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The Scandal of Prison "Management"

By Jill Brotman

Throughout the AFSC's decades of prison work it has encouraged reconciliation and nonviolent alternatives to conflict. But Massachusetts Governor William Weld has declared that a stay in prison should replicate a tour of the circles of hell. Current prison management is supposed to be part of the war on crime. But it is not a war on crime -- it is a war on prisoners.

A fundamental principle of American judicial practice is that people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. However, the purity of this idea hardly ever exists in practice. The prisoners most vulnerable to the secondary punishments of confinement are long-term or lifers. When we talk about how severely we should punish, we always need to distinguish between long-term and short-term punishment. Some may detest the people in our prisons. Nonetheless, when they are old and ill, when they have served 20 years and can hardly be identified as the same individual who committed the crime, when the prison term is the person's life and the prisoner struggles to imbue that life with meaning, punishing takes on a different character.

Then there is a most grave consideration: the culture of punishment and status degradation will eventually spill over onto the rest of us. In the design and implementation of punishment policy we must be vigilant, because whenever we deliberately inflict pain, we deform and diminish ourselves.

Reporters quote the average citizen as talking about sending people to prison and letting them rot, locking them up and throwing away the key. How much and what quality of poor or brutal treatment would be considered acceptable in our prisons? Since the perception that prisoners are not punished enough has been projected so effectively by people who, like Weld, have, for the most part, never been in a prison, this is a serious question.

Should we starve people? Or should we simply not give them enough food, as is happening now in the Massachusetts Departmental Disciplinary Unit (DDU) at Walpole? Should we violate our own laws that place a 30-day cap on total isolation time? (Prisoners may be sentenced by an internal board to the DDU, where there is total sensory deprivation, for periods of up to 10 years.) Should our prisons be places with no rules and no reasonable expectations, places of mystery and chaos, so that good behavior brings no hope of future decent treatment? Should we blink at administrative punishment based on false accusation? Should we force old men with prostate cancer to urinate on the floor if it is count time and there is no toilet in the cell? Should wives, mothers, and daughters of prisoners have to hand over their used tampons for inspection?

Under the Weld regime, medical and dental services have been cut back. Psychological services are gone. Vocational and education programs have been dramatically curtailed. Volunteers, severely restricted, are in many cases just giving up. Staff considered too `nice' to the prisoners are fired. Visits are a harrowing experience. Property prisoners purchased at the canteen is being seized. In every realm of prison life, things have been taken away.

There will be a high cost for all of this. A prison run this way is a prison that produces deformed and wounded people. The current practice of punishment in Massachusetts is also a war on taxpayers, because our prisons are factories of vengeance and rage. Their inevitable products are more repeat offenses and more victims of those offenses, and the predictable returns to prison where once again citizens will be paying the rent.

In Massachusetts prison managers lack expertise, education, and training. They operate with a deficit of good sense and an abysmal absence of fair play. How else can we explain the lockdown at Walpole? In the wake of the recent escapes from Old Colony, prisoners with `poor' profiles were transferred out of Old Colony to Walpole. Many of these were men who had been living on the honors block for years. They were `good inmates,' foolish enough to believe that if they did what they were supposed to do, the Department of Correction would do what it was supposed to do. These model prisoners are now locked down 23 hours a day in the dreadful Phase III at Walpole. Dramas like this are staged specifically to justify the building of a corrections-industrial complex.

A lockdown is the equivalent of a breakdown. Locking a prison down and constantly moving the scandal around the system is the administration's way of throwing up its hands and saying there is nothing that can be done with these folks. That is an inadequate response. Massachusetts has a growing prison population whose mean age is dropping. We'd better do something besides chaining them to their beds.

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