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Burger's ideas on prisons: useful first step

When a jurist known as being tough on crime suggests it is time for major prison reform, society should pay attention. Especially when he is chief justice of the United States.

Warren Burger proposes two specific changes in the way most American prisons operate: that they provide education and marketable job skills to inmates. Behind these lie something more fundamental: the need, as the chief justice says , to build a sense of self-worth in prisoners who often have little. Most of them come from circumstances, both family and community, which have disintegrated; as a partial result they have lost respect both for others and themselves. They arrive in prison with little education and no marketable job skills.

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The bulk of inmates are merely warehoused. Behind bars they are likely to learn how to commit crimes more deftly so as to escape detection, rather than gain an education or learn a marketable skill. When released to society, most find it difficult not to slip back into crime, inasmuch as they still lack the tools for lawful employment.

But to have a skill on the outside, inmates must gain one in prison. Programs must be established which not only train inmates, but also market their products.

Some states are moving in this direction. In the chief justice's home state of Minnesota, for example, prisons have a joint program with a computer corporation. Inmates receive training in computer work which often leads to employment after their sentences are up.

Other states can and should seek to emulate Minnesota. Each state should establish an organization to find the best way to set up meaningful prison work programs. Members should include business people, inmates, and prison officials. Recommendations should be carried out promptly.

There are pitfalls in such an approach, but they can be avoided. It is important that prisons not be turned into country clubs, but there is little realistic danger of that at present. Union opposition to such an industrial program for prisoners must be met. Industries must not use low-cost prison labor merely to save money.

Still, these objections can be dealt with. It is for the good of society at large, as well as for individual prisoners, that both education and marketable job training be provided in prison.

For many reasons it is important that society take steps to reduce prison recidivism: It is safer for the law-abiding, and right for the prisoners. Economically it makes sense - it costs more to keep an inmate in jail for a year than to send him to an Ivy League college. At some prisons the cost is estimated at $30,000 annually.

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Beyond these approaches, other early steps should be taken. The individuality of prisoners should be respected. Many prison guards and other officials should receive additional training, and should display increased awareness of the need to replace the dehumanizing atmosphere of some prisons with humanity and recognition of individual worth. Such treatment is a prerequisite if society is to expect prisoners to treat one another, and guards, in like fashion. It is important to strive to create, within a restricted atmosphere, a healthy, productive sense of community.

Chief Justice Burger has suggested some useful first steps in needed prison reform. It is time to take them.

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