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Everyone knows what prisons are supposed to do: cure criminals. Way back in 1870, the nation's leading prison officials met in Cincinnati and carved 22 principles that became the bible of their craft. "Reformation," they declared, "not vindictive suffering, should be the purpose of the penal treatment of prisoners." Today, every warden in the U.S. endorses the ideal of rehabilitation. Every penologist extols "individualized treatment" to cure each inmate's hangups and return society's misfits to crime-free lives. But the rhetoric is so far from reality that perhaps 40% of all released inmates (75% in some areas) are reimprisoned within five years, often for worse crimes. Says Rod Beaty, 33, who began with a $65 forged check, became an armed robber, and is now a four-time loser in San Quentin: "Here you lose all sense of values. A human life is worth 35#, the price of a pack of cigarettes. After five years on the inside, how can you expect me to care about somebody when I get outside?"
Slavery in Arkansas
Without question, the U.S. boasts some prisons that look like college campuses—humane places that lack walls and shun official brutality. Guards chat amiably with inmates; men are classified in graded groups, promoted for good conduct and sped toward parole.
And yet, rehabilitation is rare. By and large, mere aging is the main cause of going straight. For inmates between the ages of 16 and 30—the vast majority —neither the type of prison nor the length of sentence makes any significant difference. The repeater rate, in fact, is rising. Something is clearly wrong with a system that spends $1 billion a year to produce a failure record that would sink any business in a month. Consider a random sample of prisons from the worst to the best:
ARKANSAS. Whether in 110° F. summer heat or winter cold, 16,000 acres of rich southeastern Arkansas land will always be tilled. This is the Cummins Prison Farm, where 200 convicts stoop in the vast cotton fields twelve hours a day, 51 days a week — for zero pay. Such are the wages of sin in what may be the nation's most Calvinistic state.
A virtual slave plantation in the 20th century. Cummins takes all kinds of errants and turns them into white-clad "rankers" who work or perish. Toiling from dawn to dusk, they move in a long line across the fields, supervised by a horseman in khaki and five unmounted "shotguns" (guards) who "push" the serfs along. At each corner of the field stands another guard, armed with a high-powered rifle. All the guards are convicts, the toughest at Cummins. Hated by rankers, the trusties are picked for meanness in order to keep them alive off duty. They are killers, armed robbers, rapists—ready to gun down the first ranker who strays across an imaginary line in the fields.
After three skeletons were dug up on the farm in 1968, national