No-frills prisons and jails: a movement in flux.

Federal Probation
Vol.60 No.3 (Sept. 1996) Pages 35-44.
By. Peter Finn


IN RECENT years, a number of state legislatures, governors, commissioners of corrections, and sheriffs have eliminated or reduced the availability of certain amenities or privileges that inmates have previously enjoyed--so-called "frills"--ranging from weightlifting equipment to hot meals to personal clothing.

Corrections experts and administrators interviewed for this study (see below) agreed that the no-frills movement is already widespread and gaining momentum. In addition, a 1995 survey conducted by Corrections Compendium found that 60 percent of responding departments of corrections (DOCs) in 46 states reported that some inmate privileges had been eliminated in the year before the survey, and several other departments reported that restrictions had been imposed on obtaining certain privileges (Wunder, 1995). As part of a survey of 21 states conducted by the State Justice Institute (1995), commissioners of corrections in California, Mississippi, and Oklahoma reported that as of late 1994 there was "a well-defined movement to eliminate creature comforts" in their states, and four other commissioners indicated there was some no-frills activity in their states.

Much of the public debate about eliminating inmate privileges has been conducted in an information vacuum--or with misinformation. To be sure, the no-frills movement is in flux: existing legislation has only recently become effective; additional bills are pending in several states; and, while some legal suits have already been filed challenging restrictions in some states and other suits are sure to follow, no definitive court rulings have been issued that bear directly on the issue. Nonetheless, it is not too soon to provide policy makers and the public with information regarding the manner in which privileges have been eliminated or restricted and the effects the no-frills movement has had on inmate management. At a minimum, this information, provisional as it may be as the no-frills movement expands, can help legislators, correctional managers, and other interested parties base future correctional decisions on as much informed opinion and reliable information as are available currently.

The information in this article is based in part on a literature search but primarily on telephone interviews with 10 corrections managers in eight states (Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, and Wisconsin) who spoke on condition of anonymity, 3 corrections experts,(1) and 2 corrections attorneys.(2) The managers were selected from among references in the literature and recommendations by the four experts. The article reviews recent efforts to eliminate or reduce inmate privileges including legislation and case law and the impact these efforts is reported to be having on corrections management.

The review excludes smoking (because cigarettes are being eliminated in prisons and jails as a health measure); boot camps (because the topic has been reviewed elsewhere in detail and does not, per se, involve the elimination of privileges but rather the imposition of hardships); and chain gangs (because they, too, do not inherently involve the elimination of amenities, although Alabama's chain gangs are discussed below because they are integrally coupled with the removal of privileges). Because the information reported here is not based on a random sample or census of no-frills activity occurring in the nation, the findings cannot be generalized uncritically to other corrections facilities that have restricted privileges or are considering restricting them. Nonetheless, the information suggests the range of no-frills approaches that it is possible to implement and the impact they may have on corrections management based on the hands-on experiences to date of a diverse assortment of correctional administrators and the considered opinions of experts in the corrections field.

No-Frills Initiatives

Efforts to eliminate inmate privileges have been introduced by a diverse range of sources including state legislators, governors, commissioners of corrections, and sheriffs. For example, legislatures in Arizona and Mississippi have enacted no-frills legislation. In 1994 the Arizona legislature eliminated weightlifting equipment in state prisons and established a $3 copayment for health care services. Effective January 1, 1995, the Mississippi legislature mandated the phasing in of striped uniforms with the word "convict" written on the back, banned private televisions and other electronic equipment in cells, and eliminated weightlifting equipment for inmates who refuse to work or attend school. A "No-Frills Prison Act" introduced in the U.S. Congress in 1995 was attached as an amendment to the U.S. Department of Justice's fiscal year 1996 appropriations hill that was enacted in April 1996. The bill prohibits in-cell televisions, unmonitored phone calls, the viewing of R-, X-, or NC 17-rated movies, and the possession of pornographic materials, electronic instruments, computers, in-cell coffee pots, and hot plates in all federal prisons. Inmates serving a sentence for a crime that resulted in serious bodily injury to another person are denied any television viewing and are limited to 1 hour a day of sports or exercise. No-frills bills have been submitted in several other jurisdictions including Alaska, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. No-frill bills have failed passage in Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Ohio.

The corrections experts and managers interviewed for this study agreed that the single most powerful driving force behind these statutes and bills has been legislators who believe the legislation helps them to get elected or reelected by offering the impression that they are tough on crime. However, the experts and managers disagreed about whether legislators are responding to public pressure to get tough on criminals or are introducing no-frills legislation on their own initiative in the hopes that their position will stimulate public support. According to one state commissioner of corrections,the motivation is probably mutually reinforcing: "Legislators are responding to public frustration and distrust of government, but public attitudes are fueled by the politicians' rhetoric."

While hopes of reelection may be the principal impetus behind most Legislators' support for no-frills legislation, lawmakers generally justify their position publicly by claiming that more austere prison conditions will reduce recidivism. Exacting retribution is also a strong rationale for some legislators. Saving money is rarely a concern for legislators--although, to be politically acceptable, it is important that the elimination of privileges not cost more money.

While a few governors have taken the initiative to eliminate certain privileges (the governor of Wisconsin issued executive orders eliminating free weights and banning rental videos), commissioners of corrections have been much more active in the no-frills movement:

* The Alabama DOC introduced no-frill chain gangs in each of the state's three prisons in 1994. Inmates in the gangs do not have telephones or visitation privileges, and recreation is limited to basketball on the weekends. Chain gang members include primarily parole violators and repeat offenders, especially offenders who are former gang members. After 6 months of good behavior, chain gang members return to the general population and are given standard inmate privileges.

* Throughout the 1990s, the Arizona DOC, supplementing the legislature's ban on weightlifting equipment, reduced the amount of property and clothing inmates may keep in their cells, the number of items for sale in the store, the number and types of movies and television programs they may watch, and the frequency of telephone calls.

* Effective January 1, 1996, the Kansas DOC introduced a formal incentive program in which incoming inmates have to earn a range of privileges including television, handicrafts, use of outside funds, canteen expenditures, personal property, and visitation. Under a three-level system, new inmates who must spend their first 120 days (Incentive Level I) without disciplinary reports and participate in educational programs or work assignments earn increased privileges (Incentive Level II). After another 120 days of similar behavior, additional privileges are made available (Incentive Level III). Inmates are reduced one level for misbehavior. Furloughs were the only privilege the DOC banned permanently for all inmates.

* Complementing the action of his governor, the commissioner of corrections in Wisconsin reduced the amount of personal property inmates may own, established limits on the amount of personal clothing and electronic equipment they may keep, and introduced monitoring of telephone calls.

A number of sheriffs have eliminated privileges in their jails: seven sheriffs in Florida have eliminated television and weigh/lifting; seven jails in Los Angeles County have also eliminated weightlifting equipment; the Niagara County, New York, sheriff eliminated free coffee; and the sheriff of Maricopa County (Phoenix) eliminated "girlie" magazines, hot lunches, most hot breakfasts, and coffee, and he reduced recreation time, television programming, visitation, and the number of items in the commissary.

Constitutional Issues

Only one federal case appears to bear directly on the issue of inmate privileges. The Seventh Circuit District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, in Adams v. Schomig et al. (No. 95 C 3168), ruled that an adult inmate who had spent 3 months in disciplinary segregation without outdoor exercise was not denied any constitutional right. The court concluded that the challenge did not meet the criterion established in French v. Owens (777 F.2d 1250, 1255 [7th Cir. 1985]) that deprivation of exercise could rise to the level of a constitutional violation "where movement is denied and muscles are allowed to atrophy and the health of the individual is threatened." The court observed that

To spend ninety days in solitary confinement, unrelieved by out
door exercise, is harsh, but disciplinary segregation is intended to be
punitive; inconvenience and discomfort do not violate the Eighth
Amendment. Adams has alleged no adverse effects on his health from
this deprivation, nor has he alleged that he could not exercise in his

At least three United States Supreme Court cases that have touched indirectly on the issue may prove decisive in how federal courts rule in future challenges to the elimination of privileges. In Rhodes v. Chapman (452 U.S. 337, 346-47, 69 L. Ed. 2d 59, 101 S. Ct. 2392 [1981]), the Court ruled that conditions of confinement violate the eighth amendment only when an inmate has been deprived of the "minimal civilized measure of life's necessities" in light of "evolving standards of decency." Mere inconvenience and discomfort of prisoners is not a constitutional violation but is part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offense. In Wilson v. Seiter (501 U.S. 294, 303, 115 L.Ed. 2d 271, 111 S. Ct. 2321, 1991), the Court further ruled that the plaintiff's injury must be the result of a defendant's intentional action or his deliberate indifference to the plaintiff's suffering. Finally, in Farmer v. Brennan, Warden et al. (No. 92-7247), the Court ruled unanimously that a prison official may be held liable under the eighth amendment for acting with "deliberate indifference" to inmate health or safety only if he knows that inmates face a substantial risk of serious harm and disregards that risk by failing to take reasonable measures to abate it.

Based on Estelle v. Gamble, 429 U.S. 97 (1976), in which the U.S. Supreme Court established that government has an obligation to provide medical care for prisoners, two commentators have concluded that the trend in correctional health care--copayments--threatens to undermine this fundamental constitutional principle (Lopez & Chayriques, 1994). However, because states that require inmate copayments typically exclude indigent inmates from the requirement, the fees may pass constitutional muster if they are challenged.

Bills, as yet not enacted, have been introduced into the U.S. Congress to restrict the ability of federal courts to interfere with prison operations. For example, the Law Abiding Citizen Safety Act of 1995, borrowing some of the language from the above cases, would prohibit a court in any litigation challenging conditions of confinement from granting relief unless the conditions challenged constitute "the unnecessary and wanton infliction of pain due to the deliberate indifference of institutional administrators such that inmates are deprived of the minimum civilized measure of life's necessities."

There have been at least a few suits challenging the elimination of certain privileges, but they have all either been rejected or are still under litigation. Two corrections attorneys believe that it is unlikely that challenges to the elimination of most privileges will be sustained in the courts. According to Darrell Bryan, editor of Corrections Compendium, "Traditionally, Federal courts examining prisoners' rights have adopted a broad hands-off attitude toward the problems of rison administration . . . [As a result,] it would appear that the courts are not likely to hold that the removal of these luxuries violates inmates' constitutional rights" (Bryan, 1995). William Collins, editor of the Correctional Law Reporter, said that

 It is hard to claim there is a right to any individual privilege. It might
be possible to argue that cumulatively the removal of many privileges
could affect legally required conditions of confinement especially if a
facility removes amenities and then some violence occurs. Then a
suit might be brought over conditions of confinement with the court
ruling that conditions in their totality were unconstitutional. In that
case, relief could include restoring some privileges as a means of
ameliorating overall conditions of confinement. But if a prison or jail
provides the basics of food, medical care, and the like, they can do
without privileges legally. This is a tough issue for inmates to win on,
especially when each item lost--weights, TV, or whatever--is
considered in isolation.

The Impact of No-Frills Initiatives on Corrections Management

No-frills efforts may have a variety of intended and unintended effects including impacts on recidivism, corrections costs and workload, security, and inmate management. There is little empirical evidence of the extent to which the elimination of privileges has had consequences in these areas. However, the informed opinion of the corrections experts and managers interviewed for this review suggests the following:

* There is no evidence that making prisons and jails more austere will have any effect on recidivism.

* Eliminating privileges may increase decrease, or have no effect on corrections costs and workload depending an the amenities that are restricted and how they were paid for and administered before they were restricted.

* Eliminating privileges does not appear to lead often to short-term management problems in prisons and jails, but the long-term implications of the no-frills movement for inmate management are unclear.

Impact on Reoffending

Proponents of eliminating privileges maintain that making prisons and jails unpleasant will reduce recidivism because inmates, loathe to be incarcerated again under such harsh conditions, will not reoffend. However, the corrections experts and most of the corrections managers interviewed for this review do not believe that the elimination of privileges will reduce recidivism. The few corrections managers who believe there will be a recidivism effect provided only anecdotal evidence that no-frills conditions will decrease reoffenses, such as comments by inmates that "I won't be back here again!" There is no empirical evidence to confirm either side's opinions on the issue. However, two recidivism studies are under way: The Maricopa County sheriff's department is working with Arizona State University researchers to study whether the county's no-frills jail reduces recidivism, while researchers at Auburn University and the University of Alabama at Montgomery are keeping statistics to determine whether Alabama's no-frills chain gangs reduce recidivism.

Impact on Costs or Workload

Costs. Corrections costs are the one area in which there are some--albeit limited--empirical data regarding the effects of the no-frills movement. The elimination of free coffee in the Niagara County jail in New York State was reported to have saved the county $30,000 a year. Discontinuing coffee with meals in the Maricopa County jail saved the county an estimated $90,000 a year, while going from hot meals to a sack lunch program saved another $450,000 a year. The Commonwealth of Virginia's copayment program for sick call ($5 for each doctor's visit and $2 for each original medication order and any dental treatment) was reported to have generated $32,000 in the first month alone and reduced inmate sick calls by about 35 percent. The revenue is being used to fund a new telemedicine pilot program that will link the Powhatan Correctional Center Hospital with the Medical College of Veterans Administration Hospitals in Richmond ("VA Copayment Plan," 1995). While medical copayments instituted in the Maricopa County jail reduced frivolous sick calls by an estimated 20 percent, they may not have reduced the overall medical budget or number of medical staff. Because medical staff had already been overburdened due to overcrowding, the reduction in service demand simply reduced inmate waiting time and backlog. However, the reduced demand is said to have helped inmates who really needed to be examined get treated more quickly. Some corrections managers reported that eliminating weightlifting equipment saves money because facilities no longer need to replace worn-out equipment or repair broken equipment. In addition, the Arizona DOC estimated that it saved $200,000 a year in medical expenses by eliminating weights because of the expense involved in treating inmates injured while working out.

In Mississippi, the introduction of new uniforms has cost the DOC money, since the uniforms are more expensive than the previous state-issue clothing. In addition, inmate lawsuits requesting reimbursement because some inmates were never asked to sign a contraband receipt when their televisions, radios, and other electronic equipment were taken and destroyed are likely to cost the department additional money in the short run. The Alabama DOC is reported to have spent $17,000 on 300 sets of leg irons for inmates in chain gangs (Bendavid, 1995).

The elimination of certain privileges will not result in cost savings because the amenities are paid for by inmates. For example, the 31 states reported to allow inmates to have their own television sets require inmates or their families to purchase the sets, while cable TV in prisons is often paid with money inmates spend on long-distance telephone calls, commissary items, or vending machines (Hallinan, 1995).

Workload. Whether the elimination of privileges reduces or increases staff workload depends on which amenities have been restricted. For example, corrections managers in Florida and Wisconsin reported that reductions in allowable clothing, personal property, or food from the outside reduced processing time. The sheriff's department in Maricopa County, Arizona, reported that reductions in visitation and recreation in the jail significantly reduced staff time. Medical copayments were reported to have reduced demands on medical staff in several jurisdictions. By contrast, corrections managers in Arizona, Florida, and Wisconsin said that increased monitoring of telephone calls led to increases in workload.

Respondents disagreed about one critical no-frills issue with major implications for staff workload: the impact of reducing amenities on inmate infractions and disturbances.

Impact on Facility Security

The elimination of privileges theoretically could increase disturbances, either in the short term if inmates react violently to the loss or in the long term if inmates have more idle time, resent the perceived vindictiveness of corrections managers, or conclude they have nothing more to lose by misbehaving.

Short-term effects. Chase Riveland, commissioner of corrections in Washington State, predicted that "Someone will go too far, violent incidents will occur, and either political reaction or the courts will reverse the trend" (Criminal Justice Institute, 1994). Indeed, a newspaper snippet (USA Today, 2/14/96, p. 3A) reported that inmates in Crystal City, Texas, upset over Spanish-speaking guards and TVs being turned off too early, set fires at a private prison. The introduction in Washington State of several fees, including medical copayments, set off a riot at one prison resulting in a lock-down of several weeks' duration. A newspaper reported that a new grooming policy that banned long hair and beards sparked an uprising among Muslims and Rastafarians at one institution in South Carolina because they objected to the new policy on religious grounds. Five guards were stabbed in the melee (Fox & Smith, 1995).

Several corrections managers said they had expected more anger and disturbances among inmates when privileges were restricted than actually occurred. Managers attributed the infrequency of disturbances at their institutions to several considerations:

* With few exceptions, inmates were told well in advance of the impending changes so that there were no surprises. For example, inmates in Kansas were given an explanation of the planned incentive privilege system a year before it went into effect.

* In most facilities, inmates were offered a reasonable explanation for the change (e.g., lack of money, security concerns, fire hazard). A warden in one state developed a Q&A video with inmates and correctional officers to explain how the planned medical copayment system would work and why it was being introduced. The video was shown over the prison's closed-circuit TV system.

* Some jurisdictions phased in their changes slowly over a period of several years. The Maricopa County sheriff has been eliminating privileges one by one since January 1993.

* Some wardens softened the blow either by grandfathering some of the lost privileges or by substituting other privileges for those that were eliminated. For example, only new inmates were subjected to the new property limitations in Arizona. All existing inmates in the Kansas prison system automatically kept all their privileges (although they could lose them for misbehavior), and only newly admitted inmates had to earn them. Wisconsin grandfathered its property reduction initiative. A warden in one state added several fixed weight stations to compensate for the removal of free weights. Before eliminating weights, the director of the Arizona DOC introduced stationary work stations in every prison where inmates can do push-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups, and other exercises.

* The "elimination" of privileges in many instances has in fact been a restriction imposed only on inmates who misbehave or refuse to work. For example, Mississippi's "ban" on televisions and weightlifting equipment affects only a minority of inmates. While the minority of inmates in maximum security units did lose their televisions, inmates in general population retain their personal TVs (and access to weights) as long as they work or attend classes. Furthermore, the elimination of televisions does not prevent inmates in general population who refuse to work from watching TVs in the common areas to which they have unimpeded access. The "elimination" of weights had no effect on maximum security inmates because they had no access to weights to begin with.

Long term effects. Many corrections managers, and all the corrections experts contacted for this review, felt that the elimination or reduction of inmate privileges would make it more difficult for prison and jail staff to maintain security for two reasons. First, privileges, such as weightlifting, television, ant recreation, keep inmates occupied; eliminating or reducing their availability would give inmates additional time in which to cause trouble, from plotting escapes to scheming to get drugs to assaulting corrections officers and other inmates. "An idle person," two corrections administrators warned, "is the devil's workshop." Second, amenities are among the few positive incentives prison and jail administrators have with which to motivate appropriate inmate behavior. Loss of these privileges would leave managers with punishment (e.g., loss of good time, segregation) as their only tool for managing inmate behavior. As a result, facility security would be reduced.

Paradoxically, most corrections managers interviewed for this review reported that the elimination of privileges had not increased inmate infractions or disturbances and in some cases had led to a decline in inmate unrest. A manager in Alabama reported that he had expected an increase in assaults and other problems in the chain gangs but the number of incidents has been the same as in the normal population, even though the chain gangs, include a more difficult type of inmate (former gang members, recidivists). The Alabama DOC also found that corrections officers are reporting a decline in disciplinary problems in the chain gangs compared to the rate among the rest of the inmate population. A corrections manager in Kansas said that the facility which pilot tested the privileges incentive system experienced "a visible change for the better in behavior between inmates and staff (but suffered increased friction among staff because there were fewer inmate distractions)." Already, he said, officers systemwide have begun to report that, when they threaten misbehaving inmates with loss of privileges, the inmates apologize rather than risk losing their amenities. A study of New York State's Shock Incarceration Program, which combines boot camp components, therapeutic community features for drug treatment, and the elimination of several privileges (visitation is allowed only every other Sunday, no newspapers, radios, or televisions are allowed, and inmates may not talk or "eyeball" each other during meals), found that almost all the graduates spoke enthusiastically about the program's positive effects on their lives (Correctional Association of New York, 1996).

Several managers reported that the elimination of weightlifting equipment, especially free-standing weights, and limitations on personal possessions, in particular personal clothing, should reduce inmate violence because of the potential for using weights as weapons and smuggling in weapons hidden in clothing. A corrections manager in Florida said that eliminating personal property has already resulted in fewer inmate fights because arguments over stolen clothing had declined.

The experts and corrections managers offered a number of possible explanations for the apparent lack of long-term increases in inmate misbehavior since the inception of the no-frills movement:

* Some states, DOCs, and jails that have eliminated privileges have not abolished those amenities--or combinations of amenities--that may be most likely to result in inmate disturbances. For example, television and recreation have not been eliminated in the Florida jails or in Wisconsin; recreation and visitation have not been eliminated in Mississippi prisons; and inmates in Alabama chain gangs still have televisions and weekend basketball.

* Several states, such as Alabama, Kansas, and Mississippi, that have "eliminated" certain privileges such as television and weightlifting equipment have in fact eliminated them only under certain conditions that enable most inmates to retain or regain these amenities. In Alabama, chain gang inmates can earn the privileges after 6 months; in Kansas, inmates who begin to behave gain amenities after 120 days; in Mississippi, inmates not in maximum security who work or attend classes retain all privileges; and sentenced inmates in the Maricopa County jail are awarded most privileges in time if they behave.

* Inmate idleness that might be expected to result in increased inmate disturbances may not have occurred in several jurisdictions that have restricted privileges because a large proportion of inmates still work or are in school. Chain gang inmates in Alabama work 10 hours a day; most inmates in the Maricopa County jail work full-time; and nearly 6,000 of 7,200 prison inmates in Kansas participate in full-time work or other educational programs.

Avoiding added inmate idleness may be especially important. Michael Quinlan, former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons and an opponent of eliminating most privileges, feels that "tough time"--that is, "exceptionally limited recreational opportunities in a no-frills setting . . . limited family visits and phone calls, no television, and virtually no personal property . . . and nutritionally adequate but `plain' food"--would be an acceptable trade-off for shorter sentences if the elimination of these privileges were coupled with mandatory physical conditioning, work, and programming (Quinlan, 1995).

Sample Privileges Targeted

A brief review of some of the actions that have been taken with regard to eliminating or restricting a sample of specific privileges illustrates the lack of pattern to the amenities that have been targeted, the variability in the manner in which even the same privileges have been limited, the unpredictability of the impact of these actions on corrections management, and the lack of agreement among corrections experts and managers regarding the amenities that should and should not be singled out for action.


In 1995 at least three jurisdictions prohibited visitors from bringing food to inmates: the Bureau of Prisons, the Massachusetts DOC for minimum security inmates, and the Wisconsin DOC. This amenity is typically eliminated because of the staff time required to search the food for contraband. Two jails have eliminated some hot meals. The Pinellas County sheriff's department was about to increase the days on which only cold meals are served from 2 to 3 days a week. The Maricopa County sheriff's department has reduced the number of daily hot meals from three to one (dinner). To save money, jails in Maricopa County (Arizona) and Niagara County (New York) have eliminated free coffee. The Maricopa County jail also has eliminated sugar drinks. In early 1996 the Arizona DOC eliminated a number of nonnutritious foods such as coffee cake, brownies, and cinnamon rolls.

Medical Copayments

Largely to control burgeoning inmate health care costs, 25 states had adopted some form of health care payment system for inmates as of the end of 1994 ("Charging Prisoners," 1994). A physician serving a jail in Washington State and the deputy chief of a sheriff's department reported that the introduction of copayments in their jails has reduced sick call by about 20 percent. Prison or jail administrators in three states said that reducing frivolous inmate medical visits by means of copayments enables truly sick inmates to get seen and treated sooner. A warden who opposed a $1.50 copayment introduced by his DOC because he felt the payment was too high and might cause inmates to riot in retrospect came to favor the copayment because it reduced inappropriate demand for services. One correctional expert opposed medical fees because "medical care has to be free if you take someone's liberty," while the other two experts supported them as a method of reducing frivolous sick calls or imposing some degree of accountability on inmates and contributing to a prison's need to try to model real-world life as much as possible.

Personal Clothing

The 1995 national survey of 641 wardens found that nonregulation clothing (and tobacco smoking) were the amenities most often reported as having been reduced during the past year (Flanagan et al., 1996). While several jurisdictions have placed limits on personal clothing, others, including Alabama, California, and Mississippi, have eliminated personal clothing entirely. Some facilities have limited the amount of personal clothing because, with overcrowding, there is not enough room for every inmate to keep an unlimited supply of personal clothing in his or her cell. However, the Pinellas County (Florida) sheriff now allows inmates to bring only court clothes with them when they enter the jail because contraband was being slipped into the jail sewn into the lining of underwear or hidden in the soles of shoes. Alabama (for chain gangs only) and Mississippi (for all inmates) have introduced uniforms, with Alabama retaining the regular prison uniform but stamping "CHAIN GANG" on it and Mississippi using striped uniforms with "CONVICT" written on the back.

The corrections managers interviewed for this study and 72 percent of the 641 wardens surveyed by Johnson et al. (1996) favored restricting or eliminating personal clothing. The corrections experts agreed that there are valid reasons for restricting personal clothing in order to distinguish inmates from staff members, prevent fire hazards, make it difficult to identify gang membership, or reduce contraband brought into the facility.

Personal Property

In addition to restrictions on clothing, several jurisdictions, including Alabama, Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and at least one jail in Florida, have restricted the amount of private property inmates may have in their cells. As with personal clothing, overcrowding has forced some institutions to limit the amount of inmate possessions, but the Wisconsin DOC implemented a detailed property rule to reduce fire hazards and the work required to inventory each new inmate's possessions. The experts agreed that there are valid security and safety reasons--eliminating potential weapons or fire hazards--for limiting personal property.


Few jurisdictions were identified that have restricted recreational opportunities. Inmates in Alabama's chain gangs are restricted to basketball on weekends; Arizona abolished football and boxing in the mid-1980s; Wisconsin abolished tennis in 1996; and the Maricopa County jail reduced the number of recreation hours per week from 6 to the minimum number of 3 required by its consent decree. Several corrections managers and experts said that reducing recreation time would make it more difficult to keep inmates busy and out of trouble. According to the former warden of a Federal prison, "If you had less recreation, . . . [y]ou would definitely have more fights. We do surveys every year" (Worth, 1995).


Several jurisdictions have placed limits on phone calls. Indiana and the Pinellas County jail restricted telephone calls to 15 minutes per call, while Pinellas County, Arizona, and Minnesota eliminated free calls. Arizona also requires inmates to "communicate legal matters through the mail whenever possible" and to request legal calls 24 hours in advance. However, individual wardens in the state were given authority to establish their own restrictions with regard to the number and length of calls. For example, one warden now requires inmates to apply to schedule a telephone call, limits calls to 15-20 minutes each, and makes the phones available only certain times of the day. Fifteen percent of the wardens in the Johnson et al. survey (1996) reported that telephone calls had been restricted at their institutions in the previous 12 months.

Arizona and Wisconsin have begun monitoring inmate calls, and Alaska's pending no-frills bill provides for universal monitoring (calls are already monitored in the state on a random basis). The justification given for reducing phone privileges is typically cost, but monitoring--which may increase correctional costs--is being introduced to prevent fraud, intimidation (e.g., of witnesses), and gang conversations. The survey of 641 wardens found 30 percent supported restrictions on telephone calls (Johnson et al., 1996).

Televisions and Other Electronic Equipment

Several jurisdictions have restricted--or plan to restrict--inmate access to television, but in different ways:

* In 1995, the Federal Bureau of Prisons ordered--and federal legislation now requires--wardens to stop purchasing or repairing new televisions in individual cells.

* Also in 1995 Mississippi eliminated televisions for maximum security inmates and restricted in-cell televisions to inmates in general population who engage in productive rehabilitative activities such as work or school. The majority of inmates in general population, since they live in open housing, still may watch the state-issue televisions in communal areas.

* The commissioner of prisons in Maine authorized the warden of the state's supermaximum facility to remove televisions from the cells of inmates who refuse to work.

* One of every five wardens surveyed nationally in the summer of 1995 reported that televisions had been restricted in the previous 12 months (Johnson et al., 1966).

* Alaska's pending no-frills bill would eliminate television in the cells of maximum security inmates until they have paid court-ordered restitution, participated in job training, and earned their GED, and only if they have no infractions and pay the costs. Televisions would remain available in day rooms.

A national survey of wardens found that only 16 percent of wardens supported eliminating or restricting televisions (Johnson et al., 1996). Corrections managers and experts interviewed for this review expressed opposition to eliminating televisions in part because watching TV reduces inmate idleness and in part because televisions can be used as an incentive to reward good behavior.


A study of communication policies changes (Dickinson & Seaman, 1994) found that the percentage of institutions permitting inmates more than four visits per month increased from 56 percent in 1971 to 76 percent in 1991. In addition, institutions were allowing longer visits in 1991 than in 1971. By contrast, this review identified several institutions that have reduced visitation rights, although in different ways. The federal prison in St. Petersburg, Virginia, restricted visits to 30 hours a month, with weekend hours counting as double time to encourage visitors who live nearby to visit on weekdays; Alabama eliminated visits only for chain gang members; Arizona reduced the number of visits and the number of allowable visitors; Wisconsin banned contact visiting for inmates who have been caught using visits for smuggling in drugs; and South Carolina discontinued conjugal visits for minimum security inmates.

Weightlifting Equipment

Perhaps no privilege is as emotionally charged as the use of weightlifting equipment because, in addition to the perception among some members of the public that it is a frill, some individuals believe that it poses a safety hazard: Inmates can use weights to assault each other or corrections officers, and by "bulking up" they become more dangerous criminals after release.

Perhaps because of its image as a dual frill-safety problem, weightlifting has been the most consistently targeted privilege. Nearly one-third of the 641 wardens surveyed in the summer of 1995 reported the reduction of weightlifting programs in their facilities during the previous 12 months. Weights have been banned in Arizona, Alabama (for chain gangs), 53 of 67 Florida jails, Wisconsin (for inmates who have assaulted a police or corrections officer), and Washington (for inmates who assault another inmate or a corrections officer). In 1993 the Los Angeles County sheriff ordered his seven jails not to replace aging weightlifting equipment as it wears out ("No Weight Training," 1994). The Bureau of Prisons prohibited its facilities from purchasing new or upgrading existing weight equipment.

Several jurisdictions have eliminated only free weights for some or all inmates (Wunder, 1995). Some corrections managers approve of restricting free weights because they can be--and have been--used as weapons against other inmates or staff. Inmates in Ohio's maximum security prison in Lucasville used free weights to smash through the walls of two stairwells, enabling them to take three officers hostage. In 1995 inmates in New York City's Rikers Island jail injured 16 officers with weights and benches ("Does Pumping Iron," 1996). A corrections manager in Arizona reported that weights were used to kill an inmate at one of the state's prison complexes.

Corrections experts and managers disagreed about the value of restricting weights. One expert felt there were valid safety reasons for eliminating free weights, but he argued that fixed weights should be eliminated as well because they reinforce the inmate culture that prisons are supposed to try to change by providing gangsters an opportunity to congregate and to bulk up to intimidate other inmates and corrections officers. A corrections manager in Arizona reported that eliminating weightlifting equipment is justified by the expense: Not only is money required to purchase and repair the equipment, pumping iron results in numerous inmate injuries that increase state correctional medical expenses.

By contrast, the national warden survey (Johnson et al., 1996) found that only 32 percent of 641 wardens supported reductions of weightlifting programs. According to an assistant warden interviewed for this review, "Banning weightlifting is poor management; the inmates who use weights aren't the ones who will cause problems. Yes, we had a riot here in which inmates used weights, but if they didn't have the weights they would have found something else to use." Most of the experts felt that because the number of inmate assaults using recreation equipment is very small, and because released inmates do not rely on physical strength to commit new crimes (they commit them unseen or use a weapon), weightlifting is not really a security issue. According to Michael Quinlan,

The prisoners who take the time to exercise their bodies are the
best inmates. These inmates are taking pride in themselves for the
first time in their lives. I have never encountered an inmate who
bulked up just to commit crimes when he got out. (Curriden, 1995)


This review suggests several conclusions about the no-frills movement to date. Above all, the movement has been distinguished by its diversity in terms of sources, motivation, privileges targeted, and manner in which singled-out amenities have been restricted or eliminated. There is substantial (but not universal) agreement among the correctional experts and managers interviewed for this review regarding the legitimacy of eliminating free weights, limiting personal clothing, and establishing medical copayments, and there is considerable agreement that eliminating television and recreational opportunities is imprudent. Overall, corrections experts and managers felt that the no-frills movement has resulted in fewer short-term security problems than anticipated. However, almost all the corrections experts and managers agreed that eliminating privileges that increase inmate idleness will increase management problems. Significantly, many of the privileges that have been targeted do not lead to increased idleness either because they do not inherently have that effect (e.g., hot meals, medical copayments, personal clothing) or because the inmates affected already participate full-time in work or school (e.g., Alabama's chain gangs, Kansas' inmates). Furthermore, recreation, which next to television is probably the amenity that most keeps inmates occupied, has not been a major target for elimination.

A significant number of privileges that have been singled out have been restricted, not eliminated. In a number of cases, DOCs and sheriffs have expanded a long-standing corrections practice of using amenities as rewards for proper inmate behavior. However, as with Alabama's chain gangs and Kansas' privilege incentive system, withholding incoming inmates privileges and then awarding the amenities after a period of good behavior appears to be a new or at least more frequent development compared with the established practice of taking privileges away from inmates as a punishment for misconduct.

The effectiveness of using privileges as a management tool of course depends on how much inmates value them. Four corrections experts and managers felt that inmates prize visitation highly and three felt that they value television a great deal. A prison manager in Alabama reported that inmates in the chain gangs tell the media that what they hate most about the gang is the chains, but they tell him their biggest frustration is the loss of visitation rights. As part of the planning for the Kansas incentive program, corrections employees were asked to rank the desirability of 30 privileges to inmates; then inmates in segregation were asked which privileges they valued the most. At the top of the merged list were canteen expenditures; use of outside money; incentive pay; ownership of televisions, radios, and other electronic equipment; a long visiting list; participation in outside organizations; and in-cell hobbies.

There is little or no evidence regarding the impact of the no-frills movement on recidivism. Some restrictions appear to have increased correctional costs while others have reduced expenses. It appears that the consequences of the movement for corrections management will vary considerably from state to state and from facility to facility depending on which privileges are targeted, the manner in which they are eliminated or restricted, whether the privileges remain or become available to inmates who behave rather than being abolished entirely, and how the restrictions are presented to inmates. Ultimately, George Camp and Michael Quinlan argued, inmates will accept the loss of most privileges if corrections managers are not motivated by vindictiveness but instead have a reasonable rationale, such as cost or security, for removing amenities. According to Camp,

Inmates can understand a valid rationale. But it's not a specific
amenity that's the issue, it's the entire attitude of administrators:
They can grant privileges but with a mean-spirited attitude that vitiates
their largesse, and they can withdraw privileges but with care
makes the losses tolerable. Administrators who are honest and direct
manage these situations well.

The future of the no-frills movement is uncertain. On the one hand, in several states attempts to legislate more stringent restrictions have failed. In April i996 the Governor of Alabama fired the commissioner of corrections when the commissioner announced a plan to extend chain gangs to women inmates. On the other hand, the recently enacted Federal No-Frills Act, several pending state bills (e.g., in Alaska and New Jersey), and some initiatives by governors (e.g., in South Carolina) could in the next few years result in more draconian restrictions than have occurred to date.

A process and impact evaluation is badly needed to compare departments of corrections and individual institutions that have eliminated or restricted amenities with those that have not. While it may be difficult methodologically to look at recidivism outcomes, it should not be hard to examine changes in inmate behavior and corrections costs. With regard to changes in inmate behavior, it would be possible to conduct a pre-post comparison of inmate incidents by number, rate, severity, and classification status among three types of institutions or departments of corrections: (1) those that have eliminated privileges without regard to possible impacts on inmates management (that is, for reasons of making conditions more austere or to save money); (2) those that have introduced or expanded restrictions on privileges as a management control tool; and (3) those that have taken neither of the above two steps. If enough institutions are included in the study, it also may be possible to compare those facilities in which privileges are withheld when inmates are first incarcerated but can be earned over time with facilities in which inmates upon arrival are granted the privileges but then lose them after misconduct.

On the one hand, as the experts and many of the corrections managers interviewed for this review suggest, completely eliminating certain privileges (item 1 above) may increase misconduct, especially if the privileges that have been withdrawn permanently are highly valued by inmates. On the other hand, if deterrence theory is valid, the introduction or expansion of restrictions on privileges as a management tool (item 2 above) should produce significant improvement in inmate behavior. Policy makers need to know whether these theories are valid in order to make sound decisions about whether to eliminate or restrict inmate privileges and which ones to target.


(1) George Camp, director, Criminal Justice Institute, Secretariat for the State Correctional Administrators Association, and former associate superintendent for custody at the federal maximum security penitentiary in Marion, Illinois; Michael Quinlan, board member, Corrections Corporation of America, member, American Bar Association subcommittee on criminal justice, and former director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; and Robert Verdeyen, director of standards, American Correctional Association, and former warden, federal penitentiary, Morgantown, West Virginia. (2) William Collins, editor, Correctional Law Reporter, and vice chairman, American Correctional Association Legal Issues Committee; and Darrell Bryan, editor of Corrections Compendium.


Bendavid, N. (1995, March 13) "No frills" movement takes aim at prison comforts. Legal Times.

Bryan, D. (1995). U.S. courts hand the debate over inmate privileges to corrections officials. Corrections Compendium, 20(6), 2-3.

Charging prisoners for medical treatment. (1994). Corrections ALERT, 1(18), 1-2.

Correctional Association of New York. (1996). Rehabilitation that works: Improving and expanding shock incarceration and similar programs in New York State. New York: Author.

Criminal Justice Institute. (1994). Prisons as punishment or prisons for punishment: Where are we headed? (Unpublished report). South Salem, NY: Author.

Curriden, M. (1995, July). Hard time. ABA Journal, 72-75.

Dickinson, G.E., & Seaman, T.W. (1994). Communication policy changes from 1971 to 1991 in state correctional facilities for adult males in the United States. Prison Journal, 74(3), 371-382.

Does pumping iron make inmates more dangerous? (1995, March 24). Corrections Digest, 26(12), 1-4.

Flanagan, T., Johnson, W, & Bennett, K. (1996). Few thrills with no frills. Corrections Forum, 3,38.

Fox, W., & Smith, T. (1995, June 20). Prison hostages released. The Greenville News.

Hallinan, J. (1995, July 30). Prisons are all the rage. Out with the air conditioners and ice cream machines, legislators insist. (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

Johnson, W.W., Bennett, K., & Flanagan, T.J. (1996, March). Getting tough on prisoners: A national survey of prison administrators. Paper prepared for the annual meeting of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, Las Vegas.

Lopez, M., & Chayriques, K (1994). Billing prisoners for medical care blocks access. National Prison Project Journal, 9(2), 1-2.

No weight training, no TV: States move to kill inmate benefits. (1994). Corrections ALERT, 1(13), 3.

Peterson, I. (1995, July 10). Cutting down on amenities to achieve no-frills jails. The New York Times.

Quinlan, J.M. (1995). News of the future: Carving out new territory for American corrections. Federal Probation, 57(4), 59-63.

VA copayment plan yields impressive results. (1995). Corrections Alert, 2(12), 3.

Worth, R.A. (1995, November). A model prison. The Atlantic Monthly, pp. 38, 40,42, 44.

Wunder, A. (1995). The extinction of inmate privileges. Corrections Compendium, 20(6), 5-9, 10, 20, 24.

(*) Mr. Finn is senior research associate at Abt Associates Inc., in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The research reported in this article was supported by the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, Contract OJP-94-C-007. Opinions stated in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Copyright 1996 Administrative Office of the United States Courts

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