Prison Experts See Opportunity For Improvement

Pearl Beale testifies before the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons. Her son was killed in the D.C. jail awaiting trial for a nonviolent offense.
Pearl Beale testifies before the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons. Her son was killed in the D.C. jail awaiting trial for a nonviolent offense. (By Ed Murray -- Star-ledger)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 26, 2005

NEWARK -- Sister Antonia Maguire, a Catholic nun who works in a New York state prison, told a story about an inmate named Cathy who complained every day for a week that she felt sick. At the prison clinic, she was given medicine for a cold, and hot tea.

Refused permission to see a doctor, she grew worse. She begged her mother to contact the superintendent, Maguire said, but died before the call could be made. A post-mortem showed congestive heart failure. She was 32.

"Not once did she see a doctor," Maguire said. "Not once did anyone put a stethoscope to her chest. Not once did anyone take her blood pressure."

Maguire was speaking last week to the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons as it pursued a year-long effort to illuminate life behind bars for 2.2 million inmates and the 750,000 men and women who staff the facilities. The idea behind the 21-member group is to identify problems and find salable ways to address them.

The nation's prisons and jails have hardly been a source of innovation or good news in recent years, despite the estimated $60 billion spent annually on corrections. But some experts see a shift in perception and politics that could create openings for creativity in sentencing, incarceration and parole.

Michael Jacobson, former director of New York City's corrections department, says state budget crunches and dropping crime rates are creating a "historical moment." He pointed to crime's declining rank among issues Americans care most about and the trend toward flexibility in handling nonviolent offenses, especially drug cases, in such states as Arizona, Kansas and Michigan.

"We're in a period now where we can do some pretty interesting reform," said Jacobson, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit that is the prison commission's principal sponsor.

The climate has "changed substantially," agreed Marc Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project, based in Washington. He sees a fresh opening for what he calls "rational discussion of policy and different choices."

"There's a growing liberal-conservative consensus that it's in everyone's interest that we provide resources in prison that decrease the chances of recidivism," Mauer said, also noting an added emphasis on programs to help inmates reenter society. "Ten years ago, there was what we can only characterize as hysteria around crime."

In a three-year stretch ending in 1996, legislatures in about half the states in the country passed "three strikes" laws that imposed stiff penalties for repeat offenders, Mauer said. Prosecutors tried more juveniles as adults and judges sentenced accordingly, their hands often tied by mandatory minimum sentences.

States and the federal government built prisons in the 1990s at an unprecedented pace, farming out inmates they had no space to keep. Highly fortified "supermax" facilities rose from farmland, providing jobs and a sense of security to people outside the walls, if little hope to most on the inside.

On any given day, more than 2 million Americans are living behind bars, an increase of more than 500,000 since 1995, said Allen J. Beck, the Justice Department's top authority on the corrections system. Five million more people are on probation or parole.

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