Sunday, June 14, 2009

Home Sweet Prison

There was an episode of M*A*S*H in which (and I'm doing this from memory, so I probably have some details wrong) Hawkeye was placed on house arrest in his tent and Frank Burns taunted him until, at the end, Burns was under house arrest with Hawkeye taunting him. What I recall, and why I'm recounting this, is the basic taunt, which (although probably wittier) was something like, "I can go out and I can come in. In/out/in/out/in/out."

This morning's subject is prison. And the central fact of prison is the control. No matter what program and facility is there, no matter what the level of safety and security, no matter what the level of confinement, prison is ultimately about control. Some places are better, some worse. All are bad places to be precisely because inmates have no control. They can't come and go as they wish. Never.

There are other controlling institutional settings, of course. School, the military, the scouts (I quit the cub scouts because I couldn't stand the regimentation). But none of them has the level of absolute control that prisons do. Try to walk away from school and they may drag you back, but they don't shoot you as you go. Even in the military they're not supposed to do that on the spot. But see how the guards react when you try to climb over the concertina wire at a typical prison.

Here in Ohio, the prisons are operated by the Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. But they do little in the way of rehabilitation and correction itself is an iffy thing. Mostly they're about confinement. Put folks away for a time and hope for the best. In an earlier post I looked at some of the problems with that, and an article by Jim Lewis in today's N.Y. Times Magazine leads to a new take.

It takes off from the architecture of a prison in Austria where the prisoners (and they're not just the white collar types who end up at places the public derisevely and false describes as "Club Fed") live
in units called pods — groups of 15 one-person cells with floor-to-ceiling windows, private lavatories and a common space that includes a small kitchen.
The cells, or at least some of them, have balconies. There's green space and openness. It is
a striking building, perched on a slope outside the small Austrian town of Leoben — a sleek structure made of glass, wood and concrete, stately but agile, sure in its rhythms and proportions: each part bears an obvious relationship to the whole. In the daytime, the corridors and rooms are flooded with sunshine. At night, the whole structure glows from within. A markedly well-made building, and what is it? A prison.
Lewis arrives at the prison in the company of Joseph Hohensinn, the architect.
[A]s we approached, the building looked both idle and inviting, like a college library during winter break — or it would have, anyway, were it not for the razor wire coiled along the concrete wall of the yard and the sentence carved below it, a line from the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the United States signed and ratified) that reads: “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”
But, and ultimately, it's a prison, a place of punishment. When Lewis asked one of the prisoners if he was surprised at how nice the place was,
he said no; what surprised him was that he’d been caught in the first place.
And that, of course, is the point, or at least one of the points. Prison sucks, even the best prisons. And while prisoners surely prefer being in less horrific places, prison is, ultimately, prison.

Interestingly, the "nice" prison doesn't even cost much more than the traditional concrete and steel bunker model. Why?
[A]s a rule, the more a corrections center bristles with overt security, with cameras, and squads of guards, and isolation cells, the more expensive it’s going to be.
Our approach to prisons is built on one of two assumptions (or maybe both):
  1. If you make the place horrific enough, nobody will return.
  2. Because prisoners are being punished, it's important that they be deprived of anything marginally decent.
There are two problems with both of these assumptions, as scholars, corrections experts, judges, wardens, and even the line prison guards know
  1. The vast majority of the folks in prison will someday be released, and roughly two thirds of those will reoffend. The Torquemada model of prisons doesn't help prevent that - in fact, by breeding violence and turmoil it likely makes it worse.
  2. It's easier to maintain control, and therefore safety and security, within prison when you are able to offer reward as well as punishment to the prisoners and when the conditions are not so awful that the threat of worse isn't much of a disincentive.
We may not need to build prisons like the one near Leoben, but as if we're going to continue to lock up a major portion of the population, it's worth thinking hard about how we ought to do it.

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