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:

1. Inmates are sent to prison as punishment and not for punishment.

2. Correctional workers have a responsibility to ensure that inmates are returned to the community no more angry or hostile than when they were committed.

3. Inmates are entitled to a safe and humane environment while in prison.

4. You must believe in man's capacity to change his behavior.

5. Normalize the environment to the extent possible by providing programs, amenities, and services. The denial of such must be related to maintaining order and security rather than punishment.

6. Most inmates will respond favorably to a clean and aesthetically pleasing physical environment and will not vandalize or destroy it.

To a visitor, McKean's "clean and aesthetically pleasing" environment is its most striking feature. Impressions gleaned from Midnight Express, Judge Dredd, or an ordinary state prison are out of place here. Luther insists that these physical details help to maintain order, just as the programs do. During my visit, as he led me past the special housing unit that is known in most prisons as "the hole" to the recreation area, a group of inmates appeared in the distance, jogging on a circular track around an athletic field. "Some of the staff think there's too much recreation here," he told me. "Most think it's important. On a summer evening you've got three to five hundred men in this rec yard, with three staff. If you had less recreation, you'd need more staff. There's a clear economic advantage. You'd definitely have more fights. We do surveys every year, and they show that as inmates get more involved in the rec program, they get in less trouble. Also, they tend to have less health trouble, and that saves money."

Even without recreation programs most of the inmates at McKean would keep busy, with work assignments or training programs. Forty-seven percent are enrolled in classes, which is one of the highest rates in the federal system. Many inmates earn licenses that help them to get jobs when they are released. They also have opportunities to teach one another--a mentors' group, for instance, and the "I Care" group, which holds discussions about issues of prison life. Many inmates teach Adult Continuing Education as well. These programs are not mere frills, Luther claims, because they help to keep the prison running smoothly. "The older guys see some young guy who's got forty years to do," one staff member told me. "They think, He's angry, and he's scared of me, and I've got to do time with this guy. So they see it as a challenge to get some of the younger guys involved in the ed program; they see that as the only hope. They do it a lot of different ways--mentoring, whether formally or informally--to somehow expand the resources of this younger population coming in. Wherever the staff leave that challenge, the older inmates pick it up."

Education may be the most effective way to lower prison costs. DiIulio, who is well known in Washington for his pessimism about rehabilitation, claims, "In some prison systems cost-effective management is possible only because programs keep prisoners busy, with less supervision than you'd need otherwise. Especially with respect to certain types of prison educational programs, you save money by hiring fewer officers in the short run and reducing recidivism in the long run." The Corrections Corporation of America, a publicly traded company that was founded on the principle of cost-effective management, takes the same line on the value of educational programs.

In some respects McKean is stricter than other prisons, because inmates are held to higher standards. Three years ago, after a few minor incidents, Luther imposed a condition known as "closed" movement, restricting inmates' activity during evening hours. The condition was meant to be permanent. A group of inmates asked him if he would restore "open" movement if the prison was incident-free for a period of ninety days. He agreed, and the prison has run on open movement ever since. Many McKean inmates will also say that they do not carry "shanks"--homemade knives or blades--because they don't need them. The McKean staff takes weapons very seriously, and inmates found with them will be prosecuted and put in isolation.

Luther successfully transformed every aspect of prison life into a management tool. Each cellblock has a weekly inspection, and the inmates of those that score high enough are allowed to use the TV and phone rooms at night. They can also earn their way to the "honor unit," which almost always passes inspection and is especially quiet. Inmates who show consistently good behavior are allowed to attend supervised picnics on Family Day, so that they can start adjusting to life on the outside. Even the staff is involved in McKean's system of incentives. Any suggestion from a staff member will receive a response within twenty-four hours, and if it is adopted, the staff member earns a star next to his or her office plaque, redeemable for $25.00. This system may sound patronizing, but it enhances morale. "It's all in the culture the warden has established here," one staff member says. "It's a culture of responsiveness."

Nonetheless, Dennis Luther achieved his successes against the will of Bureau of Prisons senior management. The bureau declined to comment, but Luther claims that officials there saw him as "a maverick, as someone who violates bureau policy flagrantly." Some of the more successful programs at McKean --the Inmate Benefit Fund, for instance (which raised $50,000 a year, much of it for local charities)--have been cut by the bureau, whose director serves at the discretion of the Attorney General. Inmates' access to computers and other amenities has been reduced in the past year, and now, with Luther retired, the trend may continue. Education also suffered at McKean--and at all other prisons--when the 1994 crime bill denied prisoners the right to apply for Pell grants. Grants to prisoners, according to congressional logic, were unfair to those hardworking citizens who cannot afford to pay for a college education. In fact, no eligible applicant for a Pell grant ever lost out to an inmate, because the grants are awarded on a merit basis, with any costs above the yearly appropriation coming out of the next year's budget. Less than one percent of all Pell-grant funds went to prisoners during the 1993- 1994 award year. With the loss of the grants, prison college programs are virtually extinct.

But the Pell-grant controversy is only a small part of a huge and largely undocumented trend. The increase in prison violence over the past few years has coincided with big cuts in educational and vocational programming at all levels. College-aid programs like one administered by New York State's Tuition Assistance Program have died, and allocations for basic literacy and GED programs have been scaled back drastically. At least twenty-five states have made cuts in vocational and technical training, the areas most likely to provide inmates with an alternative career when they leave prison. Most states now have long waiting lists for classes of any kind. Even in states where programs have not been cut, prison overcrowding has often rendered them almost useless. Class sizes have increased so rapidly that the standard approach for elementary-level courses, according to one prison teacher, is "throw them the GED handbook and say `Let me know when you're finished.' You can't learn that way." In New Jersey the ratio of inmates to prison programs rose from 32 to 1 in 1984 to 83 to 1 at the beginning of last year.

Numerous studies have shown a correspondence between educational programs and reduced recidivism rates. There is no question that college-level programs at Roosevelt University, in Chicago; Boston University; and Ball State, in Indiana, have had remarkable success with inmates, many of whom have gone on to work in social services and treatment programs themselves. And federal surveys have found a significant difference between those prisoners who participated in classes and those who did not. The trouble with all these studies is that they do not distinguish between inmates for whom education made a real difference and those who were already unlikely to be sent back to prison. The best way to eliminate this problem of self-selection would be to offer education to prisoners at random, retain an identical control group that did not receive it, and then monitor the progress of the two groups after parole.

Whatever its effect on recidivism rates, education clearly makes prisons easier and less expensive to run. Prison costs are rapidly spinning out of control. In the past decade state and federal prison expenses have risen from approximately $12 billion to $24.6 billion. That estimate is low, because some costs are invariably left out in the process of reporting and because prisons put fiscal pressure on other government agencies as well. For instance, the costs of lawsuits that are brought by federal prisoners are borne by the Attorney General's Office, not the Bureau of Prisons. And state attorneys general bear the costs of constitutional challenges to their prison systems. Prison costs are continuing to rise with the implementation of the 1994 crime bill, which puts financial pressure on states to adopt harsher sentencing guidelines, and which includes a "three strikes" mandatory life-sentence provision for three-time violent offenders. These measures will swell the ranks of prisons that are already bursting with nonviolent offenders. By the turn of the century corrections are likely to be the largest item in many state budgets. Already California is spending more on its prisons than on its universities, and the state correctional officers' union has lobbied hard for tougher sentencing laws.

Within a decade a baby boomlet will add another million boys in the fourteen-to-seventeen-year-old range to our population. According to James Q. Wilson, of the University of California at Los Angeles, at least six percent of those will commit violent crimes. That means 30,000 more young killers, rapists, and thieves. Some of them will be what DiIulio calls "super-predators"--a new variety of young criminal who has no adults in his life and no apparent capacity for remorse. With today's long sentences and high rates of incarceration, many of these younger criminals will be spending their lives in prison, at taxpayer expense. "There's a tornado coming," DiIulio claims. "We can't stop it; we have to prepare for it."

Intelligent prison policy is necessary now more than ever before. Yet politicians have been unwilling to forsake the popular fixation with "getting tough on crime" by getting tough on prisoners. The 1994 crime bill authorized $7.9 billion for prison construction, and House Republicans have added another $2.3 billion to that. Some of the new prisons are necessary, but they will be counterproductive if they are run on the no-frills principle, with no vocational programs, no drug treatment, no education. "It's easy for politicians to advertise building more prisons, because up-front costs are negligible," according to Norman Carlson, who directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons from 1970 to 1987. "Construction costs are just the tip of the iceberg." Some politicians appear to recognize the gravity of the problem. New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman now pays lip service to the idea that more prison educational programs could reduce recidivism. But she will not fund them. As one teacher at East Jersey State Prison put it, "If this place blows up, they'll blame the lack of education. But they're cutting back." Dennis Luther is still convinced that his methods would work in any prison, even those most plagued with violence, overcrowding, and gangs. He had inmates in transfer who were violent in other prisons, he says, and when they reached McKean, they tended to calm down. But he has no illusions about the future of crime policy. "If the trend continues, prisons are going to become very different places to work in," he told me. "It's hard enough now to recruit a qualified staff for a prison. And I don't think we've seen anything yet." McKean staff members who worked under Luther feel the same way. Many have worked in other prisons, both state and federal, and they consider McKean a shining example of the difference good management can make. They don't expect it to last. Nor do the inmates, one of whom has written an M.A. thesis arguing that prisoners should have the opportunity to earn back the cost of their incarceration and then get an education. This is similar to arguments from inmates throughout the country: providing a long-term goal helps them to stay sane and makes them less prone to violence. It also makes the entire prison easier and less expensive to manage. But prisoners know very well that the current political trend is in the opposite direction. And none of them have any doubt about what the result will be. As one inmate serving a life term at East Jersey State Prison puts it, "You create Spartan conditions, you're gonna get gladiators."