U.S. prisons called risk to lives


Overcrowding, cruel conditions and a lack of constructive activities for inmates fuel violence in America's prisons and threaten public safety because most inmates return to their communities ill-prepared for daily life, according to a report to be presented to Congress today.

"Few conditions compromise safety more than idleness," says the report by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons, a nonpartisan group that has studied conditions inside the nation's correctional facilities for the past year. "But because lawmakers have reduced funding for programming, prisoners today are largely inactive and unproductive. Highly structured programs are proven to reduce misconduct in correctional facilities and also to lower recidivism rates after release."

The report highlights issues that have emerged in Maryland as state officials struggle to control prison violence that records show has turned increasingly deadly in recent years.

"It sort of validates what we've been saying," said Frank C. Sizer Jr., the state's prison chief. "You can't continue to lock people up and not do anything with them and put them back into society with no tools to be able to cope."

Some correctional officers have been critical of Sizer and his boss, Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Mary Ann Saar, for focusing what they say is too much of their attention on inmate rehabilitation. They say it has come at the expense of safety and security of prison staff.

"There is a balance between security and treatment," Sizer said. "A good treatment program only serves to improve safety and security."

The report being released today is the product of a yearlong study by a 20-member commission that held hearings around the country and was staffed by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit group that researches criminal justice issues. The commission was co-chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Nicholas de B. Katzenbach and John J. Gibbons, former chief judge of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The report says there is far too much violence in America's prisons and cites "other serious problems that put lives at risk and cause immeasurable suffering."

The problems include "too many facilities that are crowded to the breaking point, too little medical and mental health care, unnecessary uses of solitary confinement and other forms of segregation, a desperate need for the kinds of productive activities that discourage violence and make rehabilitation possible, and a culture in many prisons and jails that pits staff against prisoners and management against staff."

Among other things, the commission recommended that policymakers eliminate crowded conditions at prisons and jails, invest in programs proven to reduce violence and change behavior in the long term and substantially reduce the use of physical force in dealing with the inmate population.

"The majority of prisons and many jails hold more people than they can deal with safely and effectively, creating a degree of disorder and tension almost certain to erupt into violence," the report says.

The country spends about $60 billion a year on corrections, said Alexander Busansky of the Vera Institute. He said 2.2 million people are in prison or jail. Maryland operates 27 jails and prisons that house about 27,000 inmates at any given time, according to state corrections officials.

Maryland prisons and jails, like many others around the country, have long suffered from overcrowding, state officials say.

The problems are particularly severe at two state-run facilities in Baltimore, the Central Booking and Intake Facility and the Baltimore City Detention Center. Both have a history of violent incidents.

The report says a variety of factors fuel violence.

Besides overcrowding, unnecessary or excessive use of force can provoke broader violence, the report says. And the increasing use of high-security segregation at prisons "is counterproductive, often causing violence inside facilities and contributing to recidivism after release."

An inmate placed in segregation is kept locked in an isolation cell for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months at a time and often with little human contact, the report notes.

The commission also called for a change in federal rules to shift health care costs for eligible prison inmates to Medicaid and Medicare programs, which would ease some of the burden on the states.

Maryland Deputy Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services Mary L. Livers, who testified before the commission, said the report should lead to positive discussion about changes that are badly needed in the field of corrections.

She said it is "vitally important to staff safety and to inmate safety" for inmates to be involved in productive activities while they are incarcerated.

Livers said administrators have been trying to move Maryland's correctional system more in that direction, calling it "a major culture shift" from the way business has been done in the past.


To view the full report, go to www.prisoncommission.org/report.

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