In many ways, the D.C. Department of Corrections Facility at Lorton looks like a college campus -- with dormitories, classrooms, workshops and even a chapel.
And the men incarcerated there, some of them nattily dressed and carrying books, look more like Ivy Leaguers than murderers, robbers and thieves.
In a study of the penal facility published in the Stanford Law Review in May, Robert Blecker posed an intriguing question based on this contradictory scene: Is Lorton a haven or a hell?
"It's really not a bad place. Not at all," Blecker quotes one inmate as saying. "In fact, this is one of the best places in the country to do your time. Most of the dormitories are like small families. As you walk around, you'll see some of your friends. If you like to get high, all the same things that's available to you on the street is available here at Lorton."
About 6,303 inmates eat, work, study, exercise and idle away their time at Lorton. The prison's 1,152-man Central Facility, where Blecker conducted his study, is the second-largest of five complexes that make up Lorton.
On that 68-acre compound, there are thousands of corners and hidden places, with guards stationed at widely separated posts. Because of the potential for attack, many inmates interviewed said they live in fear.
"I would consider Lorton a 'hellhole,' being that life is always on the line," one inmate told Blecker. "It's been known as far as people getting hurt that they never get the ones that did anything. The innocent bystanders or people mistaken for someone else get hurt. I always stay on my toes. I'm a little jumpy. But I just don't want to be the victim."
Blecker, a professor at New York Law School, began his study in 1986 to determine the meaning of "punishment" in a prison that is unique in the annals of penology.
Lorton is 25 miles south of Washington, within easy access of family members. The racial composition is 99 percent black, with most inmates from the same neighborhoods. Inmates, it was said, ran the place.
What Blecker found is that both views of Lorton are accurate: It is a hellhole and a haven.
"Some guys breeze through," Blecker concluded, "others live in agony." The short-term first offenders suffer the most, he said, while the most hardened criminals, with the best contacts, the best hustles and the best jobs, enjoy the softest lifestyle.
Inside Lorton, he said, those who most deserve punishment experience it the least.
Major improvements in the way Lorton is managed have made it a safer place, according to D.C. corrections officials. "Bad apples" are weeded out, locked away from those who sincerely are trying to correct their behavior, officials say.
The most significant of these changes is called "unit management," in which guards, counselors and psychologists are stationed in each prison dormitory. In the past, everyone agrees, inmates controlled the dorms.
The results of the management changes have been a reduction of serious violence and an increasing effort by inmates to improve themselves, corrections officials say.
Nevertheless, an inmate at Lorton is not likely to mistake the place for anything other than what it is: a prison.
"If it's not as hard physically," one inmate said, "it's harder mentally. Dealing with these people's minds, getting around them. It's not a matter of strength, it's a matter of matching wits. You're not breaking rocks. Breaking minds is what you are doing, and that's worse than beating on a rock."
Several readers asked for information about a policy paper mentioned in last Thursday's column, "Structural Impediments to Success: A Look at Disadvantaged Young Men in Urban Areas." The report can be obtained by writing the Union Institute Center for Public Policy, 1731 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20009.