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A GROWING NEED FOR REFORM

The statistic is well-known -- the United States imprisons people at a rate far higher than any other industrialized country.

More than 2 million Americans are behind bars. According to the latest federal statistics, at midyear 2003, one in every 140 U.S. residents was behind bars. The number of inmates has risen by a half million in the past decade.

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Among men age 25 to 29, 12.8 percent of blacks were in prison or jail compared with about 1.6 percent of whites. In some African-American inner-city neighborhoods, more than a third of the young males are under the control of the corrections system.

The country pays an estimated $40 billion -- about $1 billion in Maryland where 24,000 are jailed -- to keep these people locked up. Local communities get employment from that. But, for the most part, the prisoners get little to do. Many argue that the failure to spend money on education and other rehabilitation programs might come with an even higher price tag.

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"We use prison in the United States as a form of social control in the way that no other country in the world uses it," says Elizabeth Alexander, head of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Prison Project. "If the population of people in prisons and jail were a city, it would be the sixth-largest in the United States," she says. "If you add in parole and probation, you are talking about the fourth-largest city in the country."

When this huge population heads behind bars, it disappears from the consciousness of the majority of Americans.

"Most people think people behind bars are just getting their just desserts," says Jeffrey Ian Ross, a criminologist at the University of Baltimore.

Michael Millemann of the University of Maryland School of Law says the country's attitude toward inmates is evident in the jokes comics make about rapes in prison which would not be tolerated if they were talking about attacks on women.

"The societal tolerance of an acceptance of forms of violence, including sexual violence, in prison is troublesome," he says.

The photographs and intense media focus on Iraqi prisoners means that most know more about prison conditions in Iraq than in the United States.

"We are warehousing people again," says Arnett Gaston, a psychologist in the criminology department at the University of Maryland who spent four decades in corrections before turning to academia. He decries the lack of programs aimed at helping inmates.

"I challenge anyone to show me any major prison system where the primary goal is rehabilitation rather than punishment," says Gaston who once ran the Rikers Island facility in New York and was head of corrections in Prince George's County.

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There are a variety of reasons for the high rate of incarceration in the United States. Many point to the effective use that the elder George Bush made of Willie Horton -- who committed a rape while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison -- in his 1988 race for the presidency against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis as a watershed moment.

It made any candidate who was seen as soft on prisoners vulnerable to attack. Prison reform, an issue with little political constituency, disappeared from the litanies of liberal candidates.

The war on drugs, which intensified with the crack epidemic of the 1980s, flooded prisons with inmates -- especially those in the federal system. Mandatory sentences became popular for drug offenses and then many other crimes. Three-strikes laws put chronic minor offenders behind bars for life. Parole was eliminated for federal prisoners and became harder to get in many states.

This came in the midst of constant pressure on taxes and budgets. "Prisons have three basic goals," says Ross. "One is to punish, two is to protect the community and three is rehabilitation. When the budget gets slashed, it's rehabilitation that goes out the door."

It is hard politically to support spending money on education programs in prisons while school systems are getting their budgets cut.

"One of the effects of the huge increase in incarceration is that the percentage of people receiving treatment and services is going down," says the ACLU's Alexander. "Between 1992 and 1997, which is the last period for which we have data, the percentage of people receiving drug treatment went down substantially, the percentage of people who are in education programs went down.

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"This mainly reflects just the expansion of the system, but to the extent it reflects anything else, it reflects both a political attitude of throwing away people's lives and a shortage of money for these programs at a time when many states are paying more money for correction than for higher education," she says.

Maryland reflects these trends. "Maryland is basically in the middle," says Ross. "It might be a little more progressive."

Gaston agrees. "But I would stress that while there might be some negatives in Maryland, it is not due to the prison administration, it only has to do with the holders of the purse strings," he says. "It basically boils down to money."

Millemann says that Maryland has followed the national pattern politically as much of the rise in prison population came under a Democratic administration, that of Gov. Parris N. Glendening.

"Glendening followed the moderate Southern governor's approach like [Bob] Graham in Florida or [Bill] Clinton in Arkansas," Millemann says. "You are liberal on schools and the environment and you get your conservative spurs on criminal justice, the death penalty and corrections."

Glendening, for instance, refused to approve paroles for anyone sentenced to life. His lieutenant governor, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, oversaw the boot camps system for juvenile offenders.

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On a national level, the Prison Litigation Reform Act was signed into law in 1995 by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. It restricts prisoners' access to federal courts.

"One small part of that law says you can't get damage for emotional or mental injuries in the absence of physical injuries," says Alexander. "So all of the abuse in the Abu Ghraib pictures, with the exception of the dog bites, are pictures of things the law bars American prisoners getting recompense for."

Says Millemann: "That law said to corrections folks, 'Do what you want.' It removed federal oversight, it removed the threat of enforcing the Constitution, it removed the Bill of Rights."

Politically, Millemann says, prison reform might be an issue only Republicans can deal with. "It's like Nixon going to China."

He points to the different tack taken by the Republican administration of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"I really am impressed by Mary Ann Saar's approach," he says of Ehrlich's secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services. "We are hearing talk about rehabilitation programs we have not heard in a decade."

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"It's a harder conversation to have than it was 30 years ago because I think we have had a decade really of rhetorical non-leadership on it," Millemann says. "People are dug in. It's going to take a while to start digging people back out."

The turning point three decades ago was the 1971 riot at the Attica prison in upstate New York that left 43 dead including 10 correctional officials taken as hostages.

"The Attica riot focused attention on a number of problems," Ross says. "It spurred on a number of reforms in American prisons."

Millemann says that voters then realized those reforms were better than the brutal warehousing of the past. "The notion of rehabilitation is cyclical," he says. "In the late '60s and early '70s, we were riding a wave of the public realizing that rehabilitation was in their self-interest because these guys are coming out one day."

Ross and others argue that the return to warehousing in the last decade has not been worth the money saved by eliminating rehabilitation programs.

"The main problem prisoners face is boredom," says Ross, who has co-authored a book on how to survive in prison. Warehoused prisoners learn to keep their heads down, to do as little as possible and attract no notice. The result, Ross says, is a population that is taught to have little ambition and no interest in becoming engaged citizens.

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"If they do get out and get a job, all they do is go back to their home, sit around and watch TV," he says.

Advocates of a rehabilitation approach say these types of blanket punitive measures guarantee a high rate of recidivism. In Maryland, half of those released are back in jail within three years.

"Understand, there is nothing wrong with punishment, I believe, as long as it has a purpose and that purpose must be to protect society," Gaston says. "If we are not doing that ... we are placing society at a greater risk."


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