At the Lorton Reformatory these days, U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger is a hit.
Forget his aggressive law-and-order speech delivered in Houston earlier this year. The inmates at the District's prison have followed Burger's recent remarks on prisoner rehabilitation with keen interest, and many believe that he is on target with suggestions that the education of inmates and training of guards be mandatory.
At Lorton, particularly, the inmates say, men feel a low sense of self-esteem because so many cannot read or write.
"If you asked most of these guys to write their names it would come out looking like something Chinese," and Rudolph Owens, 37, an inmate who also runs Lorton's Quatrangle Therapeutic Social Welfare Program. "You try to talk to them intelligently and they think you're insulting them, so they want to knock your head off -- I mean really hurt you -- just because they can't comprehend."
Burger, speaking in a commencement address at the George Washington University Law School last week, said society had a moral obligation to rehabilitate convicts. His words instantly became the center of attention at inmate rap sessions. His notion that inmates could get their sentences reduced for successful completion of the educational programs was most appealing.
"In my opinion, this is the most progressive statement I've heard from Burger during the 16 years that I've been coming back and forth to Lorton," said Owens, as he and several other inmates gathered in the raw light of a sparcely furnished visiting room. "Incentives offer hope to those who have been psychologically slaughtered. What Burger is talking about is timely and especially needed at Lorton where you have a large, young clientele from the city."
In recent weeks, riots at prisons around the country have again focused attention on overcrowding and treatment in the nation's corrections facilities. Some 26 large prison systems have lawsuits pending by inmates charging thet they are unconstitutionally overcrowded.
Lorton, too, is plagued by overcrowding and a shortage of staff. Last year, inmates filed a lawsuit against District officials protesting what they described as inadequate and unsafe conditions there. However, inmates say the quality of guards has improved dramatically during the last 10 years although they say there is much still to ge done.
The prison is a sprawling mass of guard towers, barded wire fences and 30-foot-high walls located in Lorton, Va., -- about a 30-minute drive south of Washington. With its dormitory-style minimum security facilities, inmates can be seen idling the days away. Inmates charged in their lawsuit last year that the institution was plagued by "virtually unchecked violence."
Most of the inmates are under 30 -- and many are serving 15-years-to-life sentenes. There are nearly 3,000 inmates at Lorton, the vast majority black.
By and large, the men are often stiff and ill at ease. They sit crosslegged with their arms folded across their hearts. Arched eyebrows reveal thier tension.
"This is an industry in which money is being made -- just like any other industry," said Sidney Davis, 35, an inmate who is also a VISTA volunteer and one of those skeptical of Burger. "Everybody knows this is about money, not concern for people. What we need down here are relationships with society. You can't get that through some program."
"I agree wholeheartedly that we need reltionships," Owens replied. "But there is a clause in the Constitution that says we don't have to have nothing, just so long as nothing is 'cruel and unusual.' I say somewhere along the line we have to get behind something and Burger has made the first step."
"No, you don't do stuff like that, man," Davis countered.
"Will it hurt?" Owens said.
"Damn right it'll hurt. They did the same thing with 'rehabilitation,' just threw something up making us into instruments so others could get ahead. Prisons are set up to make people feel inadequate. That's how it's been ever since the Quakers set them up over here."
"Everything changes, man," Owens said. "You can't blind yourself today with what happened yesterday. Without vision, we are dead."
A typical Lorton classroom has one corner where men are trying to learn their alphabets while men in another corner learn to count. In the center of the room more advanced students learn how to multiply and divide.
Lorton offers programs ranging from Project Great, an auto body and fender repair class, to Stepping Stones, drug abuse therapy. Inmates criticize them as "paper programs," and express frustration that the courses do not help them find jobs once they are released from prison.
Leon Black, for example, had studied nightly, sometimes until 3 a.m., to earn his high school diploma at Lorton. He had dropped out of school after seventh grade. He was sent to Lorton after being convicted of attempted robbery. After his release the first time, he was unable to find a job. Despearate, he tried to rob again. Now, with only 60 days to go before he gets another chance, Black is becoming increasingly anxious.
"Basically, I concur with Burger, but I want to emphasize, based on my personal experience, that it's going to take more than just formal education to make a difference," said Black, who is 27. "It's going to be necessary to educate people to understand society.
"See, in the world that I live in, and most of the young blacks in here are from that same world, education is not a necessity, but survival is. You do something and you know it's wrong, but you do what you think you have to do. There is no understanding of the law and society."
Back at the roundtable discussion, inmates point out that numerous residents have earned high school diplomas and college degrees while at Lorton only to return for further study.
"There is a basic fact that you leave here your sentence is really just beginning," said Davis. "It doesn't make any difference if you can read or write. A black convict who can't read has three strikes against him. Teach him to read and he still has two strikes."