Prison Is No Place for `Extras'
``At least 40 percent of prison expenses go to rehabilitation programs and inmate amenities that have little bearing on institutional security, and that far exceed basic standards of human dignity. Roughly speaking, prisons cost nearly twice as much as they should.''
- Princeton University Professor John T. DiIulio
THE 40 percent of ``extras'' to which Mr. DiIulio refers includes perks ranging from miniature golf to premium cable television. And these perks, courtesy of the law-abiding taxpayer, are offered at prisons throughout the country:
* The Jefferson City Correctional Center in Missouri allows prisoners to run a closed-circuit television station airing sex, violence, and horror shows.
* The Lompoc, Calif., federal prison offers pool tables, tennis and handball courts, miniature golf, and daily movies.
* And the federal prison camp in Duluth, Minn., has been dubbed ``Club Fed'' because of inmate amenities ranging from a movie theater and array of musical instruments to a softball field and game rooms.
Not all prisons fit these descriptions or provide such amenities. But too many do. That is why the US House of Representatives recently approved my amendment to the 1995 crime bill aimed at stopping this abuse of taxpayer money. The amendment, approved Feb. 9, was based on a more comprehensive bill I have introduced to prohibit perks in both state and federal prisons.
The ``No Frills Prison Act'' recognizes that there is no reason why someone convicted of a crime should enjoy accommodations better than those available to many law-abiding Americans. And there is absolutely no justification for using taxpayer dollars to finance such luxuries.
Jails are places for punishment, not relaxation - and the ``No Frills Prison Act'' would drive that point home. Under the bill, federal prisons would be stripped of prison perks, and states would be denied access to federal prison construction and improvement money unless they agree to remove prison perks. It would require prisons to provide living conditions and opportunities to prisoners that are ``not more luxurious than those conditions and opportunities the average prisoner would have experienced if such prisoner were not incarcerated.''
And it includes, as specific examples of prohibited ``conditions and opportunities,'' in-cell televisions; pornographic materials; R, X, and NC-17 rated movies; in-cell coffee pots or other heating elements; expensive electronic musical instruments; and personally owned computers and modems.
The ``No-Frills Prison Act'' also would ensure that prisoners dine no better than enlisted personnel in the US Army. That doesn't mean limiting them to K rations. It does mean outlawing the roast pig feasts, complete with hula dancers as entertainment, that prisoners at the Oahu Community Correctional Center in Honolulu have enjoyed.
As the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin noted in a July 1992 article, some criminals have come to view jail as ``an almost acceptable lifestyle.''
I am not advocating a wholesale return to life on the chain gang, where circling a prison yard constituted recreation and a rock pile represented work. But there is a huge difference between providing libraries and providing recreation facilities that would put most health spas to shame.
At a time when many Americans are struggling to make ends meet, and Congress is struggling to eliminate the deficit, we should not be spending public money to pamper those who neither respect nor obey our laws. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.