High-Tech Prisons: Long Arm of Law Reaches Beyond the Gates

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United Press International

It was a wimp of a jail, a 1,100-man stockade rising from the grounds of a dusty tobacco plantation in Upper Marlboro, Md.

There were no towers, no bars and a lot of high-powered computers that set off false alarms when birds flittered by.

The new Prince Georges County Corrections Center, in short, was a pushover. Or so two inmates who wanted out thought.


They tried. In the thick of night, they slipped past the perimeter-control apparatus. Guards ignored warning lights flickering on a color-coded computer map. More birds.

The two clambered over a thin coil of razor ribbon. They thought they had busted out of the joint. They were wrong.

Within hours they were found immobile in the tall grass, bleeding heavily and covered with ticks and burrs. They were glad to be caught. The wimp of a jail turned out to be a fortress full of nasty traps. The harmless-looking perimeter wire knifed great gashes in the flesh. The fields were alive with microphones and buzzing radio patrols. Even the black sky thumped to the beat of heat-sensing helicopters.

There have been no more escapes from the Prince Georges jail, one of a new generation of facilities designed to accommodate large numbers of prisoners in an open, but carefully controlled, environment.

‘Secure as Alcatraz’

“What we did was design a building that was a friend and not an adversary,” said Sam Saxton, corrections director. “Technology has given us a system that is cheaper to manage, can handle a lot more people than before, yet is as secure as Alcatraz.”

Violence is kept to a minimum because confrontations are avoided. Inmates are given plenty of personal space and live in self-contained housing units. Their cells have steel doors that open into a common day room with dining and recreational facilities.


“We can afford to be soft on the inside,” he said, “because the outside is absolutely secure.”

Since the aborted escape, the outside has been made even more dangerous. Additional spools of razor ribbon drape the high fences--”Trying to cross them is like getting swamped in the ocean,” said Saxton--and webs of buried cables create a sound-reverberating no-man’s-land beyond the ocean of wire.

Such high technology may not reduce the nation’s prison crunch, but it makes conditions more manageable. The Utah state system is fully computerized; escapes and costs have plummeted. Video conferencing now substitutes for many of the vexing and risky prison-transport chores in Arizona, California, Florida and other states.

There are glitches of course: A flash flood recently swept away the high-buck microwave perimeter at Las Vegas’ Desert Correction Center, and the threat of bird vibrations only now has been debugged from the Prince Georges system.

More hopeful for the future is the kind of technology that reduces the need for enclosures altogether.

In a number of states, including California, Florida, Utah, Oregon, Texas and Delaware, nonviolent inmates are kept under house arrest by electronic anklets or bracelets, reducing the need for building costly new prisons.


When prisoners move from one zone to another without authorization, the tiny devices flash a warning to authorities. The gizmos can even sniff for alcohol and drug use.

One drawback: The devices cost as much as $10,000 apiece, and they can be stolen.

Alternative strategies include throwbacks to earlier programs. One is called the boot camp. The concept is popular in Georgia, Alabama and other parts of the South. The idea is to ship nonviolent first-time criminals--drunk drivers, burglars, car thieves, white-collar criminals--to special labor farms or camps.

“We intend to give them a taste of prison life without turning them into hard-core criminals,” said Charles Terrell, prison board chairman in Texas where the plan is on the boards. “We work them hard. They get privileges for good work. They lose privileges for bad behavior.

“Any former Marine understands the system.”

America’s first prisons probably were closer to boot camps than today’s correctional systems, which, in many cases, are no more than warehouses for felons. First devised in the early 1800s--Sing Sing was built in 1825--the early models were meant to be places where prisoners could be isolated from corrupting influences and transformed through work and education into penitent citizens--hence, the term penitentiary.

“The underlying idea,” said Larry Meachum, Connecticut’s corrections chief, “was to create an environment of iron discipline where an inmate could be schooled on the right way to behave.”

13 Private Facilities Since ’80

In a bid to save money, many states are turning to private enterprise. The new privatization programs mirror successful efforts to let the private sector build and operate hospitals, health care systems and nursing homes. Many businesses claim that they can get the job done quicker and cheaper than government by cutting red tape and avoiding the need for voter approval of financing.


Since 1980, more than 13 private jails and prisons have opened in nine states. Half of these are operated by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to process illegal immigrants. The remainder are light- to medium-security facilities.

“The private firms only want the cream of the crop, the easy-to-care-for guys,” said Meachum, “not the violent offenders.”

A number of legal and ethical questions crop up.

What, for instance, happens to prisoners when private enterprise goes bust? Can a prison corporation use deadly force to quell a riot or refuse to accept certain types of inmates--those with AIDS, for instance?

And then there is the ticklish matter of applying the profit motive to centers designed for punishment.

“They have every incentive to cut services to the bone,” said Meachum. “They also have a vested interest in keeping crime booming. The more crime, the more imprisonment, the higher the profit.”

Abuses have already taken place, critics say. In Tennessee, the Corrections Corporation of America chalked up an early cost overrun of $200,000, and in Texas court action (Medina vs. O’Neill), a private corporation was charged with packing 16 prisoners in a dingy, windowless, 12-by-20-foot cell.


Some analysts say the easiest way to curtail costs and overcrowding is to grant shorter prison terms.

Ronald Reagan, as a penny-pinching governor of California, was a pioneer in reducing prison populations. In 1967, he ordered state parole boards to loosen standards and release more inmates. There were no stipulations, as now, that sentences were “determinate” or unchangeable. Within two years, the prison population slipped from 28,000 to 18,000. Moreover, there was no upward spike in crime, in part, because police services were substantially increased.

Jim Austin, research chief for the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, suggests that the billions now being spent to expand prisons could be better spent on schools, family service programs and law enforcement.

“We can’t correct crime by trying to outbuild it (with prisons),” he said. “But we can try to head it off.

“Put the money in early intervention programs, get families off welfare, create incentives to keep families together. Give the family in the ghetto dignity and reason for hope.”

Japanese Example Cited

Japan provides a model. It is a wealthy Western-oriented nation with a history of militaristic expansion and feudal brutality. But its crime rate is among the lowest in the world. One Japanese citizen is robbed for every 244 Americans, one is murdered for every 20 Americans, one household is burglarized for every eight in America. Fewer are behind bars in Japan, a nation of 120 million, than in the state of Florida, population 10 million.


There are many reasons. In Japan, there are elaborate provisions for job security and other private cushions against the impact of the market reversals. The population is homogeneous. Income inequality between rich and poor narrows each year. (In the United States, the gap is widening.)

Police and family are revered.

“In Japan there is a police booth on every corner,” said Al Bronstein, a Washington attorney and student of prisons. “He is the policeman for that street. He’s a combination cop and social worker.

“If Johnny steals a bicycle, his parents will come voluntarily to the police and say they’re ashamed. If Johnny steals a bicycle in this country, the family is likely to wait for the police to knock on their door and then say, ‘Who’s Johnny?’ ”

Dealing with the short-term problem of the prison crunch, there is no more successful program in America than in Washington state. Judges there determine a sentence guided by a grid or matrix that coordinates a specific offense with a felon’s record. A first-time thief will get probation. A burglar with four offenses will spend a year and a half in prison. An arsonist with six priors will get a lengthy prison term.

Minnesota’s Sentencing Model

The sentencing model, pioneered in Minnesota, ships lesser offenders to alternative programs, including partial confinement, residential and work release.

“We wanted to create a consistent model of proportionate sentencing, consistent across the system,” said John Lehman, Washington prison director.