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Looking back
Memorable dates in jail's short history
By DANIEL RUTH Posted Apr 26, 2002

Not Exactly The John Maynard Keynes Of Privatization
Just like crusading against communism and crime, no politician ever lost points with the electorate in coming out foursquare in opposition to Big Government.

Cue the Jaws theme
After all, there is so much there to campaign against - the image of fat, bloated bureaucrats unaccountable, unavailable, unresponsive to you, the poor schmo of a taxpayer.

In the abstract it is easy to view government civil servants as one massive highway worker leaning on his shovel all day.

Like many stereotypes, the notion of the ne'er-do-well government worker has a kernel of truth to it.

Haven't all of us simply wanted to crawl into a fetal position after some agonizingly frustrating effort to get a government employee, who will do nothing to help, on the phone to tell us they can't do anything to help?

When Gov. Jeb Bush campaigned on a ``bring out your dead'' plank of less government/more productivity, no doubt the promise of a streamlined bureaucracy humming along with Swiss watch precision certainly appealed to many voters.

Since coming into office, the governor has been relentless in his efforts to privatize as many government services as possible on the theory applying sound business principles to serving the public is a more efficient use of tax dollars.

Who can argue with that?
Unfortunately, this was sort of like being lectured to about culinary techniques by Jeffrey Dahmer.

Recently, the governor probably required the Heimlich maneuver with revelations from his administration that a variety of his privatization efforts have wound up costing the state more money when the same services were provided by taxpayer-supported civil servants.

In a sort of paper shuffler's version of destroying a village to save it, Bush has seen some of his privatization efforts turn into Tallahassee's answer to the $750 Pentagon hammer.

A tiny indication the governor was about to step into a financial briar patch should have been red flagged when the state decided to privatize maintenance services at 25 juvenile detention centers. The lowest bid came in at $2.5 million, triple what the state was spending using government workers.

Not Pretty
But faced with projected cost overruns, which would have exceeded $1 million, the state scrambled to void the contract and keep the state employees on the payroll. As Bush is so fond of saying: ``Rut-ro.''

There have been other, uh, outsourcing surprises:
* The Department of Children and Families is involved in a lawsuit with a private sector company over allegations of improper billing.
* Savings promised in privatizing prisons have not materialized.
* The Florida Legislature terminated a privatized job training program for the Department of Education amid disclosures of mismanagement.

Senate President John McKay, who does not laugh at the same jokes as the governor, is resisting Bush's $40 million proposal to privatize the state's personnel services program for fear it will turn into the DeLorean Motors of human services.

Sure it's a peachy thing to advocate that government should be run like a private business. But like Enron? Andersen? Brother Neal's Silverado Savings & Loan?

Like government workers, private sector employees are equally capable of bungling, fraud, ineptitude.

Indeed, the governor's private sector track record is akin to sticking Old Dobbin in the Kentucky Derby. It's not pretty.

Bush's record in private enterprise is littered with businesses that went belly up faster than "Freddy Got Fingered."

Ideon, Broward Federal Savings & Loan, IMC Gold Plus, bust, bust, bust either by obtuse mismanagement, or corruption, when the governor was a principal or a board member. Of course, he insisted he had nothing to do with the companies' misfortunes, because after all he had nothing to do, except show up now and then to collect a board director's check.

Well, OK, fine, let's be fair.
There is at least one private sector business in which the governor has been profitable - Jeb Bush Inc., a multinational corporation specializing in the successful marketing of a surname. Exclamation marks extra.

Total profits to date: $2.2 million. Potential - unlimited.

Columnist Daniel Ruth can be reached at (813)259-7599.

More fuel for the fire
Monday, April 29, 2002

Privatization Doesn't Always Pay
A few years ago, state Rep. Carlos LaCasa, R-Miami, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was gung ho about turning over to private companies many of the jobs that the state has on its own payroll.

And why not? Everyone seemed convinced that government should be "run like a business," and that private businesses could do the jobs cheaper and more effectively.

It's not always the case, state officials are quickly learning.

"We've become more cautious, there's no question about it," LaCasa told The Tampa Tribune recently. "We're taking a closer look at these things, but that's also because we've done a few projects and now have something to look at."

The most recent example to surface: The Department of Juvenile Justice was going to farm out its in-house maintenance work. The department spends about $730,000 on 45 full-time employees.

The lowest bid from private enterprise to take over the work: $2.3 million. The highest bid was $10.2 million.

Savings to the taxpayers by using state workers: $1.57 million to $9.47 million. Florida taxpayers spend less per capita on state workers than anywhere else in the nation, said Doug Martin, a spokesman for the labor union that represents many state employees. "When you already are spending as little as you can get away with, why do you think it's going to be cheaper by going to the private sector?" asked Martin. "You can't spend less, and get more or better service as well as paying some company's profit or overhead."

That's one of the reasons Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton, resisted a proposal from Gov. Jeb Bush to privatize the state's Personnel Services Division. About 1,000 state employees would have been eliminated and a private company hired to do the job for $40 million.

Ditching that plan was an outgrowth of the resignation of Ruth Sykes, whom Bush had appointed the "state efficiency czar." She resigned last year to protest what she called a rush into privatization and said the process of determining which services should be privatized needed to be more deliberate.

In February, Rep. Bill Andrews, R-Delray Beach, called for an investigation to determine if there was criminal wrongdoing with the Occupational Access and Opportunity Commission -- a board created to privatize training programs for disabled adults. Andrews pointed to state audits showing possible conflicts of interest by commission members and wasting of state dollars -- but few positive accomplishments.

At the start of this year, the Florida Commission on Ethics reported it had found probable cause that C. Mark Hodges, executive director of the Florida Correctional Privatization Commission, which oversees five privately run prisons in the state, had violated several ethics laws over the past six years. He used his official position in connection with his private consulting business, the commission said. Hodges denied wrongdoing, but resigned from the job.

Bush spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst told a Tribune reporter that the state is in "untested waters" and as more information was gathered "we can determine whether the privatization effort is a good business case."

The waters are more tested than they were. As the Department of Juvenile Justice has found, privatization has some pretty deep holes beneath the service.

Judge OKs Wackenhut sale vote By Stephen Pounds, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 30, 2002

A Palm Beach County circuit judge won't block a shareholders' vote Friday on the sale of the Wackenhut Corp. to Danish security firm Group 4 Falck, giving Wackenhut a win in the first round of its legal fight over the $573 million deal.

The ruling, by Judge John Wessel, is the first major victory by either side in the lawsuit filed by a handful of shareholders who want to block the sale because it undervalued a class of Wackenhut stock.

Wessel said shareholders still can seek damages even if the deal is approved, that the company's proxy on the sale is "painstakingly" detailed, the vast majority of Wackenhut shareholders stand to profit from it and the offer price is fair.

"What happens now is that the vote will go forward and, if approved, the sale then moves toward closing," said Michael Burman, an attorney representing Chairman George Wackenhut and his wife, Ruth.

Plaintiff's lawyer Paul Geller said he will appeal the ruling. He expected to file a notice Monday with the 4th District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach and legal briefs by next week but he acknowledged that it wouldn't stop the vote.

"The order should be appealed for the sake of the shareholders and, assuming we win, a new vote should be taken and new information should be supplied," Geller said.

Geller has argued that Wackenhut should have subtracted Wackenhut's market capitalization from Group 4 Falck's offer price, and then distributed the difference equally among shareholders, regardless of their class. Under the Falck deal, the Danish security giant's offer of $33 a share rewards Wackenhut's B class of shareholders.

Wackenhut class B nonvoting shares always have lagged behind the class A, or voting shares. On the day before the sale was announced on March 8, Wackenhut class B shares closed at $27.44 a share; its A shares actually closed higher than the offer price at $34.40.

"What we're saying is that the premium being paid by Group 4 should have been shared equally," Geller said.

Wessel rejected Geller's argument, saying the such a treatment would violate Wackenhut's articles of incorporation.

"That point is important," Burman said.

The ruling doesn't affect directly another shareholder lawsuit filed two weeks ago. The attorney in the case, Michael Pucillo of West Palm Beach, could not be reached. But Burman doubts that the suit would have any greater success than Geller's.

"From a technical standpoint, (Judge Wessel's ruling) doesn't impact that lawsuit. But from a practical standpoint, it's the same (management) people, the same company, just another shareholder," Burman said. "They should think about withdrawing it."

Inside the supermax Pelican Bay

By Dan Gardner Ottawa Citizen
April 28, 2002 Sunday Final Edition

One of the toughest prisons on the planet stands in a 275-acre clearing in a lush forest, about a day's drive north of San Francisco, at the end of a narrow highway that winds through magnificent redwoods and Pacific vistas of stunning beauty.

Pelican Bay State Prison is a "supermax," a level of high-tech security above maximum. It is also the symbol and product of American tough-on-crime justice. Inmates in California's prisons speak of it with fear and awe. Critics of the American penal system loathe it, while supporters adore Pelican Bay and demand more like it.

Knowing this, one might expect something like Alcatraz, Sing Sing, Attica or San Quentin -- the looming, black fortresses of Hollywood movies. But at Pelican Bay, there is no fortress, no iron gate. Entering the grounds, I am stopped at a security booth, situated on neatly groomed gardens. The guard, friendly and casual, waves me on to a bland administration building. I feel as if I could be here to renew my driver's licence.

From a distance, the prison is a complex of interconnected two-storey concrete buildings brutal only in their blandness, seemingly sand-blasted of any distinguishing characteristics. It could be a FedEx depot or a factory in an industrial park churning out shrink-wrapped software. Not even the three fences that ring the property look imposing, except up close, where signs warn that the electrified middle barrier is lethal.

Throughout the prison, the noise, filth and visceral brutality of old dungeons like Alcatraz are gone. It is a little world of concrete, stainless steel and bright fluorescent lighting. It is clean, almost antiseptic. And everything is in rigid order.

But this almost clinical surface masks profound pain.

Pelican Bay is divided in two, with one side operating as an ordinary maximum prison that keeps the appearance of order by a steady rotation of "lock downs" that keep prisoners in their cells around the clock. But it is in the other half, the supermax "Security Housing Unit" (SHU), that a whole new form of pain is deliberately and calculatedly inflicted on inmates.

Every prisoner in Pelican Bay's supermax is locked in his cell for 22.5 hours a day. At an appointed time each day, a guard flips a switch and the cell doors open. The prisoner steps out into a tiny corridor which serves seven other cells. Everything is naked grey concrete, stainless steel or steel mesh. The only colour comes from the dull orange of the cell doors.

At one end of the corridor, behind a locked door, is the elevated command post that controls this little universe. At the other end is a shower and an opening onto an empty concrete courtyard, about three metres by seven metres, covered by a semi-transparent plastic roof. Here, each prisoner paces alone for 90 minutes before being ordered back to his cell.

The supermax prisoner never sees the sky, or the outside world, because there are no windows. The only natural light filters down through the courtyard roof and a second-storey skylight above the main corridor. The cells are never dark since lights are dimmed at night but kept bright enough to illuminate everything.

Some prisoners live alone in their cells, while others are double-bunked. Cellmates at least have human contact, though spending every waking moment with the same person locked in a box just three-and-a-half metres long by two-and-a-half metres wide may be more tormenting than loneliness. Phone calls are forbidden. Those who can, write letters, although almost half cannot; they are illiterate. They are allowed one parcel a year from home.

On weekends, prisoners can see visitors for three hours. But these are no-contact visits: Communication is by phone while seated behind Plexiglas. Many prisoners never receive visits because Pelican Bay is two days' drive from Los Angeles, where most inmates' families live.

The cell is the prisoner's world. They can have televisions or radios if they behave, but that small concession can be revoked. That leaves functionally illiterate prisoners with nothing to fill 22.5 hours a day beyond shouting at prisoners in cells they cannot see.

Convicts land here in one of two ways. Misbehaviour at a lower security prison can get a man a "determinate" sentence. Assaulting another inmate with a weapon, for example, means 15 months at Pelican Bay.

Prisoners also land in supermax if they are gang members who refuse to "debrief" -- which means telling authorities everything about their gang's membership and activities. Refusal can result in an indefinite sentence. Once in, he will have to spend at least six years here, after which he may be declared inactive and returned to the general population. Otherwise, the only way he can leave Pelican Bay, in the words of the prison's spokesman, Lieut. Ben Grundy, is to "parole, debrief or die." Those serving life sentences have only the last two options. And since anyone who debriefs is a marked man, some have only one way out: die.

"If there are ever Nuremberg trials in the United States," says Franklin Zimring, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley, "Pelican Bay and its equivalent in other states will be the basis of indictments."

Zimring is very much in the minority. When Pelican Bay opened in 1989, at a cost of $290 million U.S., the governor christened it "the prison of the future." He was right. In 1999, the U.S. federal Department of Justice estimated some form of extreme lockup -- the definition varies -- now exists in "more than 30 states." In 1996, the department put the number of prisoners being held in such places at eight to 10 per cent of the total -- possibly 100,000 men. Almost 1,300 are held in Pelican Bay's SHU.

This is uniquely American. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the western world.

Canada's Special Handling Unit, north of Montreal, has been called a supermax but it's nothing like Pelican Bay. The SHU provides education, treatment and access to a real outdoor courtyard. Inmates are allowed time in common areas with up to seven other prisoners. Prisoners are returned to maximum security as quickly as possible with the overwhelming majority staying for fewer than two years. Those who misbehave can be put in segregation, which means 23 hours a day alone in a cell, with one hour of solitary exercise. But that's a temporary and extraordinary measure for very few.

The supermax is an exclusively American phenomenon because "tough-on-crime" theory is exclusively American. In that theory, it is believed that misbehaviour can always be deterred by tougher punishment. That's true outside prisons and inside. If inmates misbehave, they must be transferred to higher security and harsher conditions. But what if prisoners misbehave in maximum security? The get-tough answer is transfer to an even higher security level with even harsher living conditions. The supermax is born.

Eventually, it is believed, if the system is tough enough, it will deter bad behaviour. Prisoners will do what they are told. And they will leave prison with a healthy fear of ever going back.

That's the theory. The reality is quite different.

"Brutal prisons make brutal prisoners," Markku Salminen, director general of Finland's prisons, told me in Helsinki. "The American system has made the American criminal very hard."

The modern history of American prisons is dominated by two revolutions that swept through over the past 30 years. The first began in a small town east of Buffalo, New York.

On Sept. 9, 1971, 1,200 inmates at the Attica Correctional Facility rioted and took guards hostage. For five days, images of the Attica uprising were broadcast into American living rooms. On Sept. 13, as the prisoners prepared to kill hostages, police opened fire and stormed the prison. Forty-three people, including 10 hostages, were killed.

Other riots and many more deaths followed in prisons across the United States.

The chaos shone a spotlight on prisons across the continent. What was revealed was horrifying. "Prior to 1970, you had essentially 19th-century conditions in our prisons," says Alvin Bronstein, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union's Prison Project. A report on the Attica riot blamed the squalor and overcrowding in the prison. So, too, did an examination of a New Mexico riot that took nearly as many lives.

Bronstein and others helped prisoners sue governments, seeking orders to improve conditions. Previously, American courts had ignored prisoners, declaring them devoid of constitutional rights -- "slaves of the state," as one court indelicately put it. But a 1964 Supreme Court ruling changed that. Federal courts responded to Attica with a flurry of orders demanding that prisons meet safety standards and that crowding be reduced to tolerable levels. By 1992, almost all state prison systems were under court order.

Wardens could no longer run prisons as fiefdoms. Corruption fell. Hiring standards improved and codes of conduct were established.

Today, a "greater sense of professionalism" reigns among corrections officials, says Bronstein, as well as "a recognition that you have major responsibility to protect the bodies and lives of the people in your custody, which I don't think was recognized 30 years ago."

Conditions, too, are far better than in the era before the Attica riot -- thanks in part, ironically, to the tough-on-crime revolution that got underway in the late 1970s.

Crowding in prisons such as Attica wasn't the result of rising imprisonment rates, which were actually flat or declining in the 1950s and 1960s. It happened simply because, while the general population grew, the liberal politics of the time didn't support the construction of new prisons.

Once the public embraced the tough-on-crime ethos, prisons ceased to be shameful. Indeed, politicians boasted about building them. As incarceration rates rose and judges began demanding the elimination of 19th-century prison conditions, prison construction exploded.

Texas alone has built more than 100 prisons since 1980. In the past decade-and-a-half, California has built 21 enormous prisons at a cost of $5.27 billion U.S.

"Every major architectural school has classes in prison architecture now," notes John Irwin, professor emeritus of criminology at San Francisco State University who has studied California's prisons for more than 30 years. "It's a boom industry all the way up and down the line."

New prisons are vast improvements over 19th-century institutions such as San Quentin and the old Kingston Penitentiary. Surveillance technology eliminated blind spots. Bars were replaced with steel mesh or solid steel, making it virtually impossible for a prisoner to assault a passerby. Higher-security prisons were built with posts placed so that "prisoners can be fired upon wherever they are," says Irwin.

But more modest changes also had great effect. Before Attica, guards in many American prisons never entered dormitories. Inmates were simply locked up, leaving the weak at the mercy of predators. Federal courts, determined to eliminate a source of brutal violence, ordered that "officers be in the dormitories 24 hours, all three shifts," says Alvin Bronstein.

As a result, the average American prison today looks nothing like the dank, dark places seen in Hollywood movies. They are clean, well-lit, and much better supervised than before. Guards and wardens are far better educated and corrections commissioners tend to be, says Bronstein, "good people, decent people who want to do the right thing."

Prisons are safer, too. Homicides have fallen sharply and steadily since the 1970s and prisons are "unbelievably pacific" compared to the past, says Irwin. But they are also tough -- a spartan world of concrete floors, cinder-block walls and steel roofs. Beds are a steel or concrete slab with a roll for a mattress. Furniture is often made of concrete capped with stainless steel surfaces. Everything is bolted down. Doors buzz open at the flip of remote switches. Fluorescent lights flood every corner. Video cameras watch prisoners' every movement. It is as clean, bright and orderly as it is hard, cold and unyielding. A critic would call it inhuman; a supporter austere.

In fact, austere is the tough-on-crime ideal of what prisons should be. "We don't need the situation where our conditions are so lax where people say, well, I don't mind spending a couple of years in prison," says Vic Toews, the Canadian Alliance justice critic and former justice minister of Manitoba. "I think there has to be an element of that austere deterrence in order to say, 'this is not a place I want to go back to.'"

American prisons, and the justice systems that support them, are what Canadian tough-on-crime supporters promote for this country. For example, Ontario's new "super jails," including the recently completed Maplehurst facility, are straight from the American model.

In 1996, Art Hanger, then the Reform party's justice critic, gave a lengthy speech in Parliament detailing his party's blueprint for a prison system. The key, he said, is "to return prison time to hard time." Maximum-security prisons should have "labour-intensive work details without pay or skills training, no conjugal visits, only a core duty of care, (and) restricted access on a very limited basis to entertainment and communications." Medium security "should house non-violent offenders and only those who have a proven willingness to participate in rehabilitative programs." Minimum security "shall house non-violent offenders and those who have earned the privilege at this level."

Conjugal visits would only be allowed in minimum-security facilities. Television, university education, "lavish workout facilities," and "special meals" would all be eliminated. Visits from children would be banned. So would pornography and personal stereos.

Only basic education and work programs would be offered. Pay for work would be garnisheed to cover room and board. Failure to participate would be punished with transfer to a higher-security institution, as would any other unco-operative behaviour.

These ideas are a stark contrast with European prisons, where officials try to put prisoners in environments that encourage personal responsibility. European prison systems, as well as Canada's federal system, have lower-security prisons where inmates live in townhouses, prepare their own food and live a daily routine that's as normal as possible. It's not an act of generosity or a reward for good behaviour. The objective is to expose prisoners to an ordinary social environment where prisoners manage daily chores, personal hygiene and social interaction. It is preparing them for release and a law-abiding life. It's "not coddling, not sentimental," says Ole Ingstrup, the former commissioner of corrections who pioneered this approach in the Canadian system. It is "a systematic, respectful dealing with people."

Maximum-security prisons in this model can be harsh -- no one has ever called Millhaven Penitentiary a "Club Fed." But the tough conditions only exist for safety reasons, not as punishment. In Canada, prisoners can be placed in maximum security only if they pose a high risk of assault or escape, not for being unco-operative or for misbehaving. And even then, the system tries to move prisoners into the less grinding atmosphere of a lower-security prison quickly -- not as a reward, but because it's necessary for rehabilitation.

Which prison system -- the hard-line American model or the European model -- succeeds?

That's not a simple question to answer, but prison violence is surely one measure.

There's no question that today's American institutions are safer and better run than 30 years ago. But that doesn't mean modern tough-on-crime prisons produce better behaviour -- only that they don't produce behaviour as bad as that in the old dungeons. In fact, recent data on violence trends in American prisons give reason to believe the tough-on-crime approach is making prisoners tougher and meaner.

In California, the rate of assaults with weapons reported by guards climbed by more than 50 per cent between 1991 and 2000. The rate of assaults without weapons more than doubled. Nowhere is violence worse than in the maximum-security prisons. "There's all kinds of stuff, all the shit that you can imagine," a young prisoner with a hardened face and tattoos told me in Avenal State prison, a low-security facility. After being in maximum, he was glad to be in Avenal, where the violence was merely of the bare-knuckle variety. It's much more than that at the higher levels. "Killings. Torture. There's all kinds of shit."

As warden of Pelican Bay -- the "top of the food chain" as a prison spokesman put it -- Joe McGrath's perspective on the violence is unique. And he is blunt: "We're up against the wall. Violence is so great that we can't (provide programs to inmates) in our prisons. All our top-level prisons are either locked down or in some phase of modified programming continually. That's not where we want to be. There's nowhere to go from there. I'm the end of the road. Some prisoners get in trouble, oh, send them to Pelican Bay. Well, what do I do with them?"

McGrath took over only recently and already he's frustrated. He wants to offer education and training but the violence just won't permit it. "You can't do a positive program when you can't have inmates out long enough without stabbing each other to get anything done. And that's kind of where we found ourselves in the last three years."

In 2001, prisoners in the maximum-security section of Pelican Bay rioted. One inmate was shot dead. More than 100 were stabbed. Four months later, about 400 prisoners were following a simple routine of eating in a cafeteria, taking programs, and exercising in the main yard. "They're thrilled to be part of a program where they don't have to fear for their lives," says McGrath. "Yet on the other side of that, I still have 800 or 900 in their cells and who have to be escorted everywhere, can't be let out together because they're loyal to the faction and they'll kill those other guys if they get a chance."

California's woes are not unique. A panel recently assessed Florida's correctional system and concluded, "violence within the prisons is on the rise."

Such comprehensive assessments are rare. Prison life is often determined by anecdotal evidence and impressions and these can be contradictory. In Texas, Alvin Bronstein says, administrators deny a rise in violence and sexual assaults. But lawyers who work with prisoners "feel that in Texas, the levels of violence are escalating dramatically, that there are rapes and assaults and beatings happening on a daily basis." Bronstein believes wardens aren't providing top officials with the full picture. But more importantly, "a lot of this is not reported because of prisoners' fears of retaliation and a lot of it is sponsored by correctional officers."

The American Civil Liberties Union works with officials and inmates across the United States and based on that experience, Bronstein says, "our sense is that violence is going up."

Many prison officials and administrators agree. In 1999, a report to the federal Department of Justice noted that corrections officials typically support the construction of supermaxes "based on the perceived 'toughening' of the inmate population, increased gang activity, (and) the difficulty of maintaining order in severely crowded prisons ... "

For the most part, the inmate population is not "toughening" because tougher criminals are being thrown into prison. The opposite is true. Tough-on-crime justice policies, along with the war on drugs, have sent more and more less-serious offenders to prison. More than three-quarters of the growth in prison populations between 1978 and 1996 involved non-violent offenders. If American prison populations are getting collectively tougher, it's because the prisons are making them tougher.

There are two exceptions, two categories of prisoners who are appearing at prison gates harder than before. One is gang members, who are entering prison in larger numbers because the number of gangs keeps increasing, partly, at least, because the soaring rate of incarceration in the United States has actually helped gangs proliferate.

The second exception is the hopeless prisoner who is almost entirely a creation of the harsh sentences favoured by tough-on-crime politicians. "We get inmates that are 20, 21, 22 years old who are looking at the rest of their lives in prison," McGrath says. Feeling that they have nothing to live for and nothing to lose, they lash out at prisoners or guards and are punished by transfer to higher-security -- and more violent -- institutions. Half the inmates at Pelican Bay are lifers. "What that tells me," he says, "is that the young people coming in with life to do are ending up much more difficult to manage, and that's why they're ending up at Pelican Bay."

Tony Strong, a lifer in the maximum unit, agrees. He has spent 22 years in California's prisons, the last 11 at Pelican Bay. When the three strikes law passed in 1994, he says, "a lot of people just gave up hope. When they come to prison with shoplifting and stuff like that and they get a 25-years-to-life sentence, they just give up hope." Without hope, he says, prisoners fall into a "downward spiral" and become dangerous to themselves or others.

Prison officials have long known that a hopeless prisoner is a dangerous prisoner. That's the rationale behind Canada's "faint-hope clause." In the 1970s, when Canada abolished the death penalty for first-degree murder and replaced it with an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years, Parliament also passed the "faint-hope clause," which allows a prisoner to apply after 15 years to have his parole date moved forward. Prisoners, it was felt, must always have at least a "faint hope."

But gang members and lifers aside, American prisoners are getting tougher only after they get to prison. Several factors account for this -- all of them the product of tough-on-crime policies.

One is the sort of hard, cold and austere environment favoured by get-tough politicians. "People will act the way you expect them to act based on the physical environment," insists Jim Marshall, currently the warden of Millhaven who, at the time he spoke to the Citizen, was warden of Bath, a medium-security federal prison near Kingston.

In his 25 years in corrections, Marshall has worked at all security levels and he is convinced that a more social environment produces more social behaviour. That's why the Correctional Service of Canada has been building units at Bath and other lower-security institutions according to residential construction standards. They not only look like ordinary townhouses, they are. "People said, 'residential construction, you gotta be kidding, they're going to kick holes and all that.'" That hasn't happened. Marshall notes that the residential units at Bath "are in better shape than the Queen's (University) residences." This is proof, he says, "that if you ask people to be responsible -- except for the ones who are really, really dysfunctional and just can't listen or choose not to listen -- there's a real incentive to behave like you would normally behave in any place. And it's amazing to watch these folks respond to that."

Most American prisons take exactly the opposite approach. Physical control is emphasized and the authorities make a show of power -- guards are organized along paramilitary lines and wear uniforms like those of police or military officers. Many criminologists feel this is a mistake. "More structured, more authoritarian settings," one criminologist has written, "may engender more disruptive behaviour."

Once again, Canada's federal prisons take a different approach. Ole Ingstrup, the former Corrections Commissioner, says CSC research shows military-style uniforms actually provoke violence against guards. "We're not at war with the inmates," he says. So, in Canada's lower-security prisons, staff wear civilian clothes; in higher security, they wear a "demilitarized" uniform -- a plain blue shirt. Guards control the environment through interaction, not as an occupying force.

There is serious violence in Canadian prisons, just as there is in prisons everywhere. But relative to other prison systems, Ingstrup says, the violence here is "very, very low." It also seems to be declining. During the past decade, there has been a gradual, modest drop in what the Correctional Service of Canada calls "major security incidents," including major assaults, fights, escapes and other disruptions.

British experience further supports the idea that harsh environments promote violence. In the 1950s and 1960s, Britain sent prisoners to facilities with tighter controls than found in maximum security. The experiment was a failure so the opposite approach was tried. Prisoners who misbehaved in maximum security were sent to a unit inside a prison in Glasgow where they were actually given more freedoms and privileges, including frequent, unlimited contact visits with friends and family. Research showed that the rate at which these hard-core inmates committed assaults and other serious offences dropped immediately after entering the more open environment. And it stayed far lower.

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