Jail: Rough Road or Easy Street?
Amenitites Important, Prison Officials Say


The Hartford Courant
4 August 1997 Page A-1
by Dana Tofig
Correction Officer Charles Robinson stands at the edge of the gymnasium at Cybulski Correctional Institution. From his vantage point, he can see across the room.

In front of him, a handball smacks off a wall of the gym, creating a rhythmic cadence with the grunts of two inmates. Prisoners are shooting hoops on the other end of the expansive room. The metallic clang of weights echoes through the gym.

Some would look at this scene as an example of a weak prison system, full of fun for convicted felons. After many years as a guard, Robinson sees it differently.

"This breaks up a lot of the monotony of the day," he said. "And it relieves some of the stress."

Wardens and correction officials say that weight rooms, basketball hoops, televisions, radios and other pleasantries accomplish two very important tasks inside a prison: They are a powerful management tool, and they occupy prisoners' time.

However, much of the public is fed up with crime, and pictures of basketball hoops and fully stocked libraries in prisons only make them more disgusted. Politicians, in recent years, have tapped into that frustration and called for the elimination of such amenities. In Connecticut, changes have been made, but they have been tempered by the reality that recreation and education serve an important purpose.

It's rhetoric vs. reality in the get-tough-on-crime '90s.

"The people who are in charge of running prisons have a much more practical view of the importance of amenities than outsiders, especially politicians," said Timothy Flanagan, dean of the college of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Texas.

"There clearly is a problem with public perception of prison life."

Keeping inmates on track

Willie Kelly Keaton Jr. slides large weights onto a big metal bar. Each makes a hollow ring as the platter-sized weights slap together. Keaton lies on the bench and presses more than 300 pounds over his chest several times. When it gets difficult, he grimaces and pushes the weights up two more times.

He leaps up with pride.

When Keaton first entered prison, he was out of shape and addicted to drugs. In prison, he has found God and the weight room. He said his mind and body are fit for the outside world.

"I can bench-press 405 pounds," said Keaton, who now is in another state prison. "It gives me a lot of confidence to know that I can do that. And all the girls like a man with a healthy body." He laughs and flexes a muscle.

In the prison system, inmates are moved around among prisons and among security levels. So, Cybulski, in Somers, is the kind of place that many want to go to. It's still prison, but there are plenty of activities that help pass the days, or years, and sometimes help the prisoners straighten themselves out.

A variety of classes and programs available at Cybulski help prepare inmates for the free world -- which is where a majority of them are heading within a year or two. There are bumper pool and pingpong tables in the dorms, a basketball court, a weight room, televisions and radios on almost every bunk, a library and other recreational and educational facilities.

Not all of Connecticut's prisons are like Cybulski. At Walker Special Management Unit in Suffield, for instance, recreation for higher-security inmates is a walk around in a cage. And at Northern Correctional Institution in Somers, the state's most secure prison , recreation consists of shuffling in circles around a concrete, open-air pen, in shackles.

Cybulski's inmates are usually charged with less- serious crimes and are fairly close to being released. The amenities they receive are linked to their attending counseling sessions, getting their high school diplomas and following the rules.

The prison's warden believes that recreation, special classes and other privileges help inmates stay on the right track.

"It keeps inmates busy and keeps them focused positive," said warden Sandra Sawicki. "It's a privilege to be here. They know that."

While the gymnasium hums with the sounds of "rec," on the other side of the institution, groups of men take a variety of classes.

Inmate George Gaston recently went through a major test in his job skills class -- a mock interview. A teacher and the school principal peppered the would-be job candidate with pointed questions.

Why should we give you this job over other candidates?

"My focus would be on getting the job done," Gaston replied, choosing his words carefully.

Do you have a criminal background?

"Yes, I do, for possession of drugs," Gaston said. "It was an unfortunate experience. But it gave me the opportunity to graduate from community college."

Why won't you offend again? Gaston, who has since been sent to a halfway houseand has a job, paused. "I believe incarceration did serve its job as a deterrent."

`Club Med'

In 1994, gubernatorial candidate John G. Rowland stood before blown-up pictures of basketball hoops and an electronic scoreboard at the yet-to-open York Correctional Institution, a women's prison in Niantic.

He blasted the prison as posh and compared it to a Club Med. It was, he said, a shining example of a state that is too soft on its criminals.

"The reality in Connecticut is that we're coddling our prisoners," he said and vowed to change it.

Such words tapped directly into voters' intolerance for crime and helped Rowland into the state's top job. Bashing prison amenities has become a common, and successful, political tactic. The argument resonates with many voters: Prison should not be a place people want to be.

"It can't be fun, like being outside of prison," said state Sen. John A. Kissel, R-Enfield. "That doesn't seem to mesh with my view of a tough correctional system."

For years, Kissel has been trying to eliminate weightlifting in prisons. Bulked-up inmates are only more dangerous inside and outside the prisons.

"Essentially what you're doing is you're making criminals stronger," Kissel said.

Kissel has not been able to rid the prisons of weightlifting, but some changes have been made in state prison life. Despite Rowland's tough campaign words, the changes have been subtle and thoughtful.

"While {the prisons} haven't been turned into medieval dungeons, they certainly aren't as comfortable as they were in the past," said Nuala Forde, a spokeswoman for Rowland. "Prisons are not supposed to be comfortable."

Under state Correction Commissioner John J. Armstrong, some amenities have been eliminated or limited, and others have been linked more closely to a prisoner's behavior and classification within the system.

"We knew we had to change some ways that things in the Department of Correction were done," said Armstrong, a former guard who was one of Rowland's first major appointments.

Smoking has been snuffed out in all prisons, and inmates' access to phones and visits are tied to the security level of the prison they are in and their behavior. A contentious inmate may get no visits. Others may get "non-contact" visits, held through thick glass and over intercom phones, while lower- security, well-behaved inmates can sit at a table with their visitors.

Inmates still can purchase televisions at the commissary, but Armstrong said an inmate who misbehaves will have his or herTV packed up and sent home.

"And we'll charge them for the freight," he said.

The idea is to use such privileges as a management tool to control inmate behavior, while helping the prisoners prepare for the outside world.

"Privileges without accountability are not really privileges at all. They're entitlements," Armstrong said. "A system that has no distinction between good behavior and bad behavior is really a bear to manage."

Tent cities

On the outskirts of Phoenix, rows and rows of army tents are set up. It looks like a military compound, but the people inside are not soldiers -- they're sentenced inmates under the command of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Nationally, no one has galvanized the "get-tough- on-prisoners" movement like Arpaio.

As the head law enforcer in Arizona's Maricopa County, Arpaio enjoys a legendary reputation for being tough on criminals. He has erected the tent cities to house inmates sentenced to a year or less. There are no frills or niceties.

"Our men and women went to Saudi Arabi {for Operation Desert Storm} and lived in tents, and they didn't even commit a crime," Arpaio said. "Why would someone complain about putting convicted prisoners in tents?"

Twenty inmates bunk in each structure, and dogs with cameras strapped to their backs patrol the perimeter. The inmates have no basketball or weights, no coffee or cigarettes, no television. They eat lots of bologna. It saves money.

When Arpaio's inmates work in the community, they are chained together, and some wear striped prison uniforms.

"That's the way it should be," he said.

Arpaio has been re-elected sheriff -- a powerful position in Arizona -- and there has been talk of his running for governor. He also has written a book, "The Toughest Sheriff in America."

"People are fed up with crime, and they want somebody to do something about it instead of talking about it," he said.

But not everyone feels that tent cities are the answer.

Prisoners who are simply warehoused like that will become more anti-social, some argue, and be more of a problem when they are released. Amenities give inmates something to do instead of causing trouble.

"Things like sports, that's just simple common sense. Most people in prison are of a young age and full of energy," said Jenni Gainsborough of the American Civil Liberties Union. "They are going to find some way of releasing it."

Without amenities to provide that release, she said, "prison becomes very difficult to manage, and it becomes very dangerous for the staff that works in there."

Nearly 400 inmates at the tent cities rioted in November, setting fires and holding 11 guards hostage before getting a forum with Arpaio about the conditions at the prison.

Carrots and sticks

Inmates who have broken the rules at Cybulski find themselves at the desk of Correction Officer Scott Vanoudenhove, pleading their case and asking not to have their privileges revoked.

"Oh yeah, I've seen crying," Vanoudenhove said. "But usually they just whine and whine and whine."

Vanoudenhove can take away some or all of an inmate's privileges or even recommend that an inmate be sent to another, more restrictive, prison.

It's an example of what many prison officials already know -- amenities are a great carrot.

"These programs become the carrots and sticks," said Flanagan, Sam Houston's dean of criminal justice. "You eliminate them, you eliminate the carrots and sticks."

Sam Houston State University surveyed more than 800 prison wardens, superintendents and commissioners in 1996 about the usefulness of amenities in prisons. The administrators overwhelmingly supported the presence of recreation, televisions and educational programs inside the prison walls.

The majority of administrators surveyed endorsed the presence of weightlifting equipment, intramural sports, crafts and hobby programs and other activities in their institutions. Less than 25 percent felt televisions, VCRs, radios and musical instruments should be reduced or eliminated.

"Amenities provide incentives for inmates to stay out of trouble," Flanagan said. "We do need to consider what it's like to work in these institutions."

At Cybulski, one of the harshest punishments meted out by Vanoudenhove is CTQ, or confinement to quarters. An inmate given CTQ must stay in his bunk area, which is about the size of a walk-in closet. No napping is allowed. There's just lots of time to read and think. William Murcelo, 22, recently used the time to catch up on his Bible reading.

He had been on a work detail to Northern Correctional Institution -- a nearby maximum-security prison -- and was caught trying to smuggle employee cigarette butts back into Cybulski.

Murcelo, bored and remorseful, said he knew that if he slipped up again, he could be shipped to a higher-security prison and lose many of his privileges permanently. But he swore that wouldn't happen.

"This time, I'm gonna chill down," he said.

PHOTOS: (2 color), Shana Sureck-Mei / The Hartford Courant; Caption: * Inmate George Gaston, who was close to release from Cybulski Correctional Institution in Somers, participated in a mock interview as part of his job skills class. Gaston, who graduated from community college during his sentence, has since been released to a halfway house and has found a job. * Obed Lopez, an inmate at Cybulski Correctional Institution in Somers, spends most of his recreational time in the weight room. Inmates at the prison also participate in a three-part rehabilitation program, which included personal, family and community development. The prison's warden, Sandra Sawicki, believes that recreation, special classes and other privileges help inmates stey on the right track.

Copyright @ The Hartford Courant 1997

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