January 1995. Vol.18 No.1.
Nineteen ninety-four proved to be a bad year for inmates: The U.S. prison population reached one million for the first time, states either abolished or considered abolishing parole and public sentiment appeared to be growing to do away with inmate "privileges." As New York state Sen. Michael Nozzolio commented in Newsweek, "We have too many benefits and too little punishment."
A number of states made news last year with their effort to curtail inmate privileges. Wisconsin banned weightlifting equipment, destroyed prison tennis courts and prohibited gifts of candy to state prison inmates. Five counties in Florida removed all television sets from their jails, with two other counties restricting TV viewing. South Carolina banned conjugal visits for minimum-security inmates.
But the most striking example of the anti-crime mood sweeping the nation is in Mississippi. There, in addition to denying inmates weightlifting equipment, individual television sets and air conditioners, the state Legislature has decreed that inmates must wear striped uniforms with the word CONVICT emblazoned across the back.
"Politicians want people to believe that these sorts of actions are going to stem the tide of crime," said Tim Fahy, president of the National Correctional Recreation Association. "The thinking is, if we make prison bad enough, no one will want to go to prison. But if we make prison nice - give them tennis courts, for instance - they will want to come back again and again and again."
Steve Ingley, executive director of the American Jail Association, agrees, pointing to the huge impact the media has on shaping public sentiment. "Crime's what they see on the evening news every day," Ingley said. "Banning privileges is a quick reaction to public and political pressure."
At the heart of the debate over inmate privileges is the age-old issue of punishment vs. rehabilitation. What some consider frills, such as televisions and exercise equipment, others see as components of the rehabilitation process and as critical prison management tools.
Banning inmate privileges runs counter to the spirit of ACA's public correctional policies, particularly its policy on conditions of confinement. However, the president of the North American Associations of Wardens and Superintendents, Arthur Leonardo, admitted that there isn't universal agreement on this issue within the field. Nevertheless, most corrections practitioners do believe they should have the flexibility to use amenities such as television sets and exercise equipment, as they see fit.
"Decisions on corrections are best made by practitioners," Leonardo said. "Legislators can't micro-manage us."
Elaine Little, president of the Association of State Correctional Administrators, agrees. "Corrections needs to get on the front end of discussions with state legislatures," she said. "we need to introduce our own legislation that better structures how to use this equipment."
There's also agreement that the corrections field needs to get more accurate information on conditions in prisons and jails out to the public. Ingley pointed to the public's ignorance in general about corrections, particularly the nation's jail system. "I always laugh when I hear people describe jails as 'country clubs,'" said Ingley. "There's more to a country club than televisions and air conditioners."
When asked whether banning inmate privileges will continue to be a hot issue in 1995, Ingley thinks it will. He believes the trend reflects the current mood of the country and the "get tough" attitude of the nation's newly elected officials. Although concerned about the impact on effective, cost saving programs, he holds out hope that the trend will eventually reverse itself. "These sorts of things tend to be cyclical in nature," he said.
Fahay also believes the furor surrounding inmate privileges will die down some - at least until the next election. But he's still worried: "Once legislators take away all the recreational equipment, what's next?"
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