A member of the Virginia Board of Corrections and the chairman of a State Senate committee that oversees prisons criticized yesterday the decision of the state's new corrections director to abandon a behavior modification program at Mecklenburg prison. They predicted that the action will thrust the embattled prison system into yet another controversy.
Board member Andrew P. Miller of Alexandria and State Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax) said the General Assembly clearly intended the corrections board, not the director of the Corrections Department, to set prison policy in Virginia.
Both added that a board subcommittee recommended two weeks ago that Virginia keep Mecklenburg Correctional Center as the place to house the state's most disruptive inmates, and that the behavior modification program -- which uses rewards and punishment to train inmates -- be improved and retained.
On Wednesday, Corrections Director Allyn R. Sielaff announced that the controversial program at Mecklenburg would be dropped and that the Southside Virginia prison would be converted from a special prison to house inmates with disciplinary problems into a regular maximum security facility.
Sielaff, who became head of the Corrections Department a month ago, is seeking ways to stem the continuing crisis over the state's prison system that has plagued the administration of Gov. Charles S. Robb. Six death row inmates escaped from Mecklenburg May 31 in the largest death row breakout in U. S. history, and there have been a number of disturbances and escapes since then.
Miller, a former state attorney general, called Sielaff's action in changing the Mecklenburg program "180 degrees from what the board recommended," adding, "I think the director's action constitutes a serious mistake." He said that he had talked to two other board members and they share his concern.
"There has been a bad break in that chain of command," said Gartlan, a Washington lawyer. Gartlan said he also has problems with "the putting all the bad apples in one basket philosophy," but that he believes the Board of Corrections recommendations should not be ignored.
"Allyn Sielaff knew what the law said and he knew his board was a policy-making board," said Gartlan. If he did not think he could efficiently run the prison system under such a board, "he should have made that known to the governor and declined the appointment."
Sielaff said he does not feel that his actions were contrary to board policy. He said the subcommittee's report was carefully studied and in most areas the recommendations will be adopted.
For instance, the mental health unit at Mecklenburg will be strengthened, as the board recommended, he said.
Sielaff added that he had spoken to some board members about the changes and that they were not upset.
"I think that somebody is trying to stir up a controversy that doesn't exist," said Sielaff.
When Mecklenburg opened in 1977, it was part of a plan to rid the other prisons of their most disruptive inmates and to put those inmates through a system of punishment and rewards to force them to behave.
Once prisoners went through the "phase program," as it was called, they were to return to their original prisons. The sprawling, campuslike prison was designed to carry out the behavior modification program.
Mecklenburg cost $19.6 million to build and $8.2 million annually to run, making it the most costly institution in the state penal system. But for years state officials said the costs were justified, hailing Mecklenburg as a model facility that could revolutionize penal systems across the nation.
This week Sielaff declared the program a failure. State officials said the entire concept -- from behavior modification to concentrating the worst inmates in one prison to the architectural design -- was wrong.
"To be honest with you, there's nothing that we're saving out of that," Sielaff said in an interview yesterday. "But I think we learned a great deal out of it. We learned that, at least in that environment, with those resources, it doesn't work.
"I don't know who conceived of that approach historically. I don't know how the phase program was conceived," Sielaff said. "But if you put all the disruptive inmates in one place, and there is no positive reinforcement of behavior, it's not going to accomplish anything."
The American Civil Liberties Union has long argued that behavior modification was inhumane and in 1981 it sued the state over the issue.
The lawsuit led to a settlement in which major changes were to be made in the phase program, but Alvin Bronstein, director of the ACLU's National Prison Project, said the changes were never made, until now.
"Very often it takes a crisis to focus attention on these things," said Bronstein. "Like all government bureaucracies, prisons are wedded to the idea of the status quo," and change occurs only when things such as escapes or riots threaten public safety or generate bad publicity.