For years calls for prison reform have been led by persons considered liberal and, sometimes, as "soft on crime." Now Warren E. Burger, Chief Justice of the United States and seldom described in either of those terms, has called the nation's prison system "expensive," "stupid," and out of the "19th century."
Hardly had he presented his call for reform when two prison riots occurred earlier this month -- one in Louisiana and the other in Washington State -- further underscoring the need for change.
To add further "momentum" to reform efforts, the US Department of Justice has issued its first comprehensive standards for prisons and jails.
Meanwhile, a US district judge in Texas has declared that state's prison system, largest in the nation, unconstitutional. In his decision, Judge William Justice cited the use of prisoners to quell disturbances by other prisoners, overcrowded cells, and payless labor.
TExas prison officials did not deny that their system is overcrowded, according to a spokesman. But they are nonetheless likely to appeal the decision.
The Texas decision is "probably the most important prison case" yet decided by a federal court, says William Nagel of the nonprofit American Foundation, which seeks prison reform. If upheld, he says, the decision will provide a precedent for suits in other states calling for reduced noise in cell blocks, better recreational facilities and opportunities, and more space and privacy, among other changes.
The new Justice Department standards call for 50 to 80 square feet of space per inmate -- more than double what many Texas prisoners have, Nagel says.
The standards will help state corrections commissioners when they seek additional funds from their legislatures, he says. He also applauds the remarks by Chief Justice Burger.
Says Nagel: "Nobody ever considered Burger to be soft on crime, or a wide-eyed liberal -- and he's saying the same things we're saying."
In his year-end review of the criminal justice system, Burger stressed the need for prison reforms. "To put people behind walls and bars and do little or nothing to change them is to win a battle but lose a war," he said.
In recent years, both federal and state prison systems have made it easier for prisoner complaints to be heard. And organizations have been set up to help ex-offenders find jobs.
But most prisons remain in what officials consider dangerously overcrowded conditions, and most states are hardpressed to find construction funds for new facilities.
Reformers continue to suggest that less expensive alternatives be used, such as greater use of probation and halfway houses, the residents of which may work or attend classes.
Other new Justice Department standards cover inmate access to the courts and communication, health facilities, and rules of discipline and their fair enforcement.
Nationally, however, court orders for prison changes are seldom carried out rapidly. A court-appointed monitor of the Georgia State Prison at Reidsville reported Jan. 6 that many changes ordered in 1976 still have not been made. As a result , the monitor said, the prison remains "volitile."