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Prisons in America

An Online Conference with Robert Worth

November 14, 1995

The following is the transcript of a live online conference with Robert Worth as it appears in The Atlantic Monthly Online on the America Online network.

Hosted, with an introduction, by Scott Stossel

Your bus pulls into a parking lot and discharges you and your fellow passengers. Looking around, you see an expanse of manicured lawn and, beyond that, athletic fields. People are walking along concrete paths, exchanging pleasantries. You are escorted into a low-slung building of attractive, understated design, and into a carpeted, climate-controlled hallway, tastefully appointed and clean. Around you, in various classrooms, you can hear people being instructed in carpentry and cooking. Where are you? A university? A spa? A country club?

Actually, you're in McKean prison. As Robert Worth reports in his article ("A Model Prison") in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly, McKean is a federal prison in Bradford, Pennsylvania, that is often compared by visitors to a college campus. The prison's ethos is embodied in this statement by its former warden: "If you want people to behave responsibly, and treat you with respect, then you treat other people that way." With its clean conditions and pleasant atmosphere, McKean defies the popular image of a correctional institute.

But in an era where the public demand for "getting tough on crime" now encompasses a demand for "getting tough on prisoners," McKean and institutions like it have, not surprisingly, come under fire. These days America, bracing itself for a crime wave, is increasingly fearful. Rehabilitation is out of vogue; retributive justice is in.

Why should we coddle prisoners?, people ask. Inmates are in prison to be punished. Prison is supposed to be unpleasant. If the prospect of prison is not an unpleasant one, then how will it deter would-be criminals? Why spend taxpayer money to make the prison environment more livable?

Here's why. As Worth writes, "McKean, by several measures, may well be the most successful medium-security prison in America." One of these measures is financial--at McKean it costs $6,000 per year less to house each inmate than at the average federal prison. The American Correctional Society has given McKean one of its highest possible ratings. And the number of incidents at the prison--escapes, homicides, suicides, assaults, and so on--has been remarkably low. Princeton criminologist John DiIulio says that "McKean is probably the best managed prison in the country."

Still, McKean's success has been won against the grain of prevailing sentiment. Dennis Luther, the (now-retired) warden largely responsible for McKean's being what it is, continually ran afoul of the management at the Bureau of Prisons, who considered him a "maverick." And Congress, ignoring the ingredients of McKean's success, has passed legislation--such as mandatory minimums--that will make prisons more crowded while cutting funding for educational programs.

Robert Worth, who is a Charles Newcombe fellow pursuing his doctorate in English at Princeton, may have prison reform in his blood. His great-great-great grandfather was for many years warden of the Eastern Penitentiary, in Philadelphia, the fruit of an early penal reform movement. Worth joins us tonight from Princeton, New Jersey.

Worth's article touches on many aspects of the prison debate, and even on basic arguments about crime and punishment. Should the goal of incarceration be to deter criminals? To punish them? To rehabilitate them? Or just to warehouse them safely away from law-abiding society? Is it reasonable to expect that a prisoner can live for years like a caged animal and then be released into society to behave like a productive, self-respecting person?

Are those who speak in defense of McKean and its ilk guilty of the soft-hearted (and logically soft) liberal thinking that Republicans have bashed on the way to their recent ascendance? Or is the example of McKean an instructive and important one that we should heed if we are to endure the crime burst ahead? These are some of the questions we'll be considering with Robert Worth tonight.

StosselAtl: Welcome, Robert Worth. And welcome, audience.

RobtWorth: Hello, and thanks for having me.

StosselAtl: Let me start by asking you this: How did you come to write this article? What got you interested in the subject of prisons?

RobtWorth: I study literature, and I started off with an interest in prison writing: Jack Abbott, Solzhenitsyn, Mailer, Malcolm X, others. Then last year I discovered that the crime bill was cutting Pell grants for prisoners. And all kinds of cuts were happening at the state level simultaneously.

StosselAtl: Our first audience questioner wants to know:

Question: What is Warden Luther up to now? Has McKean prison continued his policies since his retirement?

RobtWorth: He's running a consulting firm called New Concepts in Corrections (NCIC), hoping to continue having an effect on policy.

StosselAtl: Here's the next question:

Question: Some people would say that prison has become a way to escape punishment, and that serving time is no longer a deterrent to crime. How would you answer that?

RobtWorth: Anyone who thinks so has probably not been to a prison lately. Prisoners may go back to a life of crime, but they're not committing crimes while they're inside. And we don't understand rehabilitation thoroughly enough now to treat criminals exactly as they should be treated. What we need are controlled clinical trials to determine what kinds of treatment work for which kinds of inmates. The place to do that is the Bureau of Prisons, I think. But they won't be given the funding in the current climate.

StosselAtl: Audience member WillBKy wants to know whether you think prisons can effectively combine punishment and rehabilitation. He asks:

Question: So is labor good for prisoner rehab, can punishment and rehab coincide?

RobtWorth: Work programs can be helpful, especially if they provide inmates with a marketable skill that they can use on release. Most current prison work programs don't do that. Some of them, like the chain gangs in Alabama, don't provide useful labor for anyone at all.

StosselAtl: Robert, could you explain briefly for the audience what Pell grants are, and what the significance of their being cut is?

RobtWorth: Pell grants are available for any American citizen who cannot afford to pay for a post-secondary education. They were instituted in 1965 by Senator Claiborne Pell. Prisoners were eligible from the beginning, but they never accounted for more than a tiny percentage of the total Pell funds. That fact was left out of the debates surrounding the 1994 crime bill until the last minute, and by that time certain congressmen (actually women--Kay Bailey Hutchison was the key player) had misrepresented the facts. Pells also allowed prisons to set up programs in conjunction with local colleges. Last year there were about 350 across the country; this year, without the funding, there are about a dozen.

StosselAtl: This questioner clearly subscribes to the prevailing "let's get tough on prisoners" sentiment:

Question: Do you really think inmates are *entitled* to a "humane" prison environment. Whatever happened to the old idea that you forfeit your rights when you take away the rights of your victims?

RobtWorth: It all depends what you mean by a "humane" environment. It's easy to call for punishment without having seen the inside of a prison. Also, the fact is that the vast majority of the men and women now in prison will be out in 10 years. How do we want them? In a ferocious, brutalized condition? Or with a bit of job training, and the ability to move to a different lifestyle?

StosselAtl: You've addressed this at some length already. The first of Warden Luther's beliefs is that prisoners are sent to prison as punishment, not FOR punishment. But some would argue that that's just why they're sent there. Can you respond to this in answering AwfulNice's question:

Question: Don't you think that if you make prisons too comfortable that many will seek their refuge? If the punishment is not considered a punishment?

RobtWorth: Some prison observers have actually argued (in fact one of the old Atlantic articles posted online does this) that that's OK--that so many of the people in prison have never lived in a human environment, giving them one in prison would be fine. I would not go that far, because for one, most prisons are not and are not likely to become humane places. And the fact is that no one likes to be confined. Aside from a few mavericks, I simply cannot believe that anyone would willingly go to prison.

StosselAtl: Jtsman asks:

Question: Crime seems to be getting more and more violent, I think it's because many criminals feel the punishment isn't so bad and usually felt well taken care of until they eventually have their sentences reduced. What's your comment?

RobtWorth: Sentences are being increased, not reduced, especially for violent crime: look at the 3-Strikes laws, both state and federal, passed in recent years.

StosselAtl: Speaking of the articles posted online, a 1911 Atlantic article discussed the success that a prison in Vermont, founded on the same humane principles as McKean. If humane prisons didn't catch on then, despite their obvious success, is there any reason to think they will now in more hostile political conditions?

RobtWorth: Well, that was an interesting piece, a good example of Progressive era prison reform writing. But it was (like much of the reform literature of that period) somewhat naive, and it was written about a jail, not a real prison, where inmates were local, had some kind of community and usually a job to go back to, after a relatively short sentence. These days criminologists have very little innocence left to lose. What I like about Luther is precisely that he's not naive. He's seen the worst that prisons have to offer, and he knows the social background of crime in the USA. He bases his efforts less on a theological vision of human perfectibility than on a business model: make the institution run well first and foremost.

StosselAtl: Dusadej asks:

Question: Do you think individual therapy is a plus to the prison system? Many (most) prisoners came up in an abusive environment and have to be taught another way. Your thoughts?

RobtWorth: Absolutely. In an era of budget cuts, however, individual therapy is bound to take second place to broader, cheaper methods. I favor anything that can be shown to have an effect without costing too much. And the way to do that is, again, to run trials, so as to find out which kinds of therapy work for which kinds of inmates.

StosselAtl: SK8REP, responding to your call for clinical trials says:

Question: Who needs clinical trials? Punishment works--look at Singapore. How would you respond?

RobtWorth: Singapore and the USA are very different countries. Over the past year, as prisons have become more punitive and programs have been cut, Federal and state prisons have become more violent. This is very expensive. Consider the recent wave of Federal prison disturbances. And there is no indication that an increase in prison sentences correlates with a decrease in crime.

StosselAtl: SRCATS says that the conditions at the public school where she teaches sound worse than at McKean. If there's a limited amount of money to go around, she asks, mightn't it be better spent on inner-city schools, where the current conditions end up creating the criminals who later populate the prisons?

RobtWorth: I know what you mean about the public schools; it's a terrible irony. Our schools are in terrible shape; we should do all we can to improve them. And yes, that is a higher priority, nationally, than prisons. But the point about prisons like McKean is precisely that they are LESS expensive to run. That's the key. If it weren't true I would never have written the article.

StosselAtl: BayLume asks:

Question: Shouldn't prisoners have to contribute fiscally to the taxpayer while being rehabilitated?

RobtWorth: Interesting question. As I mentioned in my article, there are some inmates who would be happy to work to pay for their incarceration, so long as they then got some kind of education or job training. I would be happy to see some kind of compensation system except that you do run into problems with contract labor. This was a big problem in the 19th century, when labor unions became (justifiably) angry about competition from inmates. To some extent, inmates already do contribute to the government, because the UNICOR (Federal Prison Industries) program sells furniture and other stuff to Federal agencies below market value.

StosselAtl: Squanka asks:

Question: Wouldn't smaller prisons, or units that are treated like schools and/or corporations, be more effective in rehab?

RobtWorth: Interesting question. As far as treating them like schools or corporations, on the whole, I would say yes. As far as size goes, I'm not sure...cost-effectiveness would be the key here.

StosselAtl: This is more of crime and justice question than a prison question but TraderDoc asks:

Question: Why is the prison population growing faster in America then anywhere else?

RobtWorth: Mainly because of the War on Drugs, which created heavy sentences for drug offenses. By far the largest part of the recent prison growth occurred in the 1980s, when these laws began to take effect. We have way too many low-level drug pushers serving time, at taxpayer expense. Some of them are just mules from South America--who we wouldn't want to support at $25,000 a year if not for the drug laws. There was a good article on this last week in the New York Times by Mireya Navarro.

StosselAtl: Chemodad asks an interesting question--I'm not sure exactly what he's getting at. Here's his question:

Question: Aren't criminals really in the business of risk management, and can't their willingness to take huge risks be better utilized?

RobtWorth: Wow. That gets too deep into psychology for me. I think generally though, their tendency to take risks probably originates in not having had any real choices--growing up in places where there were none.

StosselAtl: Jscoburn wants to know:

Question: To what extent does the way that prisons remove people from society make their return so difficult upon 'release'?

RobtWorth: Good question. I have found parole officers far more understanding on this issue than I expected (which says more about me than them). There are groups that work with ex-offenders--the Fortune Society, for instance. And it's amazing how many ex-prisoners end up getting into the business of helping prisoners readjust to life on the outside... Still, the fact remains that it's tough. Some people think that the new class of so-called "super predators" are merely ghetto kids who have absorbed the prison ethic. So many kids in the inner city have had some contact with the criminal justice system that it literally becomes their family, their school and it's a school of terrible brutality. Fox Butterfield's new book, All God's Children, explores these issues is interesting ways.

StosselAtl: Robert, would you agree with what TedVC says about prison-policy formulation in this question?:

Question: Most prison policy is made by folks who have never seen one--I never met a correctional officer who favored inhumane treatment. Violence inside breeds violence inside, why can't people see it breeds it outside as well?

RobtWorth: Excellent point. I think you're right about correctional staff, for the most part. The pressure for "punishment" is coming from Congress, but Congress is responding to Americans who want to makes criminals suffer.

StosselAtl: The audience member screennamed AwfulNIce seems not so, at least where the rights of prisoners are concerned. She asks:

Question: Haven't we lost sight of the VICTIMS...what do they get out of all of this...the woman that feels trapped in her home because she was viciously attacked...weren't her humane rights taken away from her?

RobtWorth: They were indeed, and I wouldn't want to diminish that. But I do hope she would ask herself: do I want revenge? Or do I want that person to be treated in such a way that they--and people like them--are less likely to go out and create more victims?

StosselAtl: We've already gone over the allotted time but, Robert's typing fingers permitting, let's take one or two more quick ones. Themhack asks:

Question: In 1989-1990 who was liable for a student loan or student grant in the prison system? And where did the refund check go because the inmate couldn't get it?

RobtWorth: Pell grants were still available in 1989-90. Regarding the refund check, I don't quite see the point, so let me say this: Pell grants were awarded on a merit basis, so no one was denied one who was academically eligible.

StosselAtl: Next-to-last question, from SLewis766 (and what do you think about capital punishment as an economically attractive alternative to prison for violent repeat offenders?):

Question: What do you think of public punishment--public executions, pillory, stocks, whipping post, etc.?

RobtWorth: Re. capital punishment: currently, it's NOT an economically viable alternative. It's MORE expensive than life in prison, due to the expense of appeals. And I don't favor the current initiative to speed up the process, simply because I don't think it's a good idea to set a precedent for stepping on anyone's rights. Generally, I find the idea of public punishment a bad one. If you read accounts of 17th, 18th, and 19th century punishments, you'll find that they did not encourage obedience to the law: they were wild, carnivalesque events, where more crimes would often occur. They were NOT, in other words, the theatrical display of state power that their administrators may have envisioned.

StosselAtl: McKean's humane ethos is clearly predicated on a somewhat Skinnerian view of things--environment affects behavior and all that. But what if, as Ronald Reagan once said, crime is not a problem of social conditions but a "problem of the human heart"?

RobtWorth: Well, it's true that people do not commit crimes simply because they are poor and to think so is an injustice to those who are poor. But even if you believe that social conditions have little to do with crime (as I do not) you can see how prisons like McKean get better results than more punitive places.

StosselAtl: That's all we've got time for tonight. Sorry we didn't get to all of the audience questions. There were lots of good ones. Many thanks to Robert Worth. And thanks, audience, for joining us.

RobtWorth: Thanks for having me.

StosselAtl : Come back next Monday night, same place same time, for a conference on politics and the Christian Coalition.

OnlineHost: If you missed portions of tonight's conference, please visit The Atlantic Monthly's transcript library. The transcripts of this and all other conferences are available for downloading there. Robert Worth's article "A Model Prison" is in the November, 1995, Atlantic, online now. And be sure to visit The Atlantic's new WEB SITE at www.TheAtlantic.com.

StosselAtl : Good night.

The following are just some of the audience questions we did not have time to ask during the conference. Consider them food for thought.

*Vicki R23: What benefit are work camps when the offense is a crime against a person?

*JPFair: Do you believe that the prison system is gender biased?

*CHEMODAD: Do you think that prisons change criminals the way society wants them changed?

*AwfulNice: My husband works at a "correctional" facility...I don't understand why the inmates seem to have more rights than the victim does/did.

*HDonne829: Why not job training in the community? Laborers, forestry, roads, etc.

*HELINDA: You say prisoners aren't committing crimes while in prison, what of the murder drug use and rape that goes on in prisons?

*BT959: Why should the general public be forced to support convicts when we get nothing in return?

*CHEMODAD: Aren't criminals really in the business of risk management and can't their willingness to take huge risks be better utilized?

*CASEY ABN: Isn't it true that the prison system today is so liberally run (generally) that it's hard to tell who actually runs them...the Prisoners or the Corrections Officials?

*AwfulNice: Robert Worth you sound like you subscribe to Ct's former Correction Commissioner Larry Meachum's philosophy that prisoners have already paid their debt while they were members of society...i.e. social ills of America..they have had a tough life already.

*AwfulNice: You are expecting the general prison population to the "walls" that they couldn't accept on the outside?

*Reneexyz: I think many of the people in jail need therapy and counseling, to learn how to deal with their problems and emotions more then they need to be locked up. Is anything being done to give prisoners more therapy?

**BayLume: Why don't you let Robert field some tough questions?

*CHEMODAD: Why can't we treat prisoners as assets, they are after all people who are willing to take great risks in the hopes of rewards.

*Zakiyah: What is the real purpose of prisons, to punish or rehabilitate?

*Schmeeee: Don't you think that the prisons are becoming more violent because they allow the prisoners too much freedom within? The prisoners are allowed to do what they please, even though they are supposedly locked up.

*LeoCrab: I work at a community college and several of our students are inmates at a local prison. I have seen how this college experience has benefited them and, in the long run, society. How do you react/feel about inmates being able to attend college?

*Jscoburn: Could you comment on the dramatic decrease in escapes and increase in assaults (in prisons) in the past ten years?

*EHopeR: It's a well known fact that people who aren't criminals (in the true sense of the word) when they enter prison are when they get out; prison teaches people the ways of crime. Do you agree with this statement? What can be done about this vicious cycle?

*JPRileys: I've just entered this room. Is prison the price we pay as a civilized society-keeping people in jail rather than executing first degree murderers?

*LeoCrab: Do you think labor is still feeling the competition from possible inmate contract labor? Is it possible that this is why real job training is not allowed in prisons?

*AngelsFL: Is it true federal prisons have many more advantages for inmates than state prisons?

*Auntie P: Do you see fewer numbers of drug related offenders being incarcerated in the future because of lack of bed space?

*BrikHowz: How do you feel that the legalization of Marijuana would effect the crime rate??

*LBNIGHTMN : Are Republicans trying to use prison as a genocidal attack on African Americans?

*Jonshamis: Mr. Worth, when you factor in the economic cost of prison to taxpayers, both in term of the expenditure to incarcerate, and the likelihood of recidivism when incarceration occurs without inmates services, how can you justify incarceration for non-violent o

*DusadeJ: A man is in prison for raping my son. My son just left prison due to the effects of the rape. I'd rather have seen this man in a prison rehab. It would've saved two, perhaps. Your thoughts?

*EHopeR: Don't prisons in fact teach people how to be criminals (if they didn't know coming in) and thus make the problem worse instead of better?

*Resumaste: What does it cost US to house 1 inmate for a year on average?

*Auntie P: Juvenile crime is growing disproportionately high. What needs to be done to keep delinquents from becoming convicts?

*AwfulNice: Are you really try say that due to their socio-economic living that they don't know better?

*AMC 79 CJ: Why cant we just put punishment back into sentencing and prison?

*R Godsmit: Should strip searches be given?

*Saneman2: What would you say to a known evil prison warden? and how fast can you get him out?

*AwfulNice: What is your feeling on Nathan McCall's book..Mkes Me Wanna Holler? Do you think that he had the easy prison life? He managed to turn his life around. Any comments?

*BACPL: Has anyone here been inside a facility.

*Jscoburn: In your wildest imagination, can you envision a prison which doesn't have an 'inside' and an 'outside', which didn't remove members from society at all ?

*Issleb: Have prison systems had to change to deal with the upsurge of gangs within them, and if so, how?

*Carlito3: Mr. Worth, do you have any information on the new fed prison in CO, that is supposed to be similar to CA's Pelican Bay?

*EHopeR: But isn't it more a matter of what works to keep these prisoners from feeling compelled to hurt the victims again, rather than victim's rights vs. criminal's rights?

*Nissan21: Is "REFORM" a serious concept anymore -- does anybody still believe in such nonsense? The Mid-East seems a little ahead of the US in their treatment of criminals "no pick pockets in the Mid-East". Comments please.

*SKnut4357: In Arizona the retirement fund for Corrections and Enforcement is $ 5 billion. The interest on this money could and does elect any governor it decides is worthy ( read helpful). Prisons are big dollars to those involved, their interest in not changing a thing. Isn't money the key to making things work for the better. Money and education.

*Resumaste: Would stricter enforcement of the death penalty with less appeals make a difference?

*Jstewpope: What do you think about restitution as a means of punishment for criminals? Shouldn't the criminal pay back the victim instead of vice versa (victim = taxpayer paying for criminal's *Jstewpope : "care")?

*Resumaste: Would decriminalizing Marijuana and putting stricter penalties on cocaine, heroin and so forth decrease crime and lessen prison overcrowding?

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