A Model Prison

McKean, a federal correctional institution, does everything that "make 'em bust rocks" politicians decry --imagine, educating inmates! -- and it works

Approaching McKean, the federal correctional institution in Bradford, Pennsylvania, one is not likely to think of a prison. The buildings, low and modern, display a pseudo-Navajo motif in soft gray and salmon colors. In the air-conditioned entryway there are carpets over an immaculate tile floor, the glimmer of polished glass, the green tint of tropical plants. Tasteful couches sit in the corners. Well-dressed employees walk up and down the stairs, speaking in hushed, respectful tones. Beyond, on the prison grounds, are a broad expanse of well-tended lawn and distant athletic fields. Inmates walk alone or in pairs along the concrete pathways, offering greetings as they pass. Across the compound inmates sit quietly in classrooms, learning everything from basic reading skills to masonry, carpentry, horticulture, barbering, cooking, and catering. Next door is a multi-denominational chapel. The cellblocks are cramped but clean and orderly, with a weekly inspection score posted on the wall. "With visitors, it's like a joke, to see how long before they compare this place to a college campus," one prison staff member says.

Also see:

The Prison-Industrial Complex (December 1998)
Correctional officials see danger in prison overcrowding. Others see opportunity. By Eric Schlosser

When They Get Out (June 1999)
How prisons, established to fight crime, produce crime.

This prison and others like it are the targets of a fierce campaign that is changing the shape of the U.S. criminal-justice system. For several years journalists and politicians all over the country have spoken and written angrily about such prisons as "resorts" or "country clubs." They have railed against a philosophy of rehabilitation that "coddles" inmates with too many amenities. Punishment is in vogue, along with hard labor and "no frills" prisons, stripped of weight rooms, TVs, and computers. Republicans in Congress have added a no-frills-prison section to the Contract With America's "Take Back Our Streets Act," and they have passed it as an amendment to the 1994 crime bill. Massachusetts Governor William F. Weld has argued that prisons should be "a tour through the circles of hell," where inmates should learn only "the joys of busting rocks." Alabama has already reinstituted the chain gang, forcing inmates to do hard labor in leg irons for up to ten hours a day. State administrators and sheriffs, sniffing the political wind, have begun to crack down, cutting educational and treatment programs, making prison life as harsh as possible.

Yet McKean, by several measures, may well be the most successful medium-security prison in the country. Badly overcrowded, housing a growing number of violent criminals, it costs taxpayers approximately $15,370 a year for each inmate. That is below the average for prisons of its type, and far below the overall federal average of $21,350. It is about two thirds of what many state prisons cost. And the incident record since McKean opened, in 1989, reads like a blank slate: No escapes. No homicides. No sexual assaults. No suicides. In six years there have been three serious assaults on staff members and six recorded assaults on inmates. State prisons of comparable size often see that many assaults in a single week. The American Correctional Society has given McKean one of its highest possible ratings. No recidivism studies have been conducted on its former inmates, but senior staff members claim that McKean parolees return to prison far less often than those from other institutions, and a local parole officer agrees. According to the Princeton University criminologist John DiIulio, "McKean is probably the best-managed prison in the country. And that has everything to do with a warden named Dennis Luther."

prisons pictureDennis Luther is a slim man of fifty with thinning brown hair and wide, curious eyes. He retired last July, after sixteen years as a warden. He dresses neatly in a jacket, a tie, and tasseled loafers, more like an English professor than a prison administrator. His movements are slow and deliberate, and his voice has an uncanny steadiness to it. He is not a large man, but it is easy to imagine him walking unarmed into the center of a prison riot and asking calmly to speak to the leaders. As a young man, Luther considered going into the ministry. He chose corrections instead, and soon came to believe that American prisons were unnecessarily brutal places, more likely to teach hatred and violence than remorse. But, he says, that insight did not lead him to a liberal philosophy of inmate rehabilitation. Instead he read up on business management. He saw no reason why ideas that had worked in the private sector could not be applied to prisons, to make them more cost-effective and more humane. What he came up with was a systematic approach to building something he calls "prison culture." All prisons, according to Luther, have a culture of some sort, but it is generally violent and abusive, based on gangs. Prison staffs are aware of this culture, but they are helpless to change it.

The root of Luther's approach is an unconditional respect for the inmates as people. "If you want people to behave responsibly, and treat you with respect, then you treat other people that way," Luther says. McKean is literally decorated with this conviction. Plaques all over the prison remind staff members and inmates alike of their responsibilities; one of these plaques is titled "Beliefs About the Treatment of Inmates." There are twenty-eight beliefs, the product of Luther's many years as a warden, and they begin like this:

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