NO, THIS WILL NOT BE another rundown of the Maryland prison horrors that have been reported so graphically this week by staff writer Neil Henry. Frankly, the cruelty of the world he described was not easy to read about in the first place; besides, after a round or two of political handwringing and maybe some fine-sounding calls for "dramatic reforms," hardly anyone will worry about it. That's been the trouble all along -- most law-abiding taxpayers and their lawmakers don't lose much sleep over prison conditions.
Those few who do care tend to fall into two sharply divided camps: the lock'-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key crowd, and the prisons-are-bad-for-humans school. And guess who tends to prevail in the State legislatures when appropriations time comes along? Those who oppose the building of any more huge prisons are portrayed as "soft on crime" and responsible for any wrongdoing of an errant parolee.
But neither "punishment" nor "rehabilitation" is a useful description of what should be taking place in prisons systems. Far more difficult is a balance, in which dangerous criminals are kept away from society and others who have broken laws are dealt with by means of work-release programs, tightly supervised paroles and placement in smaller facilities in their neighborhoods.
This balance is precisely what Maryland Gov. Harry Huges and his corrections chief, Gordon C. Kamka, are advocating -- though Mr. Kamka's support for more sophisticated community facilities and improved screening, placement and release procedures has been widley misinterpreted as his only approach to the prisons' problems. But Maryland's prison mess is the result of many conflicting policies and actions -- by police, courts, parole and probation staffs, psychiatrists and legislators. Longer sentences mean more prisoners and overcrowding; massive early releases of prisoners mean more likelihood that some may commit dangerous crimes.
No one can tell for sure who will or who won't be a recidivist or what the ideal corrections solution is. But what is happening in the worst of Maryland's facilities is barbaric, and Gov. Huges is attempting to do something about it. And there is a down-to-earth reason for taxpayers and legislators to start caring a lot more: prison construction and other penal costs are growing at a frightening pace. In the coming General Assembly sesion, lawmakers sensitive to this dilemma should cooperate with the governor in working out new and better ways to deal with Maryland's prison population.