• U.S.

The Law: Refining Confinement

5 minute read

The first of 200 hard cases—inmates convicted of at least two crimes—will arrive next week at the new maximum security federal prison at Butner, N.C., take one look and assume they are in a play pen. No gun towers, no cell blocks, no cavernous mess halls, no barred windows. At orientation, each inmate will be given a definite date for his release and be told that much of what he does until then will be up to him, but that nothing he does will get him out any earlier. His guards will wear blazers and slacks, and he can wear his own clothes or prison-supplied jumpsuits (in white, gold, orange or blue). Also to be issued to him: the key to his own cell.

For those who advocate hard-boiled treatment of repeat offenders, Butner’s showcase experiment must seem like the scheme of a coddling egghead. Which is close to the mark. Mindful of the general dissatisfaction with the U.S. penal system and what it was achieving, Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Norman Carlson decided in 1972 that Butner, then in the planning stage, would be designed for new rehabilitation techniques. After bitter criticism scuttled early ideas of using transactional analysis and behavior modification, Carlson turned to the theories of Norval Morris, 52, a New Zealand-born criminal-law professor (and now dean) at the University of Chicago Law School.

In his 1974 book, The Future of Imprisonment, Morris had detailed the concept of a “voluntary prison,” drawing in part on results at three institutions —in England, Denmark and The Netherlands. Central to Morris’ view was that prisons fail at rehabilitation because they try to cure criminal tendencies in an overwhelmingly degrading environment. Instead of “compulsory helping programs,” Morris wrote, prisons should require only that an inmate endure his set punishment; that the incarceration should not be mentally or physically brutalizing; and that the convict should be offered extensive training and other assistance, but the choice to accept should be his, on the theory that such things do not help the prisoner who does not want them.

No Act. Following Morris’ prescriptions and proscriptions, Butner will allow a prisoner to select from such programs as dental technician training; college, high school or literacy courses; and counseling for drug or alcohol abuse. He will be free to pass up all of them—and even to transfer to another prison after the first three months. Because the convict’s release date cannot be affected by his choices, there is no incentive to “act” rehabilitated in order to win parole. His prison time will be extended, however, if an inmate is found guilty of a serious disciplinary offense.

Butner will impose two absolute requirements: every inmate must work at a prison job and must attend regular group discussions on all aspects of prison life. Nor is the prison quite as open as it looks. The unbarred windows are made of escape-proof Lexan, the material used in airplane windows. Doors to the 7½-ft. by 9½-ft. one-man cells can be locked or not by the inmate, but from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. all outside doors of the four single-story, 50-cell buildings are bolted.*The 40-acre complex is surrounded by two 14-ft. fences—separated by 20 ft. of coiled barbed wire—that are topped by barbed wire and equipped with sensors.

The Bureau of Prisons is choosing the men to be sent to Butner at random from a group of 750 eligible federal prisoners; qualifications include being at least 18, having from one to three years before possible release and a history of repetitive crime. “We want prisoners for our project who are not the most likely to succeed,” says Butner Warden Donald A. Deppe, 45, an ex-professor of philosophy at the University of Maryland and former director of education for all federal prisons. Eligible inmates who are not sent to Butner will be used as a control group for a follow-up study on the percentage of those who return to crime.

Such statistical measurements of effectiveness will not be available for years, but a faster index of success or failure will be life inside Butner. “If we can run an institution for these prisoners without intra-prisoner predatory violence and in conditions of relative freedom within the prison,” says Morris, “then we can do it for all prisons and all prisoners, if we want to.” The price would be high. Butner cost $13.8 million to build, plans a staff-to-inmate ratio of 2 to 3 and has a $4 million annual budget. The normal federal penitentiary costs less than half as much to run. “A waste of money?” asks Morris. “It depends on how seriously you take the problem of repetitive criminal violence.”

*Three other buildings at Butner will house 140 mentally ill inmates who are not part of the prison-reform program.

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