The Law: The Shame of the Prisons

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It is with the unfortunate, above all, that humane conduct is necessary.


PRESIDENT Nixon calls them "universities of crime." Chief Justice Burger has become a crusader for their reform. Legislators have taken to investigating them—and citizens have finally begun to listen. After decades of ignoring their prisons, Americans are slowly awakening to the failure that long neglect has wrought.

It is not just the riots, the angry cries of 426,000 invisible inmates from the Tombs to Walla Walla, that have made prisons a national issue. Public concern is rooted in the paradox that Americans have never been so fearful of rising crime, yet never so ready to challenge the institutions that try to cope with it. More sensitive to human rights than ever, more liberated in their own lives and outlooks, a growing number of citizens view prisons as a new symbol of unreason, another sign that too much in America has gone wrong.

It is a time when people have discovered with a sense of shock that the blacks who fill prisons (52% in Illinois) see themselves as "political victims" of a racist society. It is a time when many middle-class whites are forced to confront prisons for the first time, there to visit their own children, locked up for possession of pot or draft resistance. A time when many judges have finally begun to make personal —and traumatic—inspections. After a single night at the Nevada State Prison, for example, 23 judges from all over the U.S. emerged "appalled at the homosexuality," shaken by the inmates' "soul-shattering bitterness" and upset by "men raving, screaming and pounding on the walls." Kansas Judge E. Newton Vickers summed up: "I felt like an animal in a cage. Ten years in there must be like 100 or maybe 200." Vickers urged Nevada to "send two bulldozers out there and tear the damn thing to the ground."

The Big House

It will not be easy to raze, much less reform, the misnamed U.S. "corrections" system, which has responsibility for more than 1.2 million offenders each day and handles perhaps twice as many each year. Since 1967, four presidential commissions, dozens of legislative reports and more than 500 books and articles have pleaded for prison reform. But the system remains as immutable as prison concrete, largely because life behind the walls is still a mystery to the public. Most Americans think of prisons only in terms of the old "big house" movies starring James Cagney and more recently Burt Lancaster.

In fact, the corrections system is not a system at all. It is a hodgepodge of uncoordinated institutions run independently by almost every governmental unit in the U.S. Pacesetting federal institutions (20,000 prisoners) range from maximum-security bastilles like Atlanta Penitentiary to a no-walls unit for tame young offenders in Seagoville, Texas. The states offer anything from Alabama's archaic road gangs to California's Men's Colony West, one of the nation's two prisons for oldsters. There are forestry camps for promising men and assorted detention centers for 14,000 women. Some juvenile institutions are the best of the lot because reformers get the most political support at that level. But many areas are still so lacking in juvenile facilities that 100,000 children a year wind

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