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Senator proposes work, study by prisoners before they can watch TV or play


WASHINGTON -- State prison inmates would have to work and study before they could play games and watch TV under a bill proposed yesterday by Sen. Richard C. Shelby.

Under the bill, prisoners would have to work at least 48 hours a week and study 16 hours a week before the states could receive federal money to build prisons.

Mr. Shelby wants to scale back what critics see as questionable prison social programs included in the crime bill passed by Congress last year.

The crime bill requires state prisons to provide recreational facilities, including basketball and weightlifting equipment, to qualify for federal construction money.

At a news conference yesterday, the Alabama Republican unveiled a poster depicting images of inmates lounging around, watching cable TV and working on their biceps. The poster also portrayed what the senator said most prison activity would amount to under his bill: hard manual labor and trash collection.

"Why should you put prisoners in prison to watch TV and lift weights all day?" Mr. Shelby asked. "People ought to work. Prisoners ought to work harder. They have a debt to pay."

Prisoners would have to meet all the work and study requirements before taking part in recreation. Some the money saved on recreation equipment, Mr. Shelby suggested, could pay for work and education activities, such as high school equivalency programs and job training.

The senator estimated that about 50 percent of the money spent on prisons goes to prisoners' personal comforts: hygiene, grooming and clothing, and recreational amenities, such as bodybuilding training and instruction in boxing and martial arts.

But Alvin Bronstein, director of the national prison project at the American Civil Liberties Union, yesterday called Mr. Shelby's numbers "ridiculous."

Citing statistics from the American Correctional Association, Mr. Bronstein said only about 10 percent of money for prisons is spent on social programs for inmates.

In Maryland, state prison inmates can work and receive basic education such as a high school equivalency degree. But a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections questioned whether Maryland could afford the start-up costs of the work and study programs mandated in Mr. Shelby's bill. Under the bill, states could determine the actual work and education.

Mr. Shelby said he was confident the bill would pass in the Senate, although Majority Leader Bob Dole's office said yesterday that he had no comment on it.

Among the bill's strongest supporters is Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a North Carolina Republican, who expressed harsh words yesterday about the state of prisons.

Prisoners should "spend their time working like the taxpayers who subsidize their room and board" instead of lifting weights and receiving psychological treatment, Mr. Faircloth said. "We should get rid of the word 'correctional institution' and call them 'prisons' again."

Mr. Bronstein, the ACLU official, said he agrees that prisoners should work. But he questioned where states would find the money for it.

"I've never met a prisoner who didn't want to work," he said. "Some of the main complaints is that there are not enough jobs. The main problem is [states] don't have enough money to pay for staff."

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