting away in a bare bones concrete cell with only a blanket for a bed and a candle for heat and light is certainly inhumane by every standard, carpeted day rooms, piped-in music and state-of-the art law libraries and fitness centers, in my humble opinion, is too much.
What say you?